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When It Comes to Calories, Quality Matters

Since 1980, obesity rates among American adults have climbed from 14 percent to 42 percent. The usual explanation is that people are eating more and moving less. However, a recent analysis suggests that’s not true. According to a review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Americans have been eating fewer calories since 2000, with modest increases in physical activity. So why are we gaining weight? The answer is more complex than we’ve been led to believe.

LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

“Being obese or overweight poses a variety of health and safety risks to Laborers,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “It can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to eating healthier and losing weight, but the LHSFNA is dedicated to helping LIUNA members and their families cut through the noise and make informed decisions.”

The usual way of understanding obesity follows the simple “calories in vs. calories out” model of energy balance. Calories are our main source of energy and if you consume more energy than needed to fuel yourself, the excess will be stored as fat and you’ll gain weight. This assumes all calories are alike to the body and are treated the same, so the only way to lose weight would be to eat fewer calories or burn more with exercise. However, many experts are challenging this model, saying it’s incomplete and neglects the importance of nutrition and food quality in sustained weight loss.

“This idea of ‘a calorie in and a calorie out’ when it comes to weight loss is not only antiquated, it’s just wrong,” said Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity specialist and assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. The truth, she explained, is how your body burns calories depends on several factors, including genetics, the type of food you eat, your body’s unique metabolism and even the microorganisms that live in your gut. Two people could eat the same amount of calories every day and they’d most likely have two different weight outcomes.

FDA Cracking Down on Misleading Food Labels

Nutrient density – the ratio of a food’s beneficial nutrients to its calorie content – is important when it comes to your health and maintaining a healthy weight. Different foods can have different impacts on your hormones, hunger levels, metabolism and feelings of satiety. For example, studies show that eating ultra-processed foods, which have low nutrient density, can spike your blood sugar. In response, more insulin is produced, which encourages your body to store the extra sugar as fat. In addition, these types of foods don’t keep you full for long and lead to more hunger than unprocessed foods. On the other hand, an unprocessed food (like an apple) has essential nutrients like fiber that slow the release of glucose and slow digestion of the food. In turn, you don’t see the same spike in blood sugar and you feel full for longer.

It’s important to focus on the quality of food you’re eating, not just the quantity. But with an overload of (often conflicting) information on the subject, it can be confusing to know what exactly that means. Even federal nutrition guidelines have seen pendulum swings. In the 90s, it was believed that eating fat made us fat, so guidance centered around eating a low-fat diet. Now we know that while saturated and trans fats can cause weight gain, unsaturated fats are healthy and don’t have the same metabolic effect.

Shopping for healthy food at the grocery store can be confusing, too. You may come across packaged food labeled as “diet” or “low-calorie” and think it’s healthy. In reality, that food could contain high levels of sugar, sodium or other unwanted additives or chemicals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to combat this kind of confusion. In September, the agency announced a new set of rules that will dictate what food can be labeled “healthy.” Under the proposal, food manufacturers can only label a food as healthy if the product contains a “meaningful” amount of food from at least one of the food groups (think fruit, vegetable and dairy) and adheres to specific limits for certain nutrients like added sugar, saturated fat and sodium. Their goal is to help consumers navigate nutrition labels and make more informed choices when shopping.

Simplifying Healthy Eating

It’s important to remember that healthy eating should be focused on finding balance, not necessarily focusing on numbers and getting everything exactly “right.” A nutritious diet should contain a mix of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and dairy, with the occasional indulgences. For more information on eating a nutritious diet and maintaining a healthy weight, check out some of the LHSFNA’s nutrition resources:

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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