8 things you don't know about calories
You know what calories are, and you probably know that if you eat too many, you'll gain weight. But do you know how many are in your favorite deli sandwich? Or how many calories you should really eat each day? Most Americans don't. Only 12% can accurately estimate the number of calories they should consume in a day someone their age, height, weight, and physical activity, according to a 2010 survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation. So what is it about calories that keeps us baffled? Here are 8 reasons you're confused about calories and the simple steps that will help you do the math.
1. Portions sizes are out of control
You've all heard about the rapidly expanding serving sizes of restaurant and fast food portions, but just how bad are they? Portions sizes in restaurants may contain double or triple the calories of home-cooked meals, and studies show eating out is associated with a higher BMI. Unfortunately, those portions affect our waistlines. When there's more food on the plate, people eat more--up to 30% more, according to an analysis of several studies.
Stop the confusion: We know it's hard to look at your plate as decks of cards, tennis balls, and all the other, so start by measuring out your food servings at home and take a good look at what a half-cup of pasta looks like. Until the serving sizes are engrained in your brain, when dining out, aim to eat half of your meal, saving the leftovers for lunch the next day.
2. Serving sizes are deceiving
"There really aren't standard serving sizes for packaged foods, which makes them confusing," explains Elisa Zied, RD, author Nutrition at Your Fingertips. She gives the example of cereal. A standard serving size of breakfast cereal is approximately 50 g, but depending on the cereal, that could mean a cup and a half of flakes or half a cup of heartier granola. Depending on the type of cereal you're eating, just eyeing how much you put in the bowl, like most people do, can lead to inaccurate calorie counts.
Not only that, but larger-than-life snack foods may seem like single servings even though they often contain 2 to 3 servings per packet. Buy a 16-ounce bottled Coca-Cola, and the nutrition label reads 100 calories...for one of the two servings in the bottle. Drink the whole thing, as many people do, and you're really getting 200 calories. Eat the whole bag of Austin Zoo Animal Crackers, commonly found in office vending machines, and you're getting 230 calories, nearly two servings, instead of just one.
Stop the confusion: This is as simple as reading nutrition labels before you open the bag. To make it even easier, opt for instant portion control with whole fruit, like apples and bananas, or buy items you typically overeat in single serving packets. Especially for healthy, but higher calorie, foods, portioning out servings prevents pig-outs. For instance, Trader Joe's carries what they call "Just a Handful" of almonds, which are packets containing just one 200-calorie serving.
3. Not all calories are created equal
"You hear a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, but I'm not convinced that's the case," says Leslie Bonci, RD, coauthor of The Active Calorie Diet. Studies show that foods that take more effort to chew--like fruits, veggies, lean meats, and whole grains--can increase your calorie burn. "More calories are required to digest them, and they'll keep you satisfied longer," she adds. Not only that, but other ingredients can up the burn: caffeine and other compounds in coffee and tea, and spices such as chiles, cinnamon, and ginger fire up your central nervous system and can boost your metabolism.
So is 500 calories worth of celery really different than 500 calories of French fries? A 2011 breakthrough study discovered that the quality of calories might matter more than the overall quantity. Those who ate a greater amount of certain unhealthy foods, like processed meat, French fries, and sugar-sweetened beverages, gained more weight faster over time than people with healthier diets. Unsurprisingly, eating more notoriously healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and low-fat yogurt were associated with less weight gain.
Stop the confusion: Eating plenty of low-calorie fruits and vegetables at every meal ensures you're keeping your calories in check. "Fruits and veggies do double duty," says Bonci. "They're rich in fiber, which works extremely well to keep you satiated, and they take a while to chew."
4. Gym machine counts are bogus
Seeing you burned 600 calories on the treadmill in the morning may make you think you have a free pass to pig out for the rest of the day. But be wary of exercise machines' calorie counts. The University of California, San Francisco, used a V02 test to track down calories burned while on machines. The VO2 analyzer calculated how hard the body is working with its height, weight, age, and body fat. The machines' calorie counts and the VO2 counts didn't match up--at all. Machines overestimated calorie burn by 19%!
Stop the confusion: If you really want to get an accurate number of calories burned, invest in a heart rate monitor, which will help you learn how intense your workouts are. If you don't feel like splurging and you're a treadmill lover, multiplying your weight times 0.75 will give you a solid estimate of the calories burned per mile of running. Multiply your weight by 0.53 to get an estimate of the calories burned per mile of walking. For ellipticals, stair climbers, and stationary bikes, assume the calorie count is off and aim to work out for a certain length of time, not a certain amount of calories burned.
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