Food gives you energy so you can live. Seems pretty simple, right? Then why is there so much confusion over good fats vs. bad fats, whether we should eat or avoid carbohydrates, and the perfect number of calories?

To find out how best to nourish our bodies, we spoke to registered dietitian, Emma Hulse.

What is a calorie? Why do we count them?

Calories are a measure of heat energy. Technically, a calorie measures the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius.

Calories are found in all foods in varying amounts. Calories are not good or bad, but something that everyone needs to live and have a healthy body. Calories are provided by carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (the three macronutrients). Fats have a higher concentration of calories compared to proteins and carbs. This means that a little fat goes a long way!

Each person needs a custom amount of calories. This amount can change depending on many factors, such as physical activity, pregnancy, and age. Eating too few or too many calories can be harmful to your health. It’s difficult to say how many calories a person needs without running some pretty expensive tests. However, there are many formulas that can give you a ballpark number of how many calories you should eat every day.

Should we try to avoid carbs?

No! Just like with calories, there’s no good or bad when it comes to carbs. We need carbs to have healthy, strong bodies that function properly. Carbs are the body’s main source of energy, and if we don’t eat them, our bodies will convert some of the protein and fat into carbohydrates.

We need to get away from labeling nutrients and food as good or evil. Food is just food, though some choices are better than others. That being said, some types of carbs are better than others. Try to eat carbs that are minimally processed, meaning they’re as close to the way they were found in nature e.g. choose steel cut oats over a granola bar.

How much of a meal should be carbohydrates? How much is too much?

65% of the food we eat should be from carbs. People often think that carbs are from grains and potatoes only, but carbs are found in most foods, including veggies!

Instead of thinking about food as carbs, fat, and protein, try to focus on categories of food, like fruits, veggies, and whole grains. I think as a society we focus too much on the nutrients not the food, hence the existence of Vitamin Water. Too much of anything is never good; moderation is always key.

Will cutting carbs from our diet help with weight loss?

The carb-free trend has been long standing: lots of people think carb-free is the best way to lose weight and be healthy.

Studies have found that initially, people on a low carb diet vs. a low calorie diet, lose more weight. However, after six months or a year, there’s no difference.

In general, cutting out any food group from your diet isn’t sustainable. The success to weight loss, and keeping off the weight (which is the hardest part), is finding a healthy approach to eating that you can do long-term.

There so many types of fats: which should we eat and which should we avoid?

The body needs all the different types of fat — both saturated and unsaturated — to make tissue and create hormones. Fat is also a great source of energy. We should eat both saturated and unsaturated fats, but in varying amounts.

In modern society, sources of fats are readily available. Back in the caveman days, we had to work really hard to come across foods with fat in — finding fatty foods involved chasing down a fast animal with rudimentary weapons. Today, we just click a few buttons from the comfort of our couch and a lot of fat just shows up at the door.

Moderation is important when it comes to eating fats, with one exception: trans fats are off-limits. Trans fats are completely man made. They should be avoided and are bad for our bodies. Instead, focus on eating plant-based fats.

I think we’re always looking for the magic bullet when it comes to health. Every decade, it feels like there’s a new type of star diet. Remember the '80s with the low-fat craze? People thought eating fat-free yogurt made with tons of sugar was healthy! It’s not healthy to eat so much of anything. A balanced, mainly plant-based diet, highlighting unprocessed foods, is always the way to go.

If we want to lose weight, what should we be tracking?

Focus on fruits and veggies! Plant-based diets are always the best option when trying to lose weight. It’s pretty hard to eat too many fruits and veggies.

Eating minimally processed foods is also important. Weight loss is a very individual process, so it’s hard to give one approach that works for everyone. Consulting with a registered dietitian can establish a good foundation for healthy eating habits and weight loss.

Is there a perfect ratio of protein, carbs, and fat we should aim for in every meal?

There is no perfect ratio, but there is an estimate we should aim for. The general recommendation is that half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter should be lean sources of protein (beans and other legumes fit in this category), and the last quarter should be whole grains. However, again, it’s important to shift the focus to the type of food on your plate, rather than the types of nutrients that make up your food.

How much protein do we need? If we eat plant-based meals are we at risk of consuming too little?

The amount of protein we need depends on who we are. The recommendation is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, just like with calories, protein requirements depend on many factors, such as age and physical activity.

Protein requirements are not hard to meet; the typical American eats twice the daily recommended intake of protein. By including a healthy source of lean protein in each meal, you can easily meet your daily protein requirements. Animal proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, are considered to be complete proteins because they have all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) our bodies need. On the other hand, plant proteins are lacking some of these amino acids, and are considered incomplete proteins. That said, diets high in plant proteins are linked with lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity compared to diets high in animal proteins, which are linked to many negative health outcomes.

Balance is essential: eat a mainly plant-based diet with some sources of animal proteins.

When we read a nutrition label what should we look for?

The ingredient list! My rule of thumb is that products with five or less items on the ingredient list are a better choice. I also look at sugar content: try to avoid foods where three or more ingredients are different types of sugar.

What’s the biggest mistake you see people making when choosing what to eat based on nutritional labels?

Looking at calories only. All calories are not equal! You can eat 100 calories of Twizzlers (my personal favorite) or 100 calories from an apple. The apple is a far superior choice to the Twizzlers. Again, try to focus on the type of food you’re eating.

Enjoy your food! Make it a social event. There’s nothing sadder than watching someone sitting in front of their computer eating. I love food (so much so that I went to school to study it), but food is no fun unless it’s shared with others.

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