“I eat really healthily, but the weight is not going down”. Is this you? You might be health-conscious, calorie-unconscious.
Are you exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet but struggling to lose weight? There could be a good reason for that. Remember, your calorie balance entirely governs the weight you gain or lose. In other words, calories-in versus calories-out determines whether you gain or lose weight.
That means you can eat horrible unhealthy food every day, but you’ll lose weight if you are eating fewer calories than you’re burning. You won’t be very healthy, but you’ll lose weight.
Conversely, you can eat healthy tucker at every meal every day, but if you’re getting more calories than your body needs, you’ll put on weight.
So, in other words, healthy is not necessarily the same as low calorie. Is this you? Are you health conscious but calorie unconscious?
So how can you be healthy and put on weight?
There are several ways in which this can happen. Let’s look at some examples.
You might be getting lots of healthy food that is high in calories. Hmmm, like what?
Take a look at this salad:
- Salmon, 100g
- A whole bag of mixed leaves
- Two peppers
- Avocado, 50g
- Cherry tomatoes, 100g
- Pine nuts, 15g
- Cucumber, 100g
- Feta, 75g
- Grated carrot, 100g
- Dressing, 1 tbsp olive oil
Healthy? You bet!
Low calorie? No! This healthy salad will give you 1000 calories!
So, what’s the problem? Too much fat, that’s the problem; too many calorie-dense ingredients. Salmon, avocado, pine nuts, feta and olive oil are all high-fat foods. They are calorie-dense. Feta aside, they’re all pretty healthy; but low calorie, they’re not!
So how do you avoid these high-calorie pitfalls? You may know that ‘calorie awareness’ is one of my key pieces of advice for people trying to lose weight. It’s the same here. Learn about your food and know what’s calorie-dense and what isn’t.
Common calorific ‘healthy’ foods
Here’s a list of some of my favourite examples of where people think ‘healthy’ and forget ‘calories’:
Nuts are great fodder, but they generally pack around 600 calories per 100g. Don’t graze on nuts thinking you’re getting lots of protein because often you’re not. What you’ll always get is lots of (healthy) fat and lots of calories.
Yes, healthy, but very calorific. I must admit, I lament the popularity of avocado toast. It’s a bad meal! If you’re trying to lose weight, you should get meals containing protein, fibre, liquid and slow carbs. These will keep you fuller for longer and help when you’re in calorie deficit. Avocado toast is a high fat, high-calorie food on top of another relatively calorie-dense high GI (Glycaemic Index) food. It has very little protein, liquid, fibre or slow carbs. It’s not going to fill you up! Be aware that if you scoff a whole avocado in your salad, you’re adding 325 calories.
Organic butter and chocolate
Butter is butter. Chocolate is chocolate. It doesn’t matter how it is sourced.
Coconut oil, olive oil
They are seen as healthy. But they are pure oil, 900 calories per g. That’s as calorie-dense as you can get. Be very ‘portion aware’ when you use them.
I know, I know, this seems like sacrilege. Don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent food and you should, according to the government, include oily fish at least twice a week in your diet. But oily fish shouldn’t be a mainstay of your protein choice every day if you want to keep your calories down. Suppose you’re in calorie deficit and you have a calorie allowance to hit. In that case, you’re better off getting bucket loads of nutrients from veggies than spending 250 calories of your allowance on a calorie-dense piece of fish. Eat salmon, sardines, mackerel and so on by all means, but be ‘quantity-aware’ and ‘frequency-aware’.
Chickpeas, they’re healthy, right? Yep. And you may even eat houmous with carrot batons and peppers. But houmous is essentially a suspension of chickpeas in olive oil. It’s calorie-dense. Eat sparingly, and certainly don’t scoff the tub.
Great healthy snack? It’s ok. But it’s crammed with calorie-dense nuggets. Nuts and seeds are high in fat, and raisins are dense little sugary pellets! Take a look at the food label on a packet of trail mix.
I’m not sure why granola has become a healthy choice. Yes, it’s based on oats, but it also comes with a lot of sugar usually. It’s calorie-dense and moreish – a recipe for overeating. Porridge with a banana is a better choice.
I remember a conversation I had with a colleague once. Somehow, we had got on to the topic of his weight. He was baffled by his growing girth. “I eat lots of salad,” he said.
I’d seen him eat. He’d have salad with his pizza and then follow it with apple crumble and custard. But the presence of a few salad leaves, at least in his mind, made the meal healthy and not a culprit in his weight gain mystery.
It was as if the salad had a substantial negative calorie value and rendered the whole meal low-calorie.
Do you do that sometimes? Do you add some greenery that magically negates the excess?
Adding greenery adds a few calories, of course. But that’s not the issue. The issue is to what other foods you’re adding the leaves. Don’t assign a considerable negative calorie value to vegetables and salad!
Sometimes you’ll see a recipe that has been badged as ‘healthy’ because it contains swaps for the traditional ingredients. Take a look at this example of healthy chocolate chip cookies.
As the author says, it is wholegrain, vegan and contains no cholesterol, butter or eggs. It’s these factors that make the recipe ‘healthy’. But is it really? Here are the key ingredients:
- Oat flour
- Chocolate chips
- Coconut sugar
Oat flour has been swapped for wheat flour. Heathier? A little because it’s slower to digest. Lower calorie? No.
The author has used coconut sugar. Oooh, coconut sugar, that’s much healthier than regular sugar. It’s not really, is it? Sugar is sugar.
Oil and macadamias instead of butter. No animal products, but plenty of calories. Macadamias are the most calorie-dense nuts you can get. And oil is, well, oil. It beats butter for calorie density.
It’s not healthy, is it? It’s a cookie. And it packs a lot of calories.
Common badly badged foods
If you search, you’ll find hundreds of healthy versions of recipes that are traditionally seen as unhealthy. Some common tricks to make them ‘healthy’ are
- State the recipe is vegan.
- State the recipe is gluten-free.
- Swap coconut sugar for sugar.
- Use nuts or oil instead of butter.
- Swap oats for wheat.
- Use dates instead of sugar.
- Use sweet potato instead of flour.
Do you get the idea? Some of these swaps might be a little healthier, but none of them makes dramatic improvements to the calorie content.
So, the key message here is to beware of recipes or meals that are badged as healthy. My view is that if the creator feels the need to put the word ‘healthy’ in the recipe, then very likely, it’s a recipe that is usually regarded as unhealthy. The chances are that, even with swaps, it’s still unhealthy or calorific. Check the ingredients and check the calories. Look out for high-fat ingredients and dissolved sugar.
There are two key points I’d like you to take away from this post.
- Healthy is not the same as low calorie.
- Become calorie aware. This is the best advice I can give you if you are looking to lose weight. Learn about food, know your calories.
Disassociate the word ‘healthy’ from low-calorie and get good at assessing the calorie content of food. You’ll stand a much better chance of reaching your weight loss goals.