Sometimes we track, count and obsess over numbers that don't matter very much for our overall health. Or worse, we ignore numbers that do matter.
Curious about which numbers my fellow dietitians consider the most important, I sought feedback from 20 experts who work in either hospitals or private practice. Here are the data that have the most clinical importance, and the ones they tell their patients to ignore.
The numbers that matter most:
- Half your plate: Instead of counting every calorie, dietitians recommend that clients simplify food decisions by using a plate model, where you choose the right proportions of each food. That means filling half your plate with vegetables and some fruit; one quarter with protein-rich foods such as fish, poultry or beans; and the final quarter with whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice.
- 25 to 35 grams: That's how much fiber a day we need for optimal health, but most Americans get just 16 grams per day. Getting enough fiber helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, prevents certain cancers, eases constipation and keeps you feeling full for longer, which is helpful for weight management. Get more fiber from vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains (or just follow the healthy-plate model, mentioned above).
- 7 to 8 hours: Are you getting that much sleep every night? Lack of sleep has short-term consequences, such as poor judgment, increased risk of accidents, bad moods and less ability to retain information. Poor sleep over the long term has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So, turn off the TV, power down your devices and get the rest your body needs.
- 150 minutes: That's the recommendation for how much physical activity (equivalent to two and a half hours) you should get each week, preferably spread through the week in increments of at least 10 minutes. This level of activity helps combat heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia and cancer.
The numbers that don't matter very much:
- Size 8 (32): Too many people have a diet goal to be a specific size, but the numbers on clothes are inconsistent and arbitrary. A size 4 (28) at one store may fit like a size 8 (32) at a different store, which makes shopping frustrating - and makes your pant or shirt size a very poor measure of your health.
- 50 years old. Or 86. Or 31, 75 or 27. Age is just a number. You are never too young to need to take care of yourself, or too old to start an exercise program or change what you eat.
- Below 25. The body mass index (BMI) is a clinical tool that groups people in categories of normal weight, overweight or obese depending on their height and weight. But BMI doesn't take age, gender or bone structure into account, and athletes are often classified as overweight because BMI doesn't distinguish between muscle and fat! So, don't rely on this number as your primary measure of health.