by Henri Roca, MD
Conversations about healthy nutrition often end with the observation that eating healthy is expensive. This tends to be true and is in itself a disturbing observation on the nature of our food industry and agribusiness. However, the sentiment is better framed, “Would it be too costly if I were to eat healthy food but less of it in general?” The question is not just the cost of food. The question is also how much food do we need to optimize our health.
The Calorie is a measure of energy. It is the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius. The calories on the labels of food containers are actually kilocalories, that is, they are 1000 times more than a simple single calorie. So, the calorie is a measure of energy – either energy storage or expenditure, and the calorie count of our food labels indicates how many calories that food contributes to our overall storage or expenditure.
Further, different types of foods have different caloric capacities. A gram of carbohydrates supplies 4 calories of energy, as does a gram of protein. A gram of fat provides 9 calories per gram. The largest source of calorie-dense foods in our diets is in animal products. These contain both protein and fat. Processed animal products often contain even more added fat.
Calorie excess is when we take in more calories than we use. The amount of calories we need to operate our bodies includes both the amount of calories (energy) our body needs to function and maintain weight plus the amount of calories we use in movement, work, and exercise. As we get larger and more obese, it takes more calories to continue the functioning of our larger bodies. If we are a growing child or adolescent, or are pregnant, we need more calories than usual. If we have serious infections or illnesses, we may need more calories. The amount of calories we need to function (not including movement or exercise) is referred to as our basal metabolic rate.
To put all of this into perspective, to lose 1 pound of weight we would need to reduce our caloric intake by 500 calories a day. 500 calories would be 2.5 sodas or sweet drinks or 1 large McDonald French fries.
Over time, since the 1950s, our overall caloric intake has increased about 500 calories a day – from around 2200 to 2700 calories. At the same time our overall activity level has decreased. This places most of us in the realm of calorie excess. That’s why we gain weight. (www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.pdf)
The increase is attributable to more consumption of meat, refined grains, empty high-sugar calories, and more eating out. About 50% of the increased cost for our increasing caloric consumption comes from expenditures on eating out and junk food.
Research has repeatedly shown that the best strategy for increasing longevity is a low-calorie diet. These researchers would suggest 1200 to 1500 calories a day (a very low-calorie diet and a very difficult task, which you should coordinate with your provider should you chose this strategy). Given this information, we are eating about 1000 more calories than could be optimal. Biochemical utilization of each of those calories creates oxidative stress on the body.
With increasing caloric intake comes:
- Increased fat mass, which drives inflammation, mood instability, and metabolic syndrome
- Change in intestinal microflora (bacteria) due to excessive food intake and the types of food
- Increased stress on joints
- Increased oxidative stress on all systems of the body leading to increased damage to our DNA
- Increased exposure to dangerous chemicals in meat and refined foods that could increase the risk of certain cancers
- Tendency to shift internal biochemistry toward the acidic side
- Accelerated aging
Our caloric excess – more calories in and less exercise out – depletes not only our financial resources, but also our health resiliency.
- For males, aim for 2200 calories a day; for females, 2000 calories a day (note, if you are a body builder or have serious chronic disease, check with your provider for the best caloric goal for you). This caloric goal should result in weight loss for most people. If you’d like to try for an 1800-calorie diet, be sure that all the calories you place into your body are highly nutritious.
- Shift to a local food provider.
- Reduce the amount of meat (and thereby fat) you eat each day (cost saving).
- Eat small amounts every 2 to 3 hours.
- Begin to increase vegetables so that they become the predominant source of calories in your diet. Use seasonal vegetables. Consider growing your own.
- Include small amounts of healthy fats in the form of nuts or seeds to keep you feeling full and satisfied.
- Reduce eating out (cost saving).
- Eliminate processed foods, including junk foods, fast food, snack food, and all refined grains (cost saving).
It is possible to eat more healthily – better food and less of it – inexpensively. For a calorie goal calculator, go to www.webmd.com/diet/calc-bmi-plus