By Dr. Mercola
If you're seeking to lose excess weight, counting calories is usually less than helpful. In fact, focusing on calories could easily divert you from the real answer, which lies in optimizing your nutrition.
I've long advocated against counting calories. Even if you manage to shed a few pounds, you're not going to get healthier by eating fewer cookies than you did before.
In short, if you really want to lose weight and improve your health, then you must replace empty calories and denatured foods with nutrient-rich ones.
Nutritional Value Beats Calorie Count
Fortunately, even conventional health experts are now starting to catch on, and rather than looking at calories, they suggest looking at the nutritional value of the foods you eat.
As reported by Medical Daily:1
"An editorial published in Open Heart suggests the outdated practice of counting calories has to go...
'Shifting the focus away from calories and emphasizing a dietary pattern that focuses on food quality rather than quantity will help to rapidly reduce obesity, related diseases, and cardiovascular risk,' the research team said in a statement.2
'Primary and secondary care clinicians have a duty to their individual patients and also to their local populations. Our collective failure to act is an option we cannot afford.'"
Why Counting Calories Doesn't Work
According to the calorie myth, in order to lose weight all you need to do is follow the equation of "eat less, move more." But this simply isn't true.
Zoe Harcombe's book, "The Obesity Epidemic", is one of the most comprehensive documents I've ever seen that exposes the flaws of this myth.
Research by Dr. Robert Lustig has also shredded this dogmatic belief, showing that not even calories from different kinds of sugar are treated identically by your body.
According to Dr. Lustig, fructose is "isocaloric but not isometabolic." What this means is that identical calorie counts from fructose or glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, will cause entirely different metabolic effects.
Part of the problem is a fundamental error in the understanding of the law of thermodynamics. Energy is actually used up in making nutrients available in your body.
Your body also self-regulates the amount of activity you engage in, based on the available energy. If your energy stores are low, you'll feel lethargic and unlikely to exercise, even if you know you "should."
As noted in the featured article:3
"Results of the Action for Health in Diabetes study4 have shown that type 2 diabetes patients who adopt a lower calorie diet on top of increased physical activity have the same risk for death caused by a heart condition, even if the diet resulted in substantial weight loss.
The research team suggests that simple dietary changes that focus on macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein) and sugar consumption rather than calorie counting can efficiently improve health outcomes."
Seven of the Most Nutrient-Dense Foods on the Planet
You can only eat so much in a day, and if you consider your stomach to be "prime real estate," you'd be wise to consider the nutritional value of the foods you're putting in it. Some foods pack far more nutrients into a smaller package than others.
For example, while many equate eating salad with optimizing their diet, this is not necessarily true, depending on what's in your salad. If lettuce and cucumbers make up the majority of that bulk, you're getting plenty of water, yes, but few valuable nutrients.5
A recent article in Valley News6 also points out that lettuce "occupies precious crop acreage, requires fossil fuels to be shipped, refrigerated... and adds nothing but crunch to the plate."
Authority Nutrition7 lists 11 foods densely packed with valuable nutrients. Here are my own top seven picks. For additional suggestions see the original article:
✓ Wild-caught Alaskan salmon
When it comes to fish, two things to take into account are 1) healthy fat content, and 2) contamination levels.
Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is likely one of the best seafood options as it's high in omega-3 fat (about 2.8 grams per 100 gram serving) and low in contaminants.
About 95 percent of your cells' membranes are made of fat, and without fats such as omega-3, your cells cannot function properly.
Since wild salmon eat what nature programmed them to eat, they have a more complete nutritional profile,8 with valuable micronutrients, fats, minerals (including magnesium, potassium, and selenium), vitamins (including all the B-vitamins), and antioxidants like astaxanthin.
Avoid farmed salmon, as they're fed an artificial diet consisting of grain products like corn and soy, chicken- and feather meal, artificial coloring, and synthetic astaxanthin — all of which negatively affects the nutritional profile of farmed salmon.
✓ Bone broth
Bone broth is exceptionally healing for your gut, and contains a number of valuable nutrients that many Americans lack, in a form your body can easily absorb and use.
This includes but is not limited to: calcium, phosphorus, and other minerals; silicon and other trace minerals; glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate; components of collagen and cartilage; components of bone and bone marrow; and the "conditionally essential" amino acids proline, glycine, and glutamine (which have anti-inflammatory effects).
In terms of nutritional density, kale is virtually unparalleled among green leafy vegetables.
Interestingly, it has a 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio – an exceptionally high amount of protein for any vegetable.
Like beef, it also contains all nine essential amino acids needed to form the proteins within the human body, plus nine other non-essential ones for a total of 18.
In addition, kale contains omega-3s in a beneficial ratio to omega-6, and is exceptionally rich in vitamins A, C, and K1.
It's also loaded with vision-preserving lutein and zeaxanthin at over 26 mg combined, per serving.
Add to this an impressive list of minerals as well, including more calcium per gram than whole milk, and in a more bioavailable form. Other bioactive compounds such as isothiocyanates and indole-3-carbinol have been shown to have anti-cancer properties.
✓ Raw garlic, and aged black garlic
Garlic contains a range of phytocompounds that synergistically produce a wide variety of responses in your body, including reducing inflammation and boosting immune function. It's been shown to successfully combat even antibiotic-resistant infections.
Rich in manganese, calcium, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamins B6 and C, garlic is beneficial for your bones as well as your thyroid.
Beyond that, studies have demonstrated garlic's positive effects for more than 150 different diseases,9 including cancer.
Black garlic, produced through a type of aging/fermentation process, has also been shown to have impressive nutritional properties.
One 2009 animal study10 found it was more effective than fresh garlic in reducing the size of tumors. In another study, black garlic was found to have twice the antioxidant levels as fresh.
Black garlic is also packed with high concentrations of sulfurous compounds, especially one in particular: s-allylcysteine (SAC),11 which has been shown to have a number of health benefits, including inhibition of cholesterol synthesis.12
A wide variety of seeds can be sprouted, which maximizes their nutritional value.
For example, once sunflower seeds are sprouted, their protein, vitamin, and mineral content will typically provide you with 30 times the nutrient content of organic vegetables.
Based on 17 nutrients, including potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K, watercress scored a perfect 100 in a recent study titled, "Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach".13,14
Sprouts in general also contain valuable enzymes — up to 100 times more enzymes than raw fruits and vegetables — that allow your body to absorb and use the nutrients of other foods you eat.
The essential fatty acid and fiber content also increases dramatically during the sprouting process and, when the seed starts to sprout, minerals such as calcium and magnesium bind to proteins in the seed, which makes both the minerals and the protein more readily available and usable in your body.
✓ Organic pastured egg yolks
Overall, eggs are one of Nature's most perfect foods, loaded with high quality protein, healthy fats and cholesterol, vitamins, and minerals. Just make sure they come from organic pastured hens.
Egg yolks are a rich source of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin:15 two powerful prevention elements of age-related macular degeneration; the most common cause of blindness, and the choline in eggs is important for brain health.
Proteins in cooked eggs are also converted by gastrointestinal enzymes,16 producing peptides that act as ACE inhibitors (common prescription medications for lowering blood pressure).
Liver from grass-fed animals is a superfood of the animal kingdom, and one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.
For example, liver is nature's most concentrated source of vitamin A (retinol), and contains an abundant, highly usable form of iron.
It's also one of the richest sources of copper and folic acid.
Three ounces of beef liver contains almost three times as much choline as one egg, and it also contains a mysterious "anti-fatigue factor," making it a favorite among athletes.
Shopping Wisely to Maximize Your Food Budget
Most people use standard measures of quantity when comparing prices, but a wiser strategy might be to focus on nutrient content instead. For example, conventional USDA prime beef may be cheaper than organic grass-fed beef pound for pound, but when you take nutritional factors into account, the latter provides far better value for your money.
As noted in the Valley News article:17
"The corollary to the nutrition problem is the expense problem. The makings of a green salad — say, a head of lettuce, a cucumber, and a bunch of radishes — cost about $3 at my market. For that, I could buy more than two pounds of broccoli, sweet potatoes, or just about any frozen vegetable, which would make for a much more nutritious side dish..."
Here, I would add that if you really like salad, there are simple and very cost-effective ways to dramatically boost its nutrient content.
For example, adding a handful of sprouts, an organic egg, some raw nuts or seeds, with a drizzling of virgin olive oil on top in lieu of salad dressing would turn your nutritionally lackluster salad into a more nutrient-dense meal without adding much expense. An article18 in The Nourishing Gourmet lists 12 tips for "squeezing the most nutrient rich food from your dollar." While a few years old, it's as relevant today as it ever was. These tips include:
✓ Buy more of the inexpensive varieties of organic vegetables. Less pricey produce include carrots, onions, celery, garlic, kale, chard, zucchini, cabbage, and broccoli — all of which contain valuable nutrients at a reasonable price, even when organic.
✓ Make broth and say yes to liver. The nutrient value of both have already been addressed above, and in terms of cost, broth and liver are among the least expensive foods you'll find.
✓ Avoid food waste. Buy only what you know you'll eat before the food goes bad.
Alternatively, turn leftover veggies, meats, and other scraps into soup. Chicken carcasses can be boiled down into nourishing broth.
✓ Prepare and cook foods to maximize nutritional value. Knowing how a food is affected by the way it's prepared or cooked can go a long way toward maximizing your nutrition. For example, valuable nutrients in eggs are destroyed through cooking, so eating your eggs as close to raw or as lightly cooked as possible will optimize their nutritional potential.
As mentioned earlier, grains and seeds gain a significant boost in nutrients when sprouted, and vegetables in general get a nutritional boost when fermented, as this makes them a great source of probiotics. If fermented using a specific starter culture, they can also provide ample amounts of vitamin K2.
✓ Buy local pastured eggs. Eggs from truly organic, free-range chickens not only have higher nutrient content than commercially raised eggs, they're also far less likely to contain dangerous bacteria such as salmonella. When buying local, you're also getting fresher eggs, as they've not been shipped across the country.
✓ Embrace traditional home cooking, and avoid buying prepackaged foods. This means cooking from scratch, using whole unadulterated ingredients, so you know exactly what's in your meal.