You’ve cleaned up your diet – no more processed foods on the table! You’re eating lots of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats. Good for you! You love the way clean eating makes you feel, BUT you’re not losing weight. Why?
First, despite the lack of weight loss, you’re STILL doing good things for your body. By reducing the amount of sugar, salt, refined carbs, and unhealthy fats in your diet, you’re improving health parameters like insulin sensitivity and lowering your risk for health problems like heart disease. So, don’t use changes in body weight to measure the impact of a diet on your overall health.
But why aren’t you losing weight despite removing the “bad stuff” from your diet? A new study offers insight. According to this study, people eat more when they think they’re eating healthy foods, partially because they perceive healthy foods to be less filling and satisfying.
Are Healthy Foods Less Filling?
In the study, researchers asked 50 college students to rank foods according to how filling and satisfying particular foods were. The college students consistently labeled unhealthy foods as more filling and satiating and healthy foods less so.
In follow-ups to this, researchers gave a group of 40 students a cookie to munch on. They told some of the students they were eating a healthy cookie and other participants that they were chowing down on an unhealthy cookie. When they questioned the students about how hungry they felt 45 minutes later, those who ate the “healthy” cookie felt hungrier than those who ate a cookie they thought was not good for their health.
In the final phase of the study, they asked students to indulge in as much popcorn as they wanted. When students thought they were eating “healthy” popcorn, they ate more of the crunchy treat while guys and gals who believed the popcorn they were getting was “unhealthy” ate less.
This goes to show how the perception of what we’re eating changes our response to it. We’ve come to associate eating healthy with food that’s less satiating. Plus, there’s the perception that we’re entitled to eat more of foods we believe are lower in calories. You saw this happening at the peak of the low-fat fad when people bought low-fat cookies, yogurt, and other products and proceeded to eat twice as much of that particular food. Subconsciously, eating low-fat or healthy makes us think we can eat more.
Healthy Doesn’t Always Mean Low in Calories
It’s true that you CAN eat more if you’re eating unprocessed foods, assuming you’re eating non-starchy vegetables and some fruits, but some foods that have health benefits are still high in calories. Foods like olive oil, dark chocolate, almond butter, avocados, and nuts are all good sources of antioxidants and healthy fats, but they’re still relatively high in calories.
While it’s true that calories are less important when you’re eating foods that don’t cause insulin spikes, calories are still relevant. We can’t completely disregard the first law of thermodynamics. It’s true that calorie quality counts most from a health standpoint but that doesn’t mean you can completely throw calories out the window. If you look at foods in terms of their calorie density, fruits and vegetables are low on the caloric density scale since they have a high water composition. So, you can eat a lot of these foods and still not have a problem managing your weight. That’s not necessarily true with higher calorie, but still healthy, foods like nuts and dark chocolate.
You may remember a popular diet book called Volumetrics. The book showed plates of healthy foods with a low-calorie density like vegetables and lean proteins next to plates of calorie-dense foods. Each had a similar number of calories but there was up to 6 times more food on the low-calorie density plate than on the plate with calorie-dense foods. Of course, you can quickly add calories to the equation by cooking low-calorie foods in oily sauces, butter etc. Sure, you’re eating low-calorie, healthy vegetables but you’ve added to the calorie load with the sauce. Same with salads and enhancements like nuts, cheese, and salad dressing. People tend not to factor these into the equation.
The Other Part of the Equation – Energy Expenditure
You can be a bit more liberal with your calories if you’re: making healthy, unprocessed food selections AND increasing your energy expenditure through exercise. Still, many people overestimate how many calories they burn when they work out. Don’t think of it as how many calories you’re burning WHILE you’re working out but how many you’re burning during AND after, what we call the after-burn. When you push yourself hard during a workout with high-intensity interval training of heavy resistance training, you burn more calories during the recovery period. Plus, building more lean body mass gives you some metabolic advantages, enabling you to burn a few more calories even at rest.
What Does This Mean?
Even if you’re making the healthiest of food choices, unless you’re eating mostly non-starchy vegetables, you still need to be aware of how MUCH you’re eating. Most of us tend to underestimate the number of calories we eat and overestimate how many we burn through exercise. Don’t become a stickler for counting calories, such tight control could cultivate an eating disorder, but don’t throw caution to the wind either. Try keeping a journal of how much you’re eating for a few weeks to get a rough estimation of how many calories you take in for a reality check. Two things you can do, based on research to eat less is to:
. Eat a lean source of protein with every meal and snack.
. Slow down the pace of your meals.
. Don’t eat while you’re doing something else.
. Keep unhealthy foods out of your field of vision.
. Use smaller plates.
Eating healthy is no guarantee you’ll lose weight. Calories and portion sizes still matter to some degree. Make smart food choices but be aware of how much you’re eating too.
Independent. “‘Health foods’ contributing to obesity crisis because we eat more, study finds”
J Sports Med Phys Fitness. (2010) 50(4):377-84.