Finding Your Energy Balance
When it comes to our well-being, it's important to consider how much we put into our bodies and what we need in order to stay healthy.
Most of us know how much money we have in the bank, and the amount of gas we put into our cars and roughly how far it will take us. But when it comes to fueling our bodies, many people don’t think about how much they put into their bodies and what the body needs to stay healthy.
All calories count—big time. We all need calories to function—to breathe, keep our heart pumping and cells dividing. A calorie is a unit of energy. So if an apple has 100 calories, it means that’s how much energy your body could get from consuming it. But eating too many calories—and not burning them off by being active enough—can lead to weight gain. Even an extra 150 calories a day (like a ¼ cup serving of granola) beyond what your body needs can add up to extra pounds over time.
That’s why it’s so important to find your energy balance. The number of calories you consume must be balanced by the calories you use (through a combination of normal body functions, daily activities and exercise). Some experts liken this idea of “calories in” and “calories out” to a bank account. If you deposit more money than you take out, your account will grow in size. Similarly, if you eat more calories than you burn, over time, you will gain weight. The ultimate gauge of balance is whether you are losing, maintaining or gaining weight.
Of course, each of us has different caloric needs, and we burn calories at different rates. The number of calories you need can change from day to day depending on how active you are. It also differs for women and men and by age. In general, women may need 1,800–2,400 calories per day, and men may need 2,000–3,200 calories per day depending on age and activity level. Use a calculator like this one from the American Cancer Society to determine how many calories you need according to your age and activity level. Then, review your findings with your care team to make sure you are on the right track.
“Unfortunately, few Americans are aware of just how many calories they consume in a day, and fewer still may understand how few they burn in a day,” explains JoAnne Foody, MD, FACC, CardioSmart.org Editor-in-Chief. “It’s essential to understand this and bring energy into balance in order to improve heart health.”
And not all calories are created equal. There also needs to be a balance of foods to ensure a nutritious diet full of essential vitamins and nutrients that should be eaten every day. Remember too that fat-free doesn’t necessarily mean calorie-free either.
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So what can you do to make sure you are striking the right balance? Here are some tips to help you and your loved ones get started:
- Eat a variety of whole foods. Don’t focus only on one or two food groups, or exclude one like many fad diets advise. Make sure your plate is colorful, which means filled with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Try to choose whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats.
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Next time you are in your local food market, you’ll notice this is where you will find fresh food and produce. Try to go food shopping with a list in hand and when you aren’t ravenously hungry. This can help guard against unplanned and perhaps less healthy impulse buys.
- Weigh yourself. The best way to begin to track whether you are balancing calories in and calories out is to weigh yourself regularly. Doing so will tell you if you are gaining, losing or staying at roughly the same weight over time. Try to step on the scale once a week on the same day and at the same time. (Remember, if you have heart failure, you may need to weigh yourself more often, so talk with your health care provider.)
- Be mindful about what you are eating. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t have a good handle on the number of calories you eat each day. Reading food labels, looking at the number of servings a product contains and keeping a food journal can help. How? Simply by making you more aware. For example, if you have to record everything you eat and drink each day, you will quickly know exactly what you are putting into your body—and you may be less likely to overeat as a result. Food journals can also clue you and your care provider into nutrients or foods that you might be missing in your diet (for example, protein or high-fiber foods).
- Snack healthy. It’s OK to snack. In fact, some people do better managing their overall caloric intake by eating several small meals throughout the day instead of three big meals. A good snack should have enough calories (and nutrition) to satisfy you, but not too many. Plan ahead. Here are some examples of healthful snacks:
- A palmful of unsalted almonds
- 8 ounce low-fat or nonfat yogurt
- Air-popped popcorn
- A snack bag of baby carrots, apples or unsweetened dried fruit
- Low-fat cheese stick
- Low-sugar granola bar
- A banana
- A hard-boiled egg
- Mind your portions. A portion is the amount of food that you choose to eat for a meal or snack. Take simple steps to avoid going overboard. Try to resist going for seconds. Don’t eat from the bag. Pre-portion snacks. When you go out to eat, consider splitting an entrée, or order an appetizer or salad instead.
- Move your body. Even if you can’t engage in regular or intense exercise, try to incorporate simple, gentle movements. For example, resistance routines with light weights or bands, stretching or yoga, moving your limbs while sitting, or doing pool/aquatic therapy. Keep a log of how active you are, and always talk with your health care provider about what exercises are best for you.
- Make replacements. For example, swap sugar-sweetened beverages like teas, fruit punch, energy drinks and sodas with no- or low-calorie versions of those drinks. Water is always a great choice to keep you hydrated. Choose steamed versus sautéed vegetables and no-sugar-added and low-fat options.
Whether you or a loved one are at risk for cardiovascular disease or already have it, maintaining a healthy weight and eating right are keys to staying healthy and helping to prevent problems.
“Maintaining energy balance can have a positive impact on your ability to maintain a healthy weight,” adds Dr. Foody. “We also know that balancing ‘calories in’ with ‘calories out’ by limiting calories and increasing physical activity can have important benefits for your heart health too.”
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