Calories matter. It's basic math — if you burn more than you take in, you'll shed pounds. But it matters what you take in too. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when people ate more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and yogurt, they gained less weight over time.
Focusing on quality calories like these generally means you'll consume fewer calories overall. That's because you'll enjoy a much higher volume of food — the types that keep you full so you won't be ravenous and overindulge later.
For example, 1,600 calories of healthy grub could get you all this: for breakfast, 2 scrambled eggs and 1 slice of whole-grain toast; for lunch, a large salad with 3 oz grilled chicken and 2 Tbsp vinaigrette; for a snack, an apple with 1 Tbsp peanut butter; and for dinner, 5 oz fish or skinless chicken, 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, and 2 cups roasted broccoli.
Now compare that with 1,600 empty calories, which roughly equals 1 candy bar, 1 bag of potato chips, 1 fast food cheeseburger, and a small chocolate shake. You'd end up hungry, cranky, and ready to reach for more. Two caveats: Sometimes a better-for-you food has the same number of calories as its not-so-great cousin. That's the case with brown rice versus white rice, but the former gives you more fiber and all sorts of nutrients.
Also, foods like nuts and seeds are calorie-dense but combine fiber and protein, so they're nutritional all-stars. One study suggests that when we eat nuts, we actually don't absorb some of their calories, making them lighter than you might think. But the bottom line is if you pay attention not only to calories but also to quality, you'll be ready to lose in a big way. Here's how to get quality calories into your diet.
1. Fill up on fiber.
People who eat more fiber consume fewer calories, have smaller appetites, and weigh less. Women need 25 grams or more per day, but Americans get only about 15 daily grams.
2. Crunch your produce.
Liquid calories aren't as filling as calories from whole fruits and veggies (again, it's about fiber). Switch and save big: An orange has 65, while 16 oz of orange juice has 220.
3. Opt for protein.
You get a greater metabolism rev when you eat protein as opposed to other nutrients. Eat at least half your body weight of protein in grams a day (choose whole sources over protein bars).
Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D.N. , is NBC's TODAY show nutrition expert, a best-selling author, and the founder of Nourish Snacks.
This article original ran in the September issue of Landcruisers.