Last week, a friend was telling me that he’d eaten a huge serving of a delicious end-of-the-summer watermelon the evening before. Afterwards, he got to thinking—did he overdo it? Can you, in fact, eat too much of what’s good for you?
I get asked this a lot, particularly when it comes to fruit. Depending on what it is you’re concerned about, the answer could be yes or no. If you’re worried about eating too much sugar from fruit, then I’d say the concern is unwarranted. Yes, fruit is sweet from the natural sugar it contains, but it’s also packaged up with vitamins, minerals, fiber and a host of healthy phytonutrients that act as antioxidants. And you’re probably not getting nearly as much sugar as you think. You’d need to eat a quarter of a large watermelon to match the sugar in a medium-sized soft drink. That’s a lot of melon.
If you’re worried that you might overdo a particular vitamin or mineral, you can rest easy, too. We’re designed to take in a wide range of foods. As long as your diet is well-rounded and includes a variety of whole foods, you’d be hard-pressed to take in too much of any one vitamin or mineral. You just wouldn’t be able to eat enough food in order to do that.
On the other hand, when it comes to eating healthy foods, some people figure that ‘if some is good, more is better.’ So, while it’s highly unlikely that you could over eat a particular nutrient, you can certainly eat too many calories. And this is where the answer to the question is yes, you can eat healthy but still eat too much.
I’ve run into this more times than I can count. The patients who say, “I don’t get it—I eat healthy, but I can’t lose weight” are often the ones who boast that they’ve switched from regular chips to fat free chips, but ignore the fact that they still eat the entire bag in one sitting.
I’ve had patients who took in huge amounts of excess calories from the most unlikely sources—foods that are “healthy” or “low calorie”—simply because they ate too much of them. One ate jar after jar of pickles; another ate over 200 calories a day from breath mints. I also had a patient who satisfied her craving for potato chips by munching on dry, uncooked (but fat free) pasta, to the tune of about 450 extra calories a day.
The healthy food that we eat—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and nonfat dairy products—do have a lot fewer calories per bite than the less healthy food that’s full of fat and sugar and they’re also more satisfying. The proteins keep hunger at bay, and the fiber and water in the plant foods help to fill us up.
But we have the capacity to eat a lot more calories than we burn off. So don’t assume as many do that portion size doesn’t matter as long as you’re eating only healthy foods. Yes, even fruit can add up. If you did eat that quarter of a watermelon, it would cost you about 350 calories. Fat free granola might be healthy, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it from a bowl the size of a football helmet. When it comes to calories, you can, in fact, get too much of a good thing.