Dangerous diets - When calorie counting gets out of control
Calorie counting is a flawed way to eat – it takes all the enjoyment and satisfaction out of food. Yet many of us think that by cutting our calorific intake and ignoring the nutritional benefits of food, we will be healthier. We've all been guilty of picking up the low-fat pack of croissants or the reduced-sugar juice at the supermarket; but have you ever stopped to check what additional ingredients are included on the label?
It's true that reducing the amount of calories you eat will lead to weight loss, but that doesn't mean you will be healthier. An obsession with calorie counting can quickly spiral out of control and could lead to the development of an eating disorder. Disrupted eating patterns, an inability to enjoy food and a preoccupation with counting fat and calories are all warning signs something is wrong (1).
Drastically cutting back on calories can also impact negatively on your health, both in the short and long-term. That popped rice and dried fruit cereal bar probably IS low in calories and fat, but it doesn't add much to your diet in the way of energy, vitamins or minerals wither. We believe that everyone, in particular women, should forget about 'low-calorie' diets and take a more balanced approach to eating well. So stop with the calorie counting and let's look at how you can enjoy a healthier diet.
The skinny myth
Back in March 2014, the Huffington Post published an article on 'skinny bliss' (2) and the myth that 1,200 calories is the ideal number of calories for women to consume in order to lose weight. Consume this dangerously low amount of calories for too long and you risk putting your body into 'starvation mode', as your metabolism slows down in an attempt to conserve energy. Maintaining a low calorie diet for longer can mess up your blood sugar levels, leading to hunger spikes. It can also cause fatigue, dizziness, weakness, constipation and reduced bone mass. Long term it can lead to the accumulation of fat in the body and even the development of a thyroid condition. Not to mention you'll be grumpy, irritable and more prone to feelings of depression, anxiety and exhaustion.
This low-calorie myth is definitely a big problem, and it's one which affects women in particular. Women's health magazine covers use words such as 'calorie-torching workouts' and focus on ways to lose weight fast. Pick up a men's health magazine on the other hand and you'll notice it's all about strength, power and building muscle. Fewer calories doesn't equal good nutrition.
The average woman needs around 2,000 calories a day in order to maintain their weight – for men it's around 2,500. Of course, this varies depending on your activity level and current weight. Fad diets have always been popular – just look at the Cabbage Soup Diet and the Atkins diet. But just because they're popular, doesn't meant they're any good for your health. In fact, the British Dietetic Association warned against diets like these back in 2011 (3), claiming they don't lead to long-term weight loss.
Crash diets and low calorie diets can leave you feeling unable to function, not to mention they can affect your long-term health. The problem is that by cutting out certain food groups from your diet, you may not be getting the essential nutrients and vitamins that your body needs.
Snacking – a source of unnecessary calories?
If you find yourself snacking on yet another 100-calorie cereal bar – stop right there! You can enjoy eating healthily and snacking without turning to pre-packaged diet foods. Low-sugar and low-calorie versions of your favourite foods can often be packed with additives to enhance flavour. We looked at the ingredients list on a typical special K cereal bar; here's what it said:
Rice, Wholewheat, Sugar, Barley, Malted Barley Flour, Barley Malt Flavouring, Salt, Vitamin C, Niacin, Iron, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (B2), Thiamin (B1), Folic Acid, Vitamin B12, Glucose Syrup, Cranberry fruit pieces (12% - Cranberries, Pineapple syrup, Pineapple juice concentrate), Fructose, Sugar, Dextrose, Vegetable Oil, Humectant (Sorbitol, Glycerol), Skimmed milk powder, Milk whey powder, Flavourings, Calcium carbonate, Lactose (from milk), Emulsifier (soy lecithin), Antioxidant (E320)
That's a LOT of ingredients for one small, distinctly unsatisfying cereal bar that's devoured in just a few minutes. It's true that bars like these are low in calories – this one had just 89 calories with 1g of fat. But it also only contained 1 gram of protein, so you're hardly likely to feel satisfied until lunch time.
A healthier way to snack
Reducing your calories or sticking to a diet plan doesn't mean you have to swap regular foods for low-calorie options. Try one of our post-workout snacks, and make sure you read our post on perfecting your portion control, as this will really help you to manage your weight. A slice of wholemeal toast with natural nut butter and a banana, or some home-made hummus with raw vegetables are far better, healthier choices that are packed with nutrients.
Making changes to your diet and exercise regime is the only way to lose weight healthily – for most of us, this means losing around one to two pounds a week. Ditch those fizzy drinks and swap microwave meals and pre-packed sandwiches for home-cooked dinners.
It's recommended we all get 30 minutes of activity a day, so whether you walk to and from work, head to the gym for a lunchtime workout or take a dance class, you'll be burning calories and keeping active. Reduce the number of calories you're eating by around 500 to 600 calories in order to lose weight at a healthy pace, eating plenty of protein, wholegrain foods and fruit and vegetables. Try cutting back on (or cutting out) alcohol, which is high in calories, and ensure you eat breakfast. A high-protein breakfast gives you plenty of energy, and research shows that those who regularly eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight.
Obsessing over calories isn't doing you any favours; it's damaging your health and no doubt it's annoying family and friends. Remember, you are what you eat, and natural, unprocessed food will always be a healthier choice than pre-packaged diet food.
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