Get Healthy by Cleveland Clinic Wellness Editors

Understanding What, Why and How Much to Eat
By Cleveland Clinic Wellness Editors

If you are like countless people, you believe that the way to achieve a healthy weight is to focus on what you eat. Whether you’ve been told to cut fat or calories form your diet or to nix the dairy or wheat, most likely you’re concentrating on which foods are in and which are out. Truth is while that’s step one, focusing on food alone probably won’t work. Paying attention to how and why you eat is just as important for both weight-reduction efforts and long-term maintenance.

The What: It’s All About Calories

For a while, avoiding fat was generally held to be the key to long-term health. Low-fat diets (meaning fat accounts for 30 percent or less of calories) were linked to decreased risk of heart disease and cancers, and were thought to be ideal for losing weight. However, your body actually needs certain fats to function. In addition, fats provide a feeling of satiety, or fullness, which helps you gauge when you’ve had enough to eat. “When you remove fat from food, it’s not as psychologically satisfying,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, Med, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. “This can lead to overeating later to satisfy your cravings.”
Interestingly, the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion found that by 1995 the average American diet had almost met the low-fat target – fat intake represented 34 percent of total calories, as compared with 1965’s average of 45 percent. However, Americans weren’t actually eating less fat. Instead, overall calorie intake had increased, so people were getting about as much fat as before plus extra nonfat calories. In case you haven’t heard this before (or even if you have): Too many calories of any kind leads to weight gain. Period.

Where did all these extra calories come from? From, among other things, sources marketed as “healthy”, including low- or nonfat foods (which can contain as many or more calories as their full-fat cousins – manufacturers often add sugar to boost flavor) and sports drinks. Notes Jamieson-Petonic, “If you’re exercising an hour or less at a time, you really don’t need a sports drink. Water will do just fine.” And just think about it: If you burn 100 calories on a 30-minute walk, then down a 20-ounce bottle of a sports drink with 180 calories in it, which way will the scales tip? Not in your favor.

The How Much: Can You Say Portion Control?

Another culprit in the upward trend of scale numbers: Americans are simply eating more, through larger portions. Since the 1970s, portion sizes at restaurants and in ready-to-eat and convenience foods have increased dramatically, so even if you’re eating the same items as before, you’re likely eating more of each. It’s not just eating out that will get you: The size of dinner plates at home has grown – from about nine inches across a few decades ago to 11 to 12 inches today. Those extra inches mean that when you fill and clean your plate, you’re consuming 50 to 80 percent more food – and the associated calories.

Here’s a hint when picking up convenience food: When you review the nutrition label, be sure to look at not only the number of calories per service but the number of servings in the package. What you think is a single-serving package may actually contain two or three, so if you finish off the whole thing alone, it’s that many times more calories!

The Why: Are You a Mindless Eater?

You may be saying, “I feel like I’ve been doing everything right and yet the weight has just snuck on.” It may well have – throughout the day, most of us engage in what could be called mindless eating: Downing breakfast on the run so we can make it to work; grabbing a quick pick-me-up from the vending machine at 3 PM; eating in front of the TV in the evening to unwind. The likelihood of any of those meals being a lovely, vegetable-laden salad paired with a grilled piece of fish? Slim to none.

“One of the causes of weight gain is not being aware of what you’re eating, or how much,” Jamieson-Petonic says. “So many of us are so busy, we’re not eating mindfully. And food is everywhere these days – 24 hour grocery stores, gas-station convenience stores, vending machines – you can grab something to eat anywhere, without thinking about it.”

Here are a few simple steps to help you focus attention on your diet in a healthful way:

  • Plan ahead. Pack your lunch or plan a healthy dinner ahead of time so you’re not caught making rushed decisions and overeating when you’re famished or time-crunched.
  • Change your location. Get away form your desk at lunch; sit down and have dinner at the table. This way you’ll be focused on your meal, not distracted by a computer or TV screen. (Television, in particular, makes you forget what you ate!)
  • Take your time. Give yourself long enough to eat your meal – 20 to 40 minutes (it takes about that time for your stomach to communicate to your head that you’re full), so you can experience a feeling of satiety and not overeat.

Once you’re mindful of your eating, it will be very hard for weight to “accidentally” appear – and you’ll be on the road to making it deliberately disappear!