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How much to Eat: Striking the Right Balance

Updated: Jan 11, 2018

“If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have the safest way to health.”

~ Hippocrates

In my inaugural blog, I invited everyone to embrace nutrition as a resolution for life with an overview on the basics. I anticipated the next question – but how much to eat? Again, knowing the key concepts is necessary.

Let us begin with energy value of foods, the concept of calories. Calorie is a measurement of energy from food, just like kilometers for distance and kilogram for weights. One gram of carbohydrate or a gram of protein both give 4 calories. A gram of fat gives 9 calories. That is why fat is a concentrated energy source. Lesser known fact is that alcohol contains more calories than food, 7 calories for each gram (but lacks other nutrients!) Dietary fibers on the other hand give only 2 calories per gram explaining why fiber rich foods are not only filling but help in weight management also.

Energy and other nutrients are needed to sustain life and perform essential functions. But there has to be a balance in quality, quantity and frequency of diet. Let’s take an analogy of a pair of shoes - too small will pinch and pain, too big will cause to stumble and fall while if it is just right, there will be comfort. It is exactly the same with nutritional requirements.

Everyone does not have the same nutritional requirement. It varies by age, sex, body size and levels of physical activity. Other factors such as the need to lose, maintain, or gain weight also affect how much to eat. Estimate provided by US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion range from 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for adult men. Within each age and sex category, the lower end is for sedentary individuals and the higher end is for active individuals. Calorie needs generally decrease for adults as they age due to decreased physical activity as well reduction in basal metabolic rate that occur with aging.

Childhood and teenage are characterised by periods of rapid growth and development, thus adequacy of energy and nutrients are crucial during these periods. Estimated needs for young children range from 1,000 to 2,000 calories per day, and the range for older children and adolescents varies substantially from 1,400 to 3,200 calories per day, depending upon their age and level of physical activity. While teenage boys generally have higher calorie needs than teenage girls, menstrual blood losses demand higher requirements of specific nutrients such as iron in girls.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding are special times with increased energy requirements of 300 to 500 calories and of key nutrients necessary for growth such as iron, folate and calcium. Yet, these are not time for excess eating.

The equation of energy balance is simple and important. If you take in less energy than your body requires, you lose weight; when you take in more than you need, you gain weight. When your energy is in perfect balance, you maintain your weight. Excess energy intake, whether from carbohydrates, protein or fats, which are not utilised by the body or expended through physical activity are bound to get stored as fats. Most people become overweight through a slow, gradual weight gain of one to two kilos per year, demonstrating that a slight imbalance of energy is all it takes to result in weight gain over time.

In daily life, calculating exact calories or the amount of other nutrients is neither possible and nor required. However, it is important to be mindful and follow the general recommendations regarding the quality and quantity of diet. Out of total daily energy requirements, 50-60% should come from carbohydrates (wholesome cereals, vegetables and fruits), 15-20% from protein (egg, legumes, nuts, fish, meat and dairy) 10-20% from fats (vegetable oil and naturally present fats in protein rich foods.) That way, the requirements for vitamins and minerals will also be met. Three meals a day with one or two healthy snacks in between is ideal. For energy balance and optimal weight, focus on nutrient-rich foods with the right proportions, regular mealtimes and of course physical activity.

Maintaining a balanced diet in each stage of life is important for health and well-being. As the saying goes, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ It is the same difference between devising a diet plan versus conveying a holistic understanding about good nutrition. Diet plans and calorie counting do not work in real life and are only temporary. You can lose weight for some time but it is not sustained. Any fad diet that asks to omit an entire food group or asks to consume one or two excessively is not a healthy recommendation. Dieting and depriving yourself of foods do not fall within the realm of good nutrition.

We have to enjoy foods to enjoy life. The natural way is to consume the right variety of foods in the right balance. There is no other better alternative!


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