So, you ought to lose weight, but want to stay healthy and happy? Welcome to the company of almost everyone else on the North American continent!
Basically, weight means calories - the energy in our food. Health and happiness depend on the essential nutrients in our food. Fortunately, energy and nutrients are almost completely independent of each other, so we can have it all. But, it could come a bit more easily.
Almost every packaged food these days comes with labels based on 'servings'. What is a serving? The answer is: whatever anyone wants it to be.
I'm not kidding. The USDA defined serving sizes with a public survey - how much of what does the average American feel like eating. The USA has now legislated this approach under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Some Canadian manufacturers now define a serving as 100 g, while the rest use anything handy or ignore the question. And some, as you might expect, have found that "less than a gram of fat per serving" can be said of any product if the serving is small enough!
If you need to control weight, calories are what matter. It's much more convenient to keep track of them when 'servings' have the same calories and can be simply counted.
So, I tried to find out what the calorie content of my common foods really are. There are tables of calories all over the net, and they fill shelf after shelf in libraries too. But, most of them are haphazard, generalised when generalisation is inappropriate, or (I swear) made up in dreamland they are so inconsistent.
Take "salmon". Most tables give one figure. But, chinook salmon has three times the oil content of Alaska pink. The calorie content of Atlantic salmon, now all farm raised, depends on what was fed to them. One figure for salmon is misleading to point blank wrong . . .
I've come to the conclusion that manufacturers' labels are mostly as accurate as anything else in Canada, and that the USDA is close behind, although it omits many foods common in Canada.
Here are the weights of the foods I usually buy that provide 100 calories. (Why these foods? See Adventures in Cholesterol Land and the notes below.) When a brand is mentioned, that is the source of the calorie and lipid data, otherwise it's from the USDA. All nutrients are from the USDA. The practical units are Canadian, for uncooked product unless noted. Costs are mostly early 2005 in Canadian dollars for edible portions (many foods include inedible portions in their price per kilo).
|food||form||serving g||practical serving||cost||calories from fat|
|flour||wheat,white,enriched||30||3 tablespoons||$.015||4%||1%||B1 B2 B3 B8;Fe Se|
|barley||pot||28||1/6 cup||.028||6||1||B1;Fe Mn P Se|
|oats||rolled,natural||26||1/2 cup||.03||15||3||B1;Fe Mn P Se|
|pasta||commercial||35||depends on form||.03||5||1||B1 B2 B8;Fe Se|
|bread||apple||40||1 slice||.05||13||2||B1 B3 B8;Fe Na Se|
|rice||brown||28||1/4 cup||.063||7||1||B6;Mn P|
|oat bran||natural||40||1/2 cup||.11||25||5||B1 B5;Cu Fe K Mg Mn* P Se;PR|
|corn||frozen kernel||102||3/4 cup||.20||8||1||B3 B6 B8 C;K P;LZ|
|potato||steamed,with skin||115||1/2 cup||.021||1||0||B3 B6 C;Cu Fe K Mn P|
|pea||split,dried||30||1/6 cup||.025||3||0||B1 B5 B8;Cu Fe K Mn P;PR|
|lentil||green||30||1/3 cup||.046||3||0||B1 B5 B6 B8;Cu Fe K Mn P;PR|
|carrot||fresh||228||2 large||.22||5||1||A* B1 B2 B3 B5 B6 B8 C E vK;K Mn Na P;LZ|
|pea||frozen||119||1 cup||.22||4||1||A B1 B2 B3 B6 B8 C vK;Cu Fe Mn Na P;LZ* PR|
|squash||winter||250||1 cup||.27||2||0||B1 B3 B5 B6 B8 C;Cu Fe K Mg Mn P*|
|green bean||fresh||325||50 beans||1.06||3||1||A B1 B2 B3 B6 B8 C E vK;Ca Cu Fe K Mg Mn P;LZ|
|cauliflower||fresh||400||4 cups||1.23||4||1||B1 B2 B3 B5 B6 B8 C* vK;K* Mn Na;PR|
|spinach||frozen,No Name||322||1 package (300g)||1.60||22||8||A* B1 B2 B3 B6 B8* C* E vK**;Ca* Cu Fe* K* Mg* Mn* Na* P Se Zn;LZ** PR|
|broccoli||florets||330||3 cups||2.45||10||1||A B1 B2 B3 B5 B6 B8 C* E vK*;Ca Fe K Mg Mn Na P Se Zn;LZ* PR|
|cucumber||fresh||800||(2 cucumbers)||12||1||B1 B2 B5 B6 B8 C vK;Ca Cu Fe K* Mg Mn P|
|lettuce||(average most types)||800||(12 cups chopped)||10||1||A B1 B2 B5 B6 B8* C vK*;Ca Fe Cu K* Mn Mg Na P Zn;LZ* PR|
|banana||peeled||110||1 banana||.23||3||1||B6 C;K Mn|
|currant||(Corinth raisins),dried||45||1/3 cup||.24||1||0||Cu Fe K|
|apricot||dried||40||7 apricots||.31||2||0||E;Fe K|
|tomato||canned||313||1/2 can||.35||10||2||A B1 B2 B3 B5 B6 B8 C;Cu Fe K* Mg Mn P|
|orange||fresh||212||2 oranges||.36||2||0||B1 B5 B6 B8 C*;K|
|raspberry||fresh||192||2-1/2 cups||1.50||11||0||B5 B8** C D;Cu Fe K Mg Mn*|
|herring||canned||50||1 herring||.23||52||12||B2 B3 B6 B12*;K Na P Se;O3 PR|
|sardine||canned||54||2 sardines||.25||51||13||B2 B3 B12* D*;Ca Fe Na P Se;O3 PR|
|pollock||frozen,Alaskan||109||1 fillet||.68||10||1||B2 B3 B6 B12*;K Mg Na P Se*;O3 PR|
|clam||canned||68||1/2 can (142 g)||.95||17||2||A B2 B3 B12** C;Cu Fe K Mn Na P Se* Zn;O3 PR|
|salmon||chum,frozen,Alaskan||80||1 steak||1.16||28||6||B2 B3 B5 B6 B12*;K P Se;O3 PR|
|salmon||sockeye,canned,Alaskan||60||1/3 can (213g)||1.35||43||10||B2 B3 B6 B12 E;Ca K Na* P Se;O3 PR|
|chicken broth||condensed,No Name||1390||(5 cans)||2||1||B2 B3 B12;Cu Fe Mn Na* K P Se;PR|
|sugar||dark brown||26||3 tablespoons||.06||0||0||(none)|
|peanut butter||100% nuts||15||1 tablespoon||.06||76||15||B3 E;Mn|
|olive oil||extra virgin,Colavita||12||1 tablespoon||.11||100||14||E|
|plum pudding||Great Aunt Grace's||30||.23||39||20||(none)|
|pesto||Genovese||21||2 tablespoons||.50||96||18||E vK;Fe Na|
Now, how do you put these servings together to make a balanced diet?
The first thing to note from the above is how easy it is to stay low-fat! Just stay away from pre-prepared foods. None of the natural foods above exceed 30% calories from fat except meats, nuts and refined oils. Also note how much more nutritious vegetables and fish are than grains and fruit, per calorie.
A balanced diet for you is one that supplies all the essential nutrients you need for optimal health within the calorie level that results in optimal weight for you. Few subjects are more controversial, for many reasons:
I do, however, recommend "Food and Mood" by Elizabeth Somer - it's comprehensive and balanced. (If you can't find it at your local library, buy it at ABE Books, the world of books on the Internet.) The way you feel is strongly related to your health, and vice versa. Observing how you feel is an important guide to good nutrition for you.
With it, other reading, and with personal observation, I've come to the conclusion that for me, a retired male of northern European ancestry, a 90% vegan diet plus 10% fish (by calories) is close to optimal. As noted above, my food groups are grains, vegetables, fruit, and meat. I aim for a serving of fish most days, and an even spread of servings throughout the other groups each day. Total food intake is determined by checking my weight to keep it steady.
The experts claim that I need 3000 calories/day at my height, weight and activity level; even my basal (sleeping) metabolism is supposed to be 1600 calories/day! In fact, I maintain my weight steady with only 1500 calories/day. So, I initially worried about the general diet supplements that Somer recommends. But, a detailed analysis shows she is wrong - it's perfectly possible to obtain all the nutrients in vitamin supplements in adequate quantity on 1500 calories/day, and with an essentially natural diet to boot.
If my diet is mostly right, I can enjoy that occasional shrimp salad or Thanksgiving turkey! However, I did have to stop keeping in the house the foods I pig out on - in my case, cheese and nuts. I find a nearby bottle of water to be handy when I would otherwise reach for a snack. Raw carrots are also handy - by the time I've gone through 100 calories of them, my jaws are tired. (Organic carrots of course - it's great to feel virtuous!)
Here are three other ways of looking at cost, nutrition and calories. A number of foods are included that I personally skip because of cholesterol, but are useful nutritionally. All are essentially natural foods; anyone can pour chemicals over junk food and get a high vitamin score.
First, cost per 100 calories, in Ottawa, cents Canadian, in season 2004. The ranking, however, should be close for any currency. If you need to provide energy for a house full of teenagers, this is useful!
Second, I added up the percentage per 100 calorie serving each supplies of the recommended dietary allowances for all vitamins, minerals and lipids analysed by the USDA for which there are accepted RDA's, except cholesterol, saturated fat, omega-6 and sodium which were subtracted. The result is a ranking of nutrition per calorie, when you want to feel as good as possible while controlling weight. This is a very oversimplified way of looking at nutrition, but it's a useful guide to start.
Third, divide the second figure by cost per serving, and you get nutrition ranking per dollar, helpful for those of us whose funds are limited. By this ranking, the best seafoods are all canned, and fruits are off the bottom of the list (the best are kiwifruit and orange).
The result - 4 months after my first test, my blood cholesterol is OK for my age: LDL down to 3.9; HDL steady at 1.6 Even better, a year later, no increase.
It's up to you. With observation, you can come to know yourself as well as any expert.
other notes on nutrition