Two words can completely change the way you think about food, weight loss and your health. Caloric density. Wait, wait. I know you have the attention of a six year old on Halloween, but hear me out on this. Sure, it doesn’t have the appeal of a celebrity like Suzanne Somers or the promise of six-pack abs in only five minutes, but caloric density is a game changer when it comes to nutrition and weight loss.
Caloric density refers to the amount of calories in a particular food. High caloric density foods like nuts, seeds, butter and chocolate chip cookies are anywhere from 2,140 to 4,000 calories per lb, while at the low end of the spectrum are foods like lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries at 60 to 420 calories per lb.
Eating low caloric density
Approaching healthy eating and/or weight loss by eating according to caloric density means you consume the majority of your calories from the very low and moderate caloric density categories, and few, if any, from the high density categories.
Jeff Novick, R.D., discusses the benefits of eating by caloric density and also provided this handy scale with some common foods:
Notice oils come in at a whopping 4,000 calories per lb. Of course, you’re not eating a pound of olive oil. However, studies have show we eat about the same amount of food every day, by weight. So filling up on high water content, low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables, beans and potatoes, and foregoing the oils, nuts and seeds will allow you to eat more without taking in excess calories.
Calorie counting or portion control isn’t necessary if you’re eating in the 300 calories per lb categories, and all the way up to 800 calories per lb. with the beans, peas and cooked lentils. You can eat large quantities of these delicious foods because they are so low in calories. Though you don’t want to overeat on any food, you can certainly eat until you’re satisfied and not worry about limiting your consumption with these low calorie foods.
If you choose to eat breads, crackers, cheese and other highly processed foods, you don’t have the freedom to eat large quantities or even until you’re satisfied. You will have to concern yourself with calories and controlling portions. Eating until you’re full on these foods quickly leads to weight gain and frustration.
A friend recently lamented during a trail run about her weight gain, despite increasing her running miles. When I asked about her diet, she said nothing had changed, but then admitted her favorite post-run snack lately was dates with feta cheese. Yikes! Dried fruit and cheese are two of the most calorically dense foods she could be eating. One ounce of feta cheese is 75 calories, and one single date is 67 calories.
Another huge bonus to eating low calorically dense foods is those are exactly the foods that have the highest amount of nutrient density. It makes sense, of course, since in many instances, the higher we get calorically, the more processing is involved in the food. The more processing involved, the more nutrients are removed and the more added salt, sugar and fat.
For example, let’s look at a potato. This food is fairly low in calories and high in nutrients in it’s whole food form. But if we take that same potato and create a Lay’s potato chip, we’ve removed many of the nutrients and added copious amounts of salt and fat. What started as a low calorie, high nutrient food became a high calorie, low nutrient food-like substance. Not a great trade off.
A clean, well functioning body has natural satiation signals. When you’re eating low caloric density foods, they are typically high in water content and have been minimally processed. This means your body, which is naturally designed to help you not overeat, can recognize these foods. It will do as it is designed to do and let your brain know when it’s full and to stop eating.
Unfortunately, when eating high caloric density foods, these are typically also highly processed foods and low in water content. Your body doesn’t recognize the food-like substances that most Americans eat today. While it can easily identify foods like oranges and papaya, it doesn’t do so well with a ridiculously high calorie food like an Oreo cookie or pretzels. So it doesn’t give those same satiation signals saying “we’re full! stop eating!” until it’s too late and you’ve inhaled an entire box of Chips Ahoy.
Have you ever sat down and accidentally ate too many apples? An entire watermelon? But overeating ice cream and french fries happens for many people every time they eat those foods. Isn’t that why it’s so funny to look at portion sizes on packaged foods? Has anyone ever eaten a “portion” of Doritos? I’m pretty sure that’s 2 tortilla chips.
Eating low calorically dense foods allows your body to do what it was designed to do and give you a signal that you’ve eaten enough. You won’t need to meticulously count calories or to stop eating before you feel satisfied. Given the right foods, your body will function as it was intended and assist you in eating enough calories to function healthfully but not so many that you gain weight.
An excellent resource for learning more about why eating our modern day, highly processed foods should be avoided is The Pleasure Trap by Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhamer. You can also access Dr. Lisle’s enlightening Ted Talk here.
If you’re struggling to lose weight…
Take a look at what you eat in a day. Not at the total calories, but where the food you eat falls in the calories per pound spectrum. Begin eliminating the high calorie foods from your diet, like nuts and seeds, oil and of course, dairy and meat. Replace those foods with lower calorie/high nutrient foods.
While nuts, seeds and avocados do have their place in a healthy diet, even too much of them will add up to excess calories and be stored on your body as fat.
If there are foods you have trouble limiting, avoid them altogether. I have a hard time limiting nuts and seeds to a portion size of one ounce. I mean really, what’s the point, right? So I try and avoid having those foods in my house and only occasionally have them as a treat.
Eat almost exclusively from the 60-800 calories per lb category. Eat simple meals of salads, whole fruits, beans, potatoes and rice. Avoid added oils, salt, sugar and fat. Of course this means cooking and eating at home, as most restaurants can’t or won’t be able to remove all of those items from the menu selections.
Embrace this lifestyle.
This isn’t a quick-fix approach to weight loss or health. This is a long term lifestyle that should be pleasurable and satisfying, not horribly difficult and depriving. It will take time to give up any calorically dense foods you enjoyed in the past, but the longer you eat fruits, veggies, beans and rice the faster those cravings will go away. If you get off track, get back on as quickly as you can. You have time. Remember, this is a lifestyle1
Try new fruits and veggies, experiment with recipes. Have fun!
Now go EatPlantsLiveWell!