Budgeting is no fun, so seeing that in the title probably wasn’t the most exciting thing you’ve seen today, but stick with me. The truth is, nutrition is very much like a budget, and if we can approach it with this mindset, “healthy” versus “bad” foods makes a lot more sense. We see a lot of contradicting information out there in regards to what is good and bad for you, but the fact is, in the right context and situation, no food is truly “bad”, it is just a matter of how we fit it in our budget.
So let’s talk about literal budgets for a second, as for most people, it will be fairly easy to relate to. If you make 1,000,000 a year, it’s fairly obvious you will be able to afford some luxury items others may not. You can fork out the money for a Ferrari, have a massive house, and be able to take vacations to Europe on the regular, yet still probably have plenty of money left over to invest and save. Sounds great, right!? But for most, that is just not realistic. The latest information I found showed that the average household income is currently around $51,000 a year, so that is where a stricter budget comes into play. It doesn’t mean we can’t have nice things and have fun, but we are going to a bit more frugal and picky on how we allocate our money. We have to figure out what we can afford, as any big money choice in one aspect of our life is going to greatly affect other areas. If we buy a house that is out of our price range, then not much is going to be left over to buy a nice car or take a vacation.
All of this directly applies to nutrition. We all have a budget, and that is our caloric maintenance level. What that means is the amount of calories we can eat, based on our current activity, that we will maintain the same weight. If we dip below that level into a deficit, we will lose weight, and if we go above into a surplus, we will gain weight, and we have to budget our calories accordingly. These numbers are going to be highly dependent on many factors such as age, gender, lean muscle mass, non-exercise activity, resting metabolic rate, and more. If we have a person who has a very fast metabolism, has been weight training for 10+ years 4 days a week, and is a 30 year old male, most likely they are going to have a higher “budget” than a sedentary 60 year old female who has never exercised.
So looking at how this applies to our food choice, if our current goals dictate that we should be consuming 3,500 calories a day, we have a large budget. If we have a couple slices of pizza, ice cream, or in general “bad” foods once in awhile, it’s not a big issue nor unhealthy, because we have plenty of room in our budget to fit that in. So for this person, pizza isn’t “bad”, it just needs to fit into their diet within moderation. Take for example a Digiorno pepperoni pizza, where 3 slices is 900 calories. In a 3,500 calorie diet, that still leaves this person with 2,600 calories left in their budget for the rest of the day, which is equivalent to 5 and ½ meals of 4.5 ounces of chicken, 1 cup of rice, and 1 cup of broccoli. This person is not going to have an issue fitting this pizza in. But what if you are trying to lose weight, and are currently eating 1,500 calories a day? Probably not, because that pizza now consumes 60% of your daily caloric goals, which leaves you with very little to eat for the rest of the day. They could just go for it, but the person with only a 1,500 calorie budget is going to run into two main issues:
- Significant hunger levels. If they use 60% of their dietary goals on 3 slices of pizza, the volume of food they get to consume that day is very little. They could have had 45 cups of broccoli for the same amount of calories, which is an unreasonable amount, but just using that example to prove a point. People have adherence issue with diets when hunger levels are high, so when the budget is low, we have to be stricter with our food choices.
- Pizza has terrible micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) density. When foods have low levels of micronutrients, they typically fall into the “bad” category, and in the example of the 1,500 calorie diet, that is very true. It is going to be near impossible for that person to get the micronutrients their body needs to function properly from only 600 calories of “healthy” foods. Whereas the person with the 3,500 calorie budget still has 2,600 calories worth to consume those same nutrients.
My hope was to possibly make a slight change to the way you look at food. I will never argue pizza and ice cream is good for you, but in the right context, its also not bad, we just have to evaluate our budget and eat within moderation. Even with the 1,500 diet, small deviations from “healthy” food can be made. 2 servings of Edy’s slow churned ice cream is around 220 calories, so if you are wanting to reward yourself occasionally, you can use moderation to still enjoy some tasty treats. You just have budget it out and look at the pros and cons just like you do with your finances.