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How Many Calories Do I Need? And Other Questions From The Boys & Girls Clubs Fit Family Challenge

This year’s finalists for the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge are about to be announced. I’ve had the privilege of acting as nutrition coach for the semi-finalist families, and have had fantastic interactions with them about common nutrition questions. In my continuing Q&A series, I thought I’d share some of our email conversations:

Q: How many calories do I need per day, and how many should I eat to lose weight?

I like to use this Mayo Clinic calculator to get a rough estimate of daily caloric needs.   If you enter your height, weight, age, and activity level it will tell you approximately how many calories/day you need to maintain your weight. To lose one pound a week, you need to subtract 500 calories/day from that number. So, for example if the calculator suggests that you need 2000 calories/day – you should follow a 1500 calorie/day diet to lose 1 pound a week. Studies have shown that people who drop more than 500 calories below their daily maintenance needs have a hard time sticking to their diet. You may feel weak, trembly, and irritable if you cut down too low too fast. You will have to play with the amount a little bit since the calculator is not exact – if you don’t see the scale moving when you cut out 500/day, then you have to wonder if you’re counting calories correctly or perhaps if you have to go a little bit lower still. Unfortunately, the “reward” for losing weight is that you have to permanently eat less when you are at your desired goal because there is less of you to feed!

Q: What do you think about sports drinks? Do my kids need them when running races?

As far as sports drinks are concerned, their benefits are often over-hyped and exaggerated. That being said, I believe they do have a role in hydration during endurance sports like long distance running. When you do strenuous exercise for long periods of time (over 1 hour of effort) you lose a lot of body salt and minerals (electrolytes) in your sweat. It’s important to replace certain key electrolytes so your body doesn’t become depleted and begin to cramp. This is more likely to happen to folks running very long distances, such as marathons and triathlons. However, if it’s hot during your race, you could be at risk for dehydration and electrolyte loss as well.

Regular Gatorade (made by Pepsi Co.) has water, sugar, sodium, and potassium in it. Powerade (made by Coca Cola) has water, sugar, sodium, potassium and B vitamins. Powerade has a little bit higher sugar concentration, which could be an advantage on a long run. Both are reasonable choices for hydration during a race.

The rough rule of thumb is to take in 6-12 oz of fluid for every 20 minutes of running. Water is sufficient for runs that last less than an hour. Sports drinks (or adding electrolyte gels/chomps to water) are helpful if your run will last longer than an hour. It’s better to sip the water slowly at regular intervals than to dry to gulp it all down at one time. You may feel nauseated or have a “sloshy stomach” feeling if you don’t spread out your hydration.

Sports drinks can be quite expensive – and you can easily create your own at home. The World Health Organization has a simple recipe for rehydration fluids, and I found this (probably slightly tastier) version on a blog site.

Outside of endurance sports, I don’t see a physiologic need for sports drinks (with the exception of extreme sweating in hot weather or during illness with vomiting and diarrhea) – they can add unnecessary calories to your diet.

Q: Should I cut down the amount of salt in my diet?

Not necessarily. Too little salt, as well as too much salt, have both been shown to be unhealthy. If you’re eating a lot of fast food, you’re probably getting too much salt. If you cook for yourself and focus on fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein you may not need to cut back. Unless you have a kidney problem or very high blood pressure, salt is generally not dangerous for you. About 2.5g of salt/day (roughly a teaspoon full) is optimal, but for most people up to 4g/day probably won’t hurt (and at least one study suggests that heart disease risk doesn’t increase until the daily intake of salt exceeds 7g/day).

How Can I Get My Kids To Eat Healthy Food? More Q&As From The Boys & Girls Clubs

I’ve continued to have terrific email questions and answers with the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge participants. I thought I’d publish some of our conversations so that you can participate as well. The Lang family shared this image of their son eating dinner next to the latest USDA dietary recommendations “MyPlate” materials. A picture’s worth 1000 words, isn’t it?

This cute fella is a healthy weight, he is very athletic, and he’s also wondering where chicken nuggets, french fries, and pizza fit in to the MyPlate dinner plans… His mom asked me how to make more “kid friendly” healthy meals. Perhaps some folks reading this have some success stories that they’d like to share? Here’s what I had to say to the Langs and others…

1. My son doesn’t think the MyPlate suggested meals are kid friendly. What can we do?

I wonder if your son would be open to trying healthier variations of the foods he likes? You could make a pretty tasty pizza with whole wheat crust, grilled veggies, a little pesto or tomato sauce and some ham cubes (ham is much lower in fat than sausage or pepperoni) and low fat shredded mozzarella. You can get a pizza stone to help crisp the crust in a regular oven. The pizza would probably reheat well so you could make it in advance too.You can bread chicken strips and bake them (instead of frying them) to simulate healthy chicken “nuggets.” Same for fish sticks. You can try sweet potato fries for a healthier fry option – bake them in the oven with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. More nutritious, kid-friendly recipes may be found at KidsHealth.org

2. Do my kids need 8 cups of water a day?

As far as water is concerned, the amount you need really depends on how much liquid you’re getting from other sources (food, beverages) as well as how much you’re sweating (exercise), how hot/dry the environment is and how much you weigh. Eight cups/day is a very rough rule of thumb. Some people need more or less depending on the day. Unless you are doing extreme exercise (in the heat) that requires fluid replacement before you notice that you’re thirsty, thirst is a good indicator of whether or not you need to drink. Also, I’ll tell you a doctor secret – all you need to know about hydration is in your urine color. Urine becomes very concentrated (dark yellow) when you are dehydrated. If you drink enough water to keep your urine a nice light yellow, then that’s all you need.

3. What are the best vegan protein substitutes for meat?

Concentrated vegetable protein is primarily derived from soy (tofu and tempeh) and wheat (seitan). Nuts and seeds also contain some degree of protein, as well as beans, lentils, and rice. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan can be molded into burger and hotdog shapes and may be prepared to mimic meat flavors. Keep in mind that concentrated soy or wheat proteins may not agree with your intestinal tract (some complain of excessive gas and bloating). So if you have those reactions, at least you’ll know that it’s quite common.

4. Is it healthy to be a vegetarian? Is there such a thing as too much fruit and veggies?

Vegetarianism can be healthy, though it takes some effort to ensure that adequate amounts of nutrients are received – especially if you’re vegan (no dairy, no eggs). The most common deficiencies for vegans are iron, B12, calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and Vitamin D. (You can read more about how vegetarians can overcome these deficiencies here.) I guess my main concern with veganism is the low omega-3s. It is basically impossible to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources (certain seeds, you may have heard, have a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids but what they won’t tell you is that plant omega-3′s aren’t processed by the body so they remain inactive and don’t provide much benefit.) Omega 3 fatty acids form a protective layer on the outside of cell membranes by reducing inflammation. This is particularly helpful in the reduction of plaque build up in heart arteries, and reducing the risk of various dementias (such as Alzheimer’s) that have an inflammatory cause.

Excellent sources of omega 3 fatty acids are oily fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel, sea bass). This is why the American Heart Association (and MyPlate.gov) recommend 2 servings of oily fish/week for optimal health. Vegetarians are missing out on this important benefit.

As far as eating too many fruits/veggies is concerned – I can’t think of too many potential harms from eating large amounts of fruits/veggies (other than weight gain if you really eat a lot of fruit – they have quite a bit of natural sugar). The real harm comes from excluding vital nutrients by eating plants exclusively (without a careful strategy to get the right plant sources of vitamins and minerals, along with omega-3 supplements).

Follow Along With The Fit Family Challenge!

Tina Thompson, Mario Lopez, Dr. Val Jones

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) are about to kick off their annual Fit Family Challenge. The goal is to support families as they commit to a lifestyle of healthy diet, regular exercise, and strong moral qualities.  It’s called the “Triple Play” approach – a game plan for body, mind, and soul. I’m honored to be their “mind” coach again this year, and will help to shepherd 250 BGCA families from across the country. Five finalists will be chosen to compete in Los Angeles for the title of fittest family near the end of 2012. We have timed the competition to coincide with New Year’s Resolution planning, and hope that these fit families will inspire others to turn over a new leaf in 2013.

As part of my support for the competition, I’ll be publishing several blog posts (at Better Health and the Fit Family Challenge Blog) with evidence-based healthy eating tips for the families – and for anyone who wants to follow along with the Triple Play Fit Family Challenge. I can’t wait to see how lives will change – and how together we can tip the scales against obesity, disease, and unhealthy relationships. Please join the Boys & Girls Clubs in this important initiative.

Dr. Val On ABC News: Boys & Girls Clubs Combat Childhood Obesity

I recently joined SVP of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Judith Pickens, at ABC News to discuss the childhood obesity crisis and what can be done about it.

Find out more about Triple Play or download the parents game plan here.

The Boys & Girls Clubs Of America Fight Childhood Obesity

Dr. Val & Olympic Gymnast Shawn Johnson

Dr. Val & Olympic Gymnast Shawn Johnson

Because of obesity, this generation of children may be the first in US history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. The CDC reports that teen obesity rates are growing exponentially, having tripled in the past 20 years. We also know that 70% of obese children become obese adults, and that 75% of our healthcare dollars are spent on chronic disease management – diseases that are 80% preventable with lifestyle modifications. Efforts to curb healthcare costs are unlikely to succeed without addressing America’s obesity epidemic.

So who is addressing the obesity crisis now? One shining example is the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). They recognized the impact of obesity on their club members and looked for ways to increase physical activity levels, encourage healthy eating, and repair self esteem in America’s underprivileged youth. After consulting with the Department of Health and Human Services (and obtaining funding from the Coca-Cola company), the BGCA created a multi-faceted initiative, called Triple Play, to combat overweight and obesity. The results are very encouraging.

After 2 years, an analysis of over 2,250 club members suggests that 90% of youth enrolled in the program met the daily, federal physical activity recommendations while a significant number improved their nutritional status, choosing to eat significantly more fruits and vegetables. Perhaps most interestingly, the participants also scored higher on tests of “self-mastery” which are correlated with self esteem and social skills. Overall, girls were impacted more strongly by the program than boys, though the reason for this is unclear.

I had the honor of moderating a panel of experts who discussed the impact of Triple Play on BGCA members. In attendance were Olympic gold medalists Shawn Johnson, Dominique Dawes, and Dr. Tenley Albright in addition to SVP of BGCA, Judith Pickens, former Club kid and Youth of the Year, Stacey Walker, and Chris Spain from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. It was heartening to see that there are programs that can bend the obesity curve – because success in this area of disease prevention has been hard to come by.

I hope that healthcare reformers will carefully consider the impact of obesity-driven chronic disease, and look to program success stories like Triple Play as a means to affect long-term improvements of America’s health. Our kids’ lives and the future productivity of our country are dependent upon the implementation of prevention programs that work. Cheers to BGCA for leading the charge against childhood obesity!

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