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What to Count Besides Calories

Getty: Marilyn Volan / EyeEm

From pin numbers to pass codes, there’s lots of numbers we remember daily. Yet, when it comes to our health, most know very few numbers beyond the scale. The reality though is weight doesn’t tell us much about health. So what are the key numbers that matter and tell us the most about our health?

1) BMI and Waist Circumference

Thankfully, body mass index (BMI)—not the scale—is now the method most health practitioners use to assess body fat. But, BMI isn’t perfect with one of the main issues being that it doesn’t factor in location of fat. It may seem superficial, but where you carry body fat actually makes a big difference. Carrying excessive weight in the stomach area, as opposed to carrying it in lower body areas like hips and thighs, puts one at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers. This is why looking at both BMI and waist measure can give you a more complete picture of weight and how it impacts your health. Here’s how to use the two numbers:

  • Use the CDC’s Healthy Weight page to calculate BMI and measure waist circumference.
  • Determine your weight status based on BMI, and then compare to waist measure.
  • Waist circumferences that are >35 inches for women and >40 inches for men indicate an increased health risk, no matter if you’re BMI is healthy, overweight or obese.

For more information on how to interpret risk, check out Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk on the National Institute of Health’s website.

2) Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Fitness as a vital sign for health? In November 2016, the American Heart Association issued a statement recommending that cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) be regularly checked at the doctor—just like pulse, blood pressure, and respiration rate. Assessing “fitness” at check-ups may seem odd initially, but think about it: there aren’t many health conditions where activity isn’t recommended to improve, prevent, or reduce risks.

The problem is that the “gold standard” measurement for CRF is testing VO2max in a lab, hooked up to monitors and breathing apparatus while on a treadmill—not a test that’s feasible in every setting or for every person. So, what made the AHA’s statement stand out is that they also gave a simple alternative. While not as accurate as lab-measured VO2max, one can quickly estimate CRF using only resting heart rate and activity level based on data from a 2011 Norwegian study. Check out this online calculator to estimate your CRF.

3) Sodium-Potassium Balance

Everyone knows that high sodium intake can increase blood pressure, but what many don’t know is that potassium has the opposite effect. Potassium actually reduces the impact of excess sodium and helps to lower BP. The problem though is that the typical American diet is way out of balance. Most over consume sodium (taking in an average 3400mg daily, compared to 2300mg limit) and under consume potassium (taking in an average 2600mg daily, compared to recommended 4700mg).

Check your balance by recording food and drink for a few days to get an estimate of current intake. Then, compare to the recommendations: daily sodium intake should be less than 2300mg and daily potassium intake around 4700mg. Identify the biggest sodium culprits and ways to reduce them, as well as look for places to increase or add potassium-rich foods. Regular BP checks are essential, but you can help control BP, as well as prevent or slow natural BP increases seen with aging, by working on a better sodium-potassium balance. (Note: Never take potassium or sodium supplements unless prescribed by a physician.)

Top Sodium Contributors to Diet:

  • Processed foods (ready-to-heat foods, canned and packaged foods)
  • Salt shaker condiments (soy sauce, ketchup, etc)
  • Sandwich meats and cured meats
  • Poultry and meat injected with sodium solutions
  • Snack foods and fast foods

High-Potassium Foods:

  • All fruits and vegetables, but particularly potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, watermelon, broccoli, squash, beans and legumes
  • Milk and yogurt
How to Make 100-Calorie Broccoli Salad

 

4) Fasting Blood Glucose

It’s essential for diabetics to regularly monitor blood glucose levels, but it’s also recommended that individuals without diabetes occasionally check. Why? The reason is to catch individuals who may be prediabetic—something that approximately 80 million Americans have. Prediabetes is a condition where blood glucose runs higher than normal, but is below diagnostic criteria for diabetes. Catching prediabetes is essential because there’s often still time to make lifestyle changes that will halt or slow diabetes onset.

Blood glucose should be tested when fasting (only water for 8 hours prior). Normal fasting glucose is <100mg/dL, and diabetic diagnostic criteria is a fasting glucose of 126mg/dL or higher. This means that anything 100 to 125mg/dL is considered “prediabetes”. Checking fasting glucose levels is usually part of an annual physical, but those at a higher risk for Type 2 may benefit from having glucose checked more frequently (see the ADA’s Type 2 Diabetes Risk Test).

5) Non-HDL Cholesterol

Most are familiar with “good” cholesterol and “bad” cholesterol, but non-HDL cholesterol is new. Non-HDL cholesterol is a measure of all the “bad” cholesterol components (LDL, VLDL, triglycerides, etc.). Many health professionals suggest that non-HDL can be a better indicator of heart disease risk because it takes a broader look at the “bad” blood lipids, as opposed to looking at at individual components like LDL or triglycerides.

Here’s how to calculate and interpret non-HDL:

  • First, subtract HLD from total cholesterol (Non-HDL = Total cholesterol - HDL)
  • Then, compare your non-HDL number to your LDL number. For healthy individuals, recommendations suggest a non-HDL of 160mg/dL or less and an LDL no more than 30mg/dL above non-HDL (see chart).
  • If your numbers are above guidelines, a physician can then pinpoint therapies to address specific components that are too high or low.]

6) Daily Energy Needs

Most know how many miles their vehicle can run on a gallon of gas, but do you know how many calories your body needs to run in a day? Daily energy needs are the estimated calories that your body needs to run effectively. It’s a number everyone should know - no matter your weight status - since consuming above or below daily needs directly impacts energy, weight, and health.

Calorie needs are estimated for each individual by factoring in age, gender, body size and activity. It’s good practice to recalculate every few years since things like aging and changes in body size or activity impact daily needs. Ready to calculate your needs? Check out the Baylor College of Medicine calculator.