Not all calories are created equal

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If you’ve been trying to lose weight, you’ve probably heard this rule: It’s just a matter of calories in, calories out. That is, simply burn more calories than you consume, and the pounds will melt off. Right? Well, not exactly.

If you are trying to lose weight, then you know that it’s not that simple - or that easy.

It turns out, some calories count more than others. Sure, there are 100 calories in two tablespoons of chocolate chips, and the very same 100 calories in broccoli. But there’s a huge difference in the way that they affect your appetite, your energy level, and your long-term health.

Here’s what you need to know:

Look for colours

About half of each meal should be fruits and vegetables. Not only are they filling, low in calories and high in fibre, but a wide variety of produce will provide nutrients and minerals that help stave off diseases like cancer, and keep your bones, muscles, metabolism, heart and lungs on top form. Dark green vegetables like kale and spinach will give you iron - to maintain health of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen-rich blood to the body; oranges and strawberries provide vitamin C to help the body absorb the iron. Red tomatoes and peppers have vitamin C, lycopene, lutein, potassium, beta-carotene and vitamin B6. Blueberries, blackberries, beets and aubergines are sources of potassium - which helps the muscles contract properly - and anthocyanins, which help prevent cancer. Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables like corn, butternut squash, pineapple, yellow peppers, mangos, carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and apricots are rich in beta-carotene, lutein, potassium, manganese, copper, folate and vitamins C, A and B6.

Look beyond labels

Often products that sound healthy are junk foods in disguise. For instance, a Strawberry Squeeze smoothie from Boost (part of their low fat menu) has 351 calories and 58 grams of sugar - that's more than in three 2-finger Kit Kats. Not even all chocolate is created equal. 100g Cadbury's Bournville chocolate, for instance, has 530 calories, 29g of fat and 57.5g of sugar compared with 100g Green and Black's 70% chocolate, which 580 calories, 42g of fat and 28.5g of sugar. Look for varieties that are 70% cocoa or higher for the least amount of sugar and the most antioxidants, which have been shown to reduce high blood pressure and inflammation.

Find the fibre

Found in fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, fibre fills you up fast with fewer calories, and because it takes longer to eat and digest, it keeps you feeling satisfied longer. Aim for 25 to 35g of fibre each day. Spread your fibre intake throughout the day, and try to consume at least 5g of fibre per meal. Water-soluble fibre, found mostly in fruits, vegetables and beans, helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Insoluble fibre, found mostly in whole grains - keeps the colon clean, which may help prevent cancer and digestive disorders. To avoid an upset stomach, be sure to get the timing right. It takes about two hours for fibre to leave the stomach and get to the intestine. So save high-fibre foods for after your workouts, or at least two hours beforehand. 

Don't fear fat

There has been a flood of low-fat and fat-free products into the market in recent years. But we now know that unsaturated fats like the ones you can get from olive oil, avocados, canola oil, nuts, seeds and almonds actually help boost your heart health. They also leave you feeling fuller for longer and even lower risk of injuries like stress fractures. Stay away from saturated fat and trans fat; they raise your "bad" cholesterol levels and decrease your "good" cholesterol levels, and that can raise your risk for heart disease. You still want to keep fats in moderation.

Watch the sugar

Sure, those marshmallows seem harmless enough - after all, 10 of them only have 253 calories and less than 1g fat. That sounds pretty tame for sweets. But the 50g of sugar per serving has a cascade of negative side effects: You’ll get a sugar high and crash that will send your energy levels on a rollercoaster ride and set the stage for more craving down the line. Indulging those cravings can lead to weight gain and health problems like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Look for products with the fewest grams of sugar, and aim for less than 2.5g of sugar/100 calories. The World Health Organisation recommends keeping sugar intake to no more than 10% of daily calories. For many folks that’s a limit of 50g of sugar per day. Aim much lower if you’re trying to shed pounds. Your best source of sugar is fresh fruit, which provides vitamins and minerals, along with fibre. If you must indulge, enjoy sweets right after a tough workout. In the 20 to 30 minutes immediately following a run that’s longer or faster than you usually go, your body is especially efficient at metabolising sugar. In fact, pairing these carbs with protein will help your muscles recover.

Sweet things

Here are two ways to figure out whether a product has sugar.

Check the ingredients: Below is a list of different names for different types of sugar:

  • Corn syrup
  • Corn sugar
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Sucrose
  • Dextrose
  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Turbinado sugar
  • Brown sugar

Look at the order: Ingredients are ordered by weight, so the ingredient that is listed first makes up a greater percentage of the product compared with the last ingredient listed. If sugar (or one of the other sources) is listed as one of the first two or three ingredients, you know that the food is high in sugar.

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