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August 15, 2018

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Using Calorie Density for Weight Loss and Healthy Eating

June 6, 2018

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Using Calorie Density for Weight Loss and Healthy Eating

June 6, 2018

There is a simple approach to eating, which many people are unfamiliar with, that promotes both a healthy weight and overall wellness. That approach is to plan meals according to the caloric density of food, specifically to emphasize less calorically dense (calorically dilute) foods. Calorie density is defined as the number of calories per weight (typically per pound) of a given food. When trying to lose weight, decreasing caloric intake is crucial, and generally more easily accomplished and effective than increasing energy expenditure. (See more on why exercise is an overvalued tool for weight loss here:


Note, this is NOT the same as counting calories. Calorie counting presents many problems including that it is tedious and difficult to sustain, does not account for the healthfulness of the calorie source, and does not guarantee satiety. When I see patients who are trying to lose weight, I recommend they use the calorie density method as a guide on how to fill their plates. 


The following chart is from Jeff Novick, RD, whose website I highly recommend to anyone interested in nutrition and health (




When trying to lose weight, one should emphasize foods on the left side of this chart, as they are the lowest in calories. That means eating unprocessed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, starches, and beans (note: “UnProc CC” denotes unprocessed carbohydrates such as whole grains and starches). Vegetables and fruits are the most calorically dilute whole foods one can eat and can thus be eaten without restriction by anyone, including those trying to lose weight. Whole grains and starches (such as sweet potatoes) are also relatively calorically dilute and can thus be eaten without too much concern for weight gain. They also contribute to the satiety of the meal; potatoes actually top the list of most satisfying foods. Nuts and seeds, while very healthful, are the most calorically dense foods in the plant-based category. Accordingly, they should be consumed in smaller quantities by people trying to lose or maintain weight, such as a handful of walnuts to top off a bowl of oatmeal or sunflower seeds sprinkled on a salad.


Part of what makes this pattern of eating effective and sustainable is that it is satisfying, which sets it apart from most other diet plans. Whole plant foods are rich in fiber, and because fiber takes up space, it stimulates stretch receptors in the stomach that communicate fullness to the brain. In other words, the high fiber content of these low-calorie foods prevents their overconsumption and overeating in general. See the graphic below for a good visualization of this concept. In addition, when you eat whole plant foods you are by default limiting salt, oil, and sugar, which tell your brain to eat more, more, more regardless of how full you already are. That means your natural “stop eating” signals are able to do their job more effectively.




Notice that the most calorically dilute foods are also the most nutritious foods. That’s the great thing about using the calorie density method when choosing what to eat: healthy eating becomes foolproof. When emphasizing calorically dilute foods you will also be preventing disease and promoting wellness because you are also consuming the most healthful foods. That is, the foods richest in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It’s like nature intended it that way.


As the above graphic shows, animal products tend to be more calorie dense but less filling (and poorer in nutrients). Many people try to lose weight by increasing their protein intake, generally in the form of foods like meats/poultry and eggs. The problem with this approach is that they are consuming calorically dense foods while missing out on the nutrition and satiety-promoting fiber naturally present in whole plant foods. This is exemplified by the graphic below from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which compares two protein-rich foods: beans and beef. Beef has more than twice as many calories per serving as black beans, and also has plenty of saturated fat, no fiber, few antioxidants, many prooxidants, and several xenobiotics (foreign substances) like pollutants and antibiotics (routinely used by the beef industry to promote weight gain and prevent infection in livestock). Conversely, in addition to containing less than half of the calories of beef, black beans are a good source of fiber, prebiotics (which feed your microbiome), and multiple other nutrients like B vitamins and antioxidants. Black beans are also easier on the wallet.




Oil is the most calorically dense food on the plant. It is a processed food, it is NOT a health food. While coconut oil is currently being lauded as a miracle cure for just about everything (despite there being no research demonstrating any real health benefits), anyone who is wanting to lose or maintain their current weight should minimize their intake of coconut oil, or any other oil for that matter. Consider that one tablespoon of oil contains about 120 calories. Despite being calorically rich, oil takes up essentially no space in your stomach, which means it will not contribute to satiety. You will likely eat as many calories in addition to the oil as you would have without the oil in order to not feel hungry. Furthermore, all of these added calories come with little to no nutrition. One can argue that olive oil is a source of the healthy monounsaturated fat. But why not get monounsaturated fat from a whole food source, like the olives themselves? In doing so you will also get the fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that come in a whole food but are removed during the oil manufacturing process. See the following link for tips on how to cook without oil: 


A conversation about caloric density is not complete without touching on beverages. As a general rule, don’t drink your calories. Sweetened beverages and alcohol are an often-over looked source of calories in many people’s diets. They are not filling and are nutrient poor as well. Trying to lose weight while still regularly consuming calorie-dense beverages will lead to failure and frustration. In general, opt for water or unsweetened coffee or tea as your beverages of choice and chew your calories instead.


Eating to lose weight should not require one to sacrifice their long-term health and well-being. The Keto Diet, while very trendy, is a perfect example of short-sided dieting. Indeed, this diet emphasizes the very foods that multiple studies have shown to increase risk of death and disease. Furthermore, such a dietary pattern often results in unpleasant side effects like constipation and “keto flu”. A truly healthy diet should not make you feel ill; in fact, that should be a good clue that you’re on the wrong track. Given the above information, it follows that the simplest way to eat to promote both weight loss and overall health is to emphasize calorically dilute, whole foods (i.e. those on the left side of the first chart). As a rule, fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits. In this way you automatically crowd out the more calorically dense foods. The next largest portion of your plate should be reserved for foods like beans, starches, and whole grains. Finally, a handful of nuts and seeds can help round out your meal, providing nutrients and flavor without too many calories.


If you want more individualized guidance on weight loss, please don’t hesitate to schedule a consultation with me.


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