That calorie count is wrong
When it comes to counting calories, I always tell people to consider fruits and vegetables free food. Don’t even bother counting their calories. People don’t realize that the calorie values for the foods we eat were determined decades ago by setting food on fire and measuring the amount of heat energy released. Since we don’t incinerate food in our stomachs, these calorie numbers are often completely meaningless.
The simple sugars in processed foods are used very differently by our bodies than the sugars in whole fruits and vegetables. Yes, fruit is sweet, but because of all the fiber in fruit, it is far less impactful on your body than a cupcake. In fact, pediatricians at the Harlem Hospital Center in New York are having success combating childhood obesity simply by providing more fruit. Kids don’t need to diet, they simply need healthier options in their diet, and the same applies for all of us.
Why fruit and vegetable calories don’t count
Since we are not herbivores, our bodies are not actually that good at breaking down plants for energy. A lot of the nutrients within fruits and vegetables are trapped behind undigestible walls of fiber. This means that some vitamins, minerals, sugars, and proteins will be released slowly and steadily over a long period of time compared to processed foods, and some of these nutrients will pass completely through the system undigested.
So I’m not getting my vitamins from fruits and vegetables?
This is one of the questions that inevitably comes up when I tell people that fiber locks a lot of fruits’ and vegetables’ nutrients away from your digestive system. This has also led to some bad crazes like juicing and giant smoothies (more on that below).
We aren’t great at digesting cellulose but we can still break it down a little bit. The more you chew your food, the more you break it up which exposes greater amounts of surface area to your body’s digestive acids and enzymes (which speeds up digestion). Just as we evolved to properly process the amounts of sugar that are released from fruits and vegetables, we also evolved to live off the vitamins and minerals that we do successfully digest. This concept of mega-dosing on vitamins is a relatively new thing and it really hasn’t been shown to provide a lot of benefit. You don’t need all the vitamin C from an orange to maintain your health and you definitely don’t need the juice equivalent from a dozen oranges each day. Bigger is not always better, and the thought that you need to squeeze a barrel of fruits and vegetables into a glass to be healthy will only make you bigger as well.
Just because juicing is bad doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to increase the bioavailability of nutrients in plants. The big ways to accomplish this are by cooking the plants to weaken the cell wall, putting it in a blender to pulverize the cell wall, or throwing away all the fiber entirely by juicing.
Let’s quickly go over the positive and negative aspects of the different ways to prepare fruits and vegetables.
Raw and Whole
Definitely the simplest in terms of preparation. Just wash it off and eat it. Unless you know exactly where your fruits and vegetables came from, you definitely want to wash them. We use some pretty high grade pesticides and fertilizers around the world, and you never know what was coating it just a few weeks ago.
People give all kinds of reasons why elaborately prepared dishes and smoothies are better for them than whole fruits and vegetables, but when it comes right down to it, most people are simply trying to improve the taste. I understand that an apple is not as delicious as a donut, but they’re not bad either. Really what most people need to do is take the time to reset their tastebuds. This is the point of diet cleanses. They don’t actually flush toxins out of your body (no such thing), but rather they give your body and your brain a chance to kick your sugar addiction which allows you to feel better. You don’t need to flush the toxins out (your body does that naturally), you just need to stop taking them in for a while. It only takes a few days to reset your tastebuds and start to appreciate healthy alternatives. I’ve personally found that same donut tastes like congealed fat and flour after a good stint of clean eating, which makes it so I prefer to avoid them. It’s easy enough to learn to like that donut again, so don’t have them around as you work to reset your body and your mind. Give yourself a week to adapt to some healthy alternatives; the benefits are worth it.
Where people fail the most on diets is they try to starve themselves to success. Willpower has it’s limits and eventually you will cave in and gorge to make up for the calories you skipped (plus a lot more). Don’t just empty your plate; load it up with tons of fruits and vegetables to keep you feeling full and satiated. It’s so much easier to reach your goal on a full belly than on an empty one.
As I mentioned above, cooking is a simple way to breakdown cellulose and make plants more digestible. This has several benefits. For one, the fiber is still there, so the fruits and vegetables you eat will still release their sugars into your system more slowly, leaving you feeling satisfied longer. Cooked foods also tend to be a bit more flavorful than their raw equivalents. To have success, you need to do this long term, so it is important to find foods that you enjoy. Picking foods you hate will lead to a quick end to your healthy new lifestyle. Food is a joy, so don’t try to remove all the joy in your life with a bunch of plain vegetables. That doesn’t work. You just need to figure out how to add those vegetables into the dishes you enjoy.
One of the things that people do warn against with cooking fruits and vegetables is that it can breakdown some of the nutrients within. While this is true, it is related more to the amount of time you spend cooking it. The longer you cook them, the more nutrients you cook out.
You’ll lose fewer nutrients if you microwave or steam your vegetables instead of boiling, baking, roasting, or frying them, but some nutrients like potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B, folate and thiamine are especially sensitive to heat and will breakdown faster. Luckily, many of these nutrients are more readily available in fruit which is better raw anyway.
Some nutrients, like the antioxidant lycopene (found in tomatoes), are actually released in greater amounts after cooking. Lycopene is considered one of the most powerful antioxidants found in food and it has been shown to play a preventative role in both cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Broccoli is another interesting one. If you cook it too long, you breakdown myrosinase, an enzyme that helps the liver remove carcinogens, and sulforaphane, another compound that protects against cancer. However, steaming broccoli for just a few minutes until it’s soft but crisp makes these compounds more available for digestion.
The basic takeaway is load up your plate with vegetables. It’s best to cook them separately and for the shortest period of time possible to preserve the nutrient content and then mix them into your meal on your plate.
Juices and Smoothies
I put these two into the same category because they both have the same negatives and similar benefits. The difference between the two is that juices completely throw the fiber away while smoothies maintain it in in a pulverized form. The three biggest downsides of consuming your vegetation this way are:
1. The normal slow release of sugar into the blood stream is sped back up. The biggest benefit of whole fruits and vegetables is that it acts as a natural sugar-rationing system. Instead of simply flooding sugar into your blood stream and overwhelming your natural processes (which leads to obesity and metabolic syndrome), fiber slows down the release over time. This means you’ll feel satisfied longer, you’ll be provided a steady stream of energy over a longer period of time, and your appetite won’t suddenly spike again later. Freshly squeezed juice will do just the opposite, even without added sugar. If you’re worried you’ll being left vitamin deficient with whole fruits and vegetables (you won’t), then take a daily multivitamin to be sure. While smoothies keep the fiber in the cup, most cell walls have been sufficiently smashed open, so while it does slow the release of sugar into your system a bit, the fiber is no where near as effective at doing this as it is in whole foods.
2. Your body is not good at recognizing liquid calories. Solid food stretches your stomach and sends signals to your brain that reduce your hunger while liquid calories tend to stream right through and bypass this mechanism. Studies have also shown that foods with a crunchier texture send additional signals concerning satiety to your brain as you chew them. People are beginning to realize that managing satiety is more important for weight loss than managing calories, and picking low calorie foods the fill you up will help you hit your goals without suffering.
3. You can stuff a ton of food into a blender/juicer. This goes hand-in-hand with the body being bad at recognizing liquid calories. If you sat down and tried to eat all the food you stuffed into that blender one at a time, you would fill up long before you got through half of it (and about a tenth of the way through if you were juicing it). All juices and smoothies really do is allow you to match the ridiculous levels or sugars that you were hoping to avoid by eating healthier. Like I said, an apple is not as tasty as a donut at first, but I promise you will come to enjoy healthy foods as well if you just give them a chance.
So what are the benefits of juices and smoothies? Taste and convenience. If you’re trying to break an addiction to sodas and milkshakes, fruit juices and smoothies are at least more nutritious and often fat-free, which is important if you’re going to down that many fast-acting carbohydrates. They can also serve as a healthy and convenient way to quickly replenish glycogen and lost nutrients during race training or after a tough body building workout. I still don’t recommend them, but if you drink them after a workout, your body can suck up the extra carbs more readily without putting you into fat storage mode.
Whole doesn’t count
The big takeaway from all this is whole fruits and vegetables (whether cooked or raw) are basically free food. Fill up on them as much as you want to make your weight loss efforts all the easier. Is it possible to gain weight on whole fruits? Of course it is, but our hunger feedback mechanisms have evolved to handle fruit properly. You won’t spiral out of control on fruit and gorge like you would (and likely have) with processed foods.
All that fiber will fill you up and satisfy you long before you can do too much damage to your waistline. As you get deeper into a diet and your metabolism inevitably slows, you may have to make adjustments here and there, but if you made it that far then you are likely already seeing results. The main reason why I tell people to consider fruits and vegetables free is to get them through the first few tough weeks. Once you make it a little ways and start seeing some success, it becomes much easier to further adjust your habits.