A few years ago – as part of an anti-obesity drive – restaurants, coffee shops and other eateries in New York were required to include the calorie content of any food or drink item appearing on their menus so that customers knew how much energy they were really consuming when they ordered that double latte and blueberry muffin at morning tea time.
The result of this initiative? When people were confronted by the “calorie reality” of their menu choices there was a major shift in customer buying habits toward the lower calorie alternatives on offer.
After all, a moment on the lips but a lifetime on the hips, right?
Whilst there is a bit more to weight control than the old “calories in versus calories burnt” model it can be really helpful to know the calorie content and nutritional breakdown of fat, protein and carbohydrate of the foods we consume. Nowadays, this information is usually included on the labels of many food and drink items sold here in the U.K., but its also usually included in the recipes found in most cookbooks, food magazines and food websites as well.
However, all this information is pointless if we – the consumer – don’t understand it or make use of it when buying or preparing our meals.
As the New York experience demonstrated many of us will make changes when information is presented in ways we can understand, so with this in mind – and without over complicating things – here are a few key numbers to keep in mind if you are trying to develop healthier nutritional habits:
These figures represent the “average” number of calories required per day by men, women and children aged between 5-10 years old.
Even though the actual energy requirements of any given person will vary according to their activity levels and other factors, these figures do still provide a general yardstick against which to compare your daily energy intake.
Consume more energy than you burn and you gain weight; burn more than you consume and you lose weight – it’s almost that simple (insulin sensitivity and resistance has a significant impact on weight control as well, but we talk more about that in another article), and this is why a second piece of cheesecake (at 400 calories a piece) may not be such a great idea!
The take home message? Keep your energy intake and expenditure balanced!
This is the amount of fibre (in grams) we should be trying to consume each day.
Unfortunately, most of us struggle to make it to 15 grams of fibre consumed per day, and this is a problem because fibre plays a huge role in keeping us healthy:
And then there’s the ‘displacement effect’ – when we consume more fibre into our diet we also tend to find ourselves naturally tending to consume less refined and processed foods, so it’s a double win.
The take home message? Eat more fibre, especially from vegetable sources!
These numbers represent the number of calories in 1 gram of carbohydrate, protein, fat and alcohol respectively, and this introduces the concept of the ‘energy density’ of the foods or drinks we choose to consume.
Understanding the energy density of foods and beverages is really important if you wish to take control of your weight. In general, the more “high energy density” foods you consume the more calories you are taking on board, and the more likely you are to gain weight if you are not burning those calories off.
Highly refined and processed foods tend to have a high energy density, as do dairy produce and wheat based foods (eg bread, pasta, cereal produce), fruit juices and alcoholic drinks. For example:
Understanding the concept of energy density can also help people avoid the “low fat” labelling con that is so common with processed foods. Sure that tub of low fat yoghurt may not have much fat, but have you checked to see how much sugar there is in it, and how many calories there are per serve because of this? (If not, check out this quick story from Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra).
It also pays to be aware that there are many vexing issues associated with the artificial sweeteners manufacturers are normally using when they claim their drink or food is somehow healthier because it has the word ‘Diet’ in its label.
The take home message? The more refined or processed a food or beverage the higher it’s likely energy density, so be careful.
Ok, so you probably know this one right? This is the number of daily servings of fruit or vegetables we are encouraged to consume each day by UK health authorities.
Hand on heart, this is more of a marketing message than it is a scientific fact. After all, in other parts of the world the recommended number of servings of vegetables and fruit per day can be seven, or even nine, but does it really matter?
After all, the simple fact is that most people in the U.K. do not eat enough fruit or veg, and we should be consuming more of these foods because they are fantastic sources of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and other essential nutrients. Gram for gram, vegetables also tend to be less energy dense than most other forms of food, meaning that you can eat more of them without blowing out your calorie intake.
The take home message: Eat more veggies.
This is the maximum value above which your waist to hip ratio (WHR) is considered to be unhealthy.
In many ways, the WHR is the least well known but most important of all the numbers we mention in this article because it is a measurement that is used to determine whether the amount of body fat you are carrying is putting you at risk of developing conditions such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes and so on.
If your hips are bigger than your waist you are a pear shape. If your waist is bigger than your hips, you are an apple shape. Research has shown that people who have more weight around their waist (apple-shaped) have more health risks than those who have pear shapes.
More specifically, your WHR gives you a better idea as to how much abdominal fat you are carrying, as it is abdominal fat levels that correlate more closely to having a higher risk of developing the types of diseases mentioned earlier.
To determine your own WHR measure your girth in centimetres at your waist (i.e. at the level of your belly button) and at your hips, and divide the waist measurement by the hip measurement to get your WHR.
Men have a greater health risk when the WHR is greater than 0.9 (or their waist measures greater than 95cm), whilst women have a greater health risk when the WHR is greater than 0.8 (or a waist measurement greater than 80cms).
The take home message: keep your waist measurements under control!
Lastly, did you know that your brain is one of the most metabolically demanding organs in your body, and that it requires about 500 calories of fuel each day to power its functioning?
This fact may not have huge impact on your shopping habits but it’s just one more reason to try and eat healthily, and it’s especially important to try and avoid the artificial, man-made hydrogenated fats that drive so much inflammation in the body, as this in turn plays a major role in furring up the arteries that keep your brain, your heart and all your other vital organs functioning properly.
The take home message: Your brain – just like every other part of you – needs the nutrients and oxygen contained in a healthy blood supply – to serve you well over the course of your life, so help it help you by eating healthy, minimally processed foods.
Healthy and enjoyable nutrition is much more than a numbers game, but understanding the various figures we’ve mentioned in this article can make a big difference in helping you take greater control of your health. Happy, healthy eating.