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Nutrition

The Numbers Game: What to Count Instead of Calories

Calories aren't an effective measurement of the healthfulness of a meal: Here are five things you should be counting instead.

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For generations, calorie counting has been the backbone of dieting and the conventional “calories in/calories out” model for staying fit has held strong. Yet, calories aren’t a great indicator of diet healthfulness, and many health experts are saying they shouldn’t be our main eating focus. After all, when you compare 100 calories from candy with 100 calories from almonds it should be clear that not all calories are created equal — same calorie load, yet very different nutritional profile. Calorie counting ignores one key factor: the quality of your food. 

Don’t get us wrong: we’re not saying calories don’t matter — when you are running hard it’s a good idea to make sure you are getting enough of them to support training efforts. It’s just that there are far smarter things to count to make sure you are eating your way to a healthier body composition, better runs and a longer, healthier life.

So what do you track instead of calories? Here are five items worth a daily tally to keep your diet on track.

Count: Grams of Fiber

Bars that look like they have tones of fiber in them.
Photo: Louis Hansel / Unsplash

Your Goal: At least 38 grams a day for men and 25 grams each day for women (or 14 grams for every 1,000 calories consumed) 

Dietary fiber isn’t exactly the most exciting term in the wellness world, but it just might be the most devastating shortfall in the typical American diet. And it can have profound health and performance consequences beyond disconcerting toilet habits. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who eat more fiber are less likely to succumb to some of today’s biggest killers like cancer and heart disease.

Both soluble and insoluble fiber play several important roles in our health including steadying blood sugar levels, lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol. By helping regulate hunger, a fiber-rich diet can also put the brakes on the overeating that can contribute to unwanted weight gain. This is played out in research suggesting that consuming more roughage is helpful at achieving and maintaining healthy body composition.

Not to be overlooked is that consuming more fiber is perhaps the best way to improve your microbiome — levels of beneficial bacteria in your gut — and perhaps even more important than eating probiotics. A robust microbiome has been linked to everything from better digestion to improved mental health to even a boost in athletic performance. Yet, despite all the finer points of fiber, dietary surveys show that more than 90% of American adults don’t get the recommended amount on any given day. 

Your Fix: Sneaking in more beans and lentils into your diet is a good first step as these are fiber heavyweights — a cup of black beans has a whopping 15 grams. Making vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds part of your meals and snacks throughout the day will also make it easier for you to nail your daily fiber quota. You’ll notice that meats are devoid of dietary fiber and this is one reason why research suggests a plant-based diet (which still can include some meat) can be more protective against health problems. One caveat: you want to avoid eating high-fiber foods shortly before a run since the slower pace of digestion can lead to mid-run stomach woes. 

Count: Late Night Calories

Young woman sitting by open refrigerator, eating ice cream.
Photo: Getty Images

Your Goal: 0 to 200 calories

If you’re struggling to achieve or maintain your target healthy body composition perhaps it’s because you’re running to the fridge too often well after sunset, a snacking habit that trips-up many people. One newer study discovered that people who consumed the lowest percentage of daily calories at night consumed fewer calories overall when compared with those who ate more at night. What’s more, those who saved more of their daily calories for the evening scored significantly worse for overall diet quality.

That’s not surprising considering that too often late-night snacks are nutrition bombs. Findings in the International Journal of Obesity suggest that evening is a high-risk time for overeating because hunger hormone levels rise and satiety hormones drop at this time of day, and this shift is made even worse when experiencing periods of stress. This investigation in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that late-night eaters not only had lower weight-loss success than those who obtain more of their calories earlier in the day but also metabolic conditions such as lower insulin sensitivity and higher blood triglycerides that placed them at higher risk for heart disease. Our bodies may handle calories it receives later at night differently than the one’s it gets earlier in the day including reducing rates of fat oxidation and worsening blood sugar control. 

Your Fix: It seems that the timing of energy intake may be an important modifiable dietary behavior for better health. So try to shutter the kitchen after dinner and move more of your calories to before sunset. (Of course, if you are a night runner you can and should make an exemption to this rule and consume some calories afterward.) Making sure to eat enough fiber throughout the day including at dinner can be a good way to squash late-night hunger pangs. If you do find yourself peckish at night while engrossed in Netflix, aim to have some nutritious, lower-calorie snack options available like plain air-popped popcorn, apple slices or a small bowl of Greek yogurt

Count: Protein at Each Meal

Skillet with high protein food in it.
Photo: Unsplash

Your goal: 25 to 30 grams

To make the protein you eat work harder for you, the latest science shows when you eat it is just as important as how much you take in for helping to build and maintain lean body mass. (Remember that the more muscle mass you have the more power you can achieve on your runs and the less susceptible you are to training-related injuries.)

Instead of consuming most of your protein at a single meal, which many people do at dinner, distributing the macronutrient more evenly does a better job at fueling your muscles more consistently during a day. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that muscle protein synthesis increases when people consume 30 grams of protein (the amount in 5 ounces of chicken breast) at a meal, but taking in more doesn’t necessarily bring about bigger gains. And this study found that 30 grams of protein consumed after a bout of higher-intensity endurance exercise is a good amount to shoot for as a means to maximizing muscle recovery and growth. Research still needs to better determine meal protein requirements for active females who may need slightly fewer protein calories to maintain and improve lean body mass. 

Your Fix: Spread the protein love beyond dinner by making it a habit of including high-protein foods like legumes, poultry and fish at each of your meals and following high-octane workouts. For many people, breakfast is notoriously carb-centric, so look for ways to sneak in more protein at this meal with items like eggs and yogurt. 

Count: Meals Away from Home

Group of people out for American food, sitting at table.
Photo: Obi Onyeador / Unsplash

Your Goal: Three or fewer meals a week

The pandemic may have altered the numbers slightly, but in recent decades Americans have been spending more of their food dollars on meals and snacks prepared by someone else. Convenient yes, but all this restaurant and fast-food eating can be a recipe for less nutritious eating that may impact health and fitness gains, not to mention being a drain on the bank account. An American Journal of Preventative Medicine study found that people who ate out more frequently typically consumed less nutritious diets and also had higher food expenses.

Since chain and non-chain restaurant food is typically higher in calories, fat and sugar than what comes out of your kitchen it’s not surprising research shows that eating out more often can make it more challenging for many people to achieve a healthier body composition. An investigation by Ohio State University researchers showed that adults who reported never watching TV or videos during family meals and also whose family meals were all home-cooked had lower odds of being at an unhealthy body composition than those who ate while distracted by a screen and prepared fewer of their meals.

One report in the journal Nutrients suggests that daily high-intensity interval training (for this study the exercise took part on the treadmill) may protect men from some of the worst metabolic problems and fat gain associated with high intakes of fast food. But why take the chance? Perhaps the subjects would have experienced even greater improvements in performance metrics like VO₂ max if they instead supplemented the training with home-cooked whole food meals. And that degree of effort to counteract a French fry habit is a recipe for overtraining. 

Your Fix: For the sake of your health, running performance and savings account, it’s a good idea to get the Grubhub guy off your speed dial. While it can be a challenge to always eat healthy if you’re frequently eating out, it’s also difficult to eat poorly if you’re cooking for yourself using whole food ingredients. Menu planning and meal prepping are key for most busy runners. Once a week, plan out a week’s worth of nourishing meals and snacks, shop for the necessary provisions and then carve out some time to prepare a few meals in advance (i.e. batch-cooking) which makes it a lot less tempting to dial for takeout when you’re feeling too beaten down to cook from scratch. And turn to food bloggers who specialize in healthy meals for recipe inspiration. 

Count: Grams of Added Sugar

Spoon full of sugar on dark table.
Photo: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

Your Goal: Fewer than 40 grams (10 teaspoons)

If you are running up a storm then, yes, you can get away with a bit more of the sweet stuff in your diet and it can work in your favor during long endurance efforts. But since the research is so dire concerning added sugar in our diets it’s a good idea to keep intake in check.

There is no way to sugarcoat it: Eating too much added sugar — the stuff pumped into food and drinks to artificially sweeten them as opposed to what occurs naturally — is a culprit in a host of health concerns that goes beyond unwanted weight gain and diabetes. Research in the Journal of the American Heart Association found women who took in one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day had an almost 20% higher risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with women who did not consume or rarely drank sugar-sweetened drinks. Other evidence has linked lofty intakes to increased chances for depression and certain cancers — a strong indication that the body responds to sugary calories differently than it does to other kinds of calories. And this study suggests that higher intakes of added sugar can lead to a lower intake of several essential micronutrients.

Essentially, sugary foods may wedge out some of the more nutrient-dense foods in the diet. Depending on the organization you ask, the amount of added sugar in your diet should be no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) to 12 teaspoons (48 grams) a day. The World Health Organization suggests striving for a 10 percent of daily calorie limit but stresses that 5 percent would be even better, or about 25 grams of added sugar in a day. As a perspective, a 12-ounce can of soda has about 41 grams of added sugar.

Your Fix: Various guises of sugar are pumped into nearly everything from ketchup to bread to almond butter, making it more challenging to cut back. And foods geared towards athletes like energy bars and sports drinks aren’t exactly sugar lightweights. Thankfully, a new nutrition label has been rolled out that includes a line specifically for the grams of added sugar (the sugar added to the food or drink as opposed to that naturally present such as the lactose in milk) which makes it way easier to keep tabs on your intake of the sweet stuff. So the path to a lower-sugar diet starts by reading nutrition labels carefully and swapping out products in your diet that list higher amounts of added sugar with low- to no-sugar-added alternatives. For instance, opting for plain yogurt and unsweetened muesli instead of flavored yogurt and high-sugar granola. And don’t give so-called “natural sugars” like honey and coconut sugar a free pass as they too count towards your daily added sugar allotment.