Using Calorie Density for Weight Loss and Healthy Eating
There is a simple approach to eating that promotes both a healthy body weight and overall wellness. This approach is to let the calorie density of food be your guide when choosing what to eat, or more specifically, to emphasize foods that are not calorically dense while de-emphasizing those that are. Calorie density is defined as the number of calories per weight (typically per pound) of a given food. When trying to lose weight, decreasing calorie intake is crucial, and generally more easily accomplished and effective than increasing calorie expenditure, such as through exercise. Eating according to calorie density allows you to eat enough food to feel full while also limiting your calorie intake. (See more on why exercise is an overvalued tool for weight loss here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXTiiz99p9o).
Note, this is NOT the same as counting calories. Calorie counting presents many problems including that it is tedious, difficult to sustain, says nothing about the healthfulness of the calorie source, and does not guarantee satisfaction at the end of a meal. However, as this handout will explain, calorie density is a useful tool that anyone can easily use to lose weight and improve their overall health.
The following chart, from registered dietician Jeff Novick (jeffnovick.com), breaks down food categories by calorie density:
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, whole food starches (such as sweet potatoes), and beans are also relatively calorically dilute and contribute significantly to the satiety of a meal with potatoes actually topping the list of most satisfying foods. Nuts and seeds, while very healthful, are more calorically dense. 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. Whole plant foods are rich in space-occupying fiber and water, and so stimulate the stretch receptors in the stomach responsible for communicating fullness to the brain. In other words, the high fiber and water 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 your intake of salt, oil, and sugar, ingredients that tell your brain to eat more regardless of how full you already are. The result is that your natural “stop eating” signals are able to do their job more effectively. The main reason most diets fail is that they require the dieter to ignore our innate drive to eat until satisfied; the focus in on restriction and deprivation. Fortunately, this is not a concern when eating according to calorie density.
Another great thing about using the calorie density method when choosing what to eat is that healthy eating becomes foolproof. Research tells us that vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans are the healthiest foods we can eat. They’re also the least calorically dense. When emphasizing calorically dilute foods in your diet you will not only be eating for a healthy weight but also preventing disease and promoting wellness because you are consuming foods that are rich in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It’s like nature intended it that way!
As the above graphics show, processed foods and animal products tend to be more calorie dense but also 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 more calorically dense foods while missing out on the nutrition and satiety-promoting fiber and water naturally present in whole plant foods. Regarding processed foods, it’s important to remember that processing generally makes foods more calorie dense. In addition, these products often contain additives like salt, sugar, and oil which promote their overconsumption. Therefore, for both weight loss and health improvement, it’s best to minimize your intake of processed foods such as chips, candies, and baked goods.
The concept of calorie density is well-illustrated in the graphic below, which compares two protein-rich foods: beans and beef (graphic courtesy of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine). Beef has more than twice as many calories per 100 grams as black beans, and also has plenty of saturated fat, no fiber, few antioxidants, many pro-oxidants, and several xenobiotics (foreign substances) like pollutants and antibiotics. 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 planet. 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 the lack of 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 feel full. Furthermore, these added calories come with little to no nutrients.
It’s best to get your fats in their whole food form by eating foods such as avocados, nuts, and olives. 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. Minimize the use of oil when cooking and avoid adding it to foods. See the following link for tips on how to cook without oil: https://www.forksoverknives.com/plant-based-cooking-how-to-cook-without-oil/#gs.V7LqC18
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 while also being nutrient poor. 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. Any diet that requires you to give up healthy foods like fruits, whole grains, and beans is neither healthy nor sustainable, regardless of the weight loss that may be promised. The simplest way to eat to promote both a healthy weight and overall health is to emphasize calorically dilute, whole foods. 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.
As a rule, fill at least half your plate with vegetables and fruits. In this way you automatically crowd out the more calorically dense foods. Save a portion of your plate for satiety-promoting health foods like beans, starches, and whole grains. And remember: “dilution is the solution”. That is, adding vegetables and fruits to any dish or meal will make it less calorie dense. 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, or register for our Intensive Weight Loss Immersion.