Last week, I presented a talk to employees of a large food company, when (not surprisingly) the talk soon enough centred on the issue of “healthy eating” as a way to better manage your weight.
This prompted me to point out that healthy eating (at least in the conventional sense) and weight management are actually two different issues – related perhaps, but different!
We only need to remind ourselves of Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, who for 10 weeks sustained himself on a “convenience store diet” consisting largely of Hostess and Little Debbie snacks, Dorito chips, sugary cereals and Oreos, thereby losing 27 pounds and reducing his BMI from 28.8 to 24.9 – all of this, with no exercise (accompanied by a 40% reduction in trygylcerides and a 20% increase in HDL cholesterol – go figure!).
Haub conducted this “experiment” to illustrate one simple point: when you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight – even on the “unhealthiest” diet imaginable (he limited himself to 1800 Cal, well below his estimated requirement of about 2400 Cal).
Conversely, although, I am not sure that anyone has done this, I am completely certain that you could eat the healthiest possible diet (orthorexic organic vegan if you chose) and yet gain weight by consuming more calories than you need.
Thus, the “healthiness” of your diet and the “caloric content” of your diet actually have little to do with each other.
“Healthiness” is a matter of nutrients – ensuring that your diet delivers the appropriate amount of macro and micronutrients to your body to ensure its “nutritional balance”.
However, whether or not you gain or lose weight on that nutritionally balanced “healthy” diet, ultimately depends on its caloric content.
In other words, it does not matter how healthy or unhealthy your diet is – if you don’t cut calories, your weight stays the same. (as 85% of weight management is about calories “in” – let’s not worry about physical activity in this discussion)
Ideally, a “healthy diet” would ensure both “nutritional” and “caloric” balance – i.e. give you all the nutrients you need to be healthy AND exactly the number of calories you need to maintain your weight.
There is, however, a third characteristic of a diet that plays into this discussion – the feeling of enjoyment (pleasure, happiness, excitement, satisfaction, comfort).
Enjoyment is elicited by features like taste, smell and texture, which together make up the palatability of foods. Enjoyment, also involves evocation of pleasant memories and experiences that may be related to certain foods or beverages.
Think of these properties of a “healthy” diet as a triple Venn diagram – the perfect situation would be when all three circles (nutritional balance, caloric balance and enjoyment) completely overlap.
The challenge we often face is of course the fact that, enjoyment (even if it lasts only a brief instant) will often trump both nutritional and caloric balance.
There are of course other factors that may influence dietary decisions including cost, convenience, environmental concerns, ethics, religious beliefs, traditions, etc. but in the end, the challenge is to find a diet that maximizes health and enjoyment while ensuring caloric balance.