It’s been a while since we focused on nutrition in this series! And that’s for a reason, health is about so much more than what you eat. And it’s pretty easy to search for healthy foods to eat these days but if it were so simple, why isn’t everyone eating a healthy balanced diet? Why are so many people struggling to maintain a healthy body that they feel good in? As a public health nutritionist, I am always on the lookout for new patterns in the world of health and nutrition and the “low calorie density” trend is another one that seems to be gaining popularity this year. But what exactly is calorie density and how can the calorie density of foods affect your weight loss attempts?
What is the calorie density of foods?
Calorie density is the amount of energy (calories) per unit of a food. This can be based on volume e.g. calories per cup or on weight e.g. calories per lb. The idea of a low calorie density diet for weight loss has been made famous by the book The Starch Solution by Dr John MacDougall and his suggestion is to consume low calorie desnity foods that have less than 700 calories per lb (around 154 calories per 100g) in order to lose weight easily and effortlessly without counting calories. Sound interesting? Wondering how this works?
I will start by saying that all foods are made up of macronutrients which have a different amount of energy per 100g:
Carbohydrates – starches and sugars (400 calories per 100g)
Proteins (400 calories per 100g)
Fat (900 calories per 100g)
Don’t worry! I know it looks like NO foods are under 154 calories per 100g but this is because there are two other components in foods that we need to take into account that don’t have any calories: water and fibre (actually fibre does have calories but we can’t absorb them so they pass through our bodies). Low calorie density foods such as fruits, vegetables, starches and legumes have more fibre and water which fill you up without providing calories. High calorie density foods usually have more fat or sugar and less water and fibre.
How does the calorie density of foods affect weight loss?
The premise is that the calorie density of foods affect how filling a meal is. To understand this we can look at a couple of examples. Firstly take a bar of chocolate that has around 200 calories. Chocolate is a high calorie density food which provides a lot of energy in a very small package. On the other hand, a huge salad with low calorie density vegetables such as lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and cucumber, could also provide 200 calories. Which is likely to be more filling? Probably the salad! But does this mean we should fill up on low calorie density foods and only eat salads and veggies to lose weight?
No, it’s a bit more complicated than that because in order to feel fully satiated by our meals we need to have two elements:
- Enough volume to stretch our stomach and we have eaten enough food (fullness)
- Enough calories and/or fat to release fullness hormones and signal to our brains to stop eating (satisfaction)
Going back to the example above, if you eat the huge salad you will likely feel full but not necessarily satisfied. I mean who wants to just eat watery raw salad for a meal?! That’s not very sustainable long term and is only going to lead you to overeat and binge once your body has had enough. On the other hand, if you go for the bar of chocolate, you might be satisfied but you are unlikely to feel full as it is so tiny. We need to create meals which provide both fullness and satisfaction so that we are truly satiated by our meals and not left dreaming about when we get to eat next.
How to use the calorie density of foods to create weight-loss meals
One of the easiest ways to do this is by including a combination of food groups to provide a moderate calorie density at every meal. Low calorie density fruits and vegetables provide BULK, starches such as potatoes, beans and grains provide ENERGY to make you thrive and high calorie density fats and proteins such as nuts, seeds and dairy provide SATISFACTION and make your meals taste better. If you include all of these elements in the right proportions, you will be able to eat to complete satiation and not worry about counting calories ever again. Finding the combination of these food groups to meet your specific goals is what I help my health coaching clients do! The table below shows the approximate calorie density of typical foods.
|Food||Calories per lb||Calories per 100g|
|Vegetables||60 – 195||13 – 42|
|Fruit||140 – 420||31 – 93|
|Potatoes, Pasta, Rice, Barley, Yams, Corn, Hot Cereals||320 – 630||70 – 138|
|Non-fat dairy (milk, yoghurt)||180 – 450||40 – 99|
|Beans, Peas, Lentils (cooked)||310 – 780||68 – 171|
|Seafood, lean poultry, lean red meat||400 – 870||88 – 191|
|Breads, Bagels, Fat-free Muffins, Dried Fruit||920 – 1,360||202 – 299|
|Sugars (i.e. sugar, honey, molasses, agave, corn syrup)||1,200 – 1,800||264 – 395|
|Dry Cereals, Baked Chips, Fat-free Crackers, Pretzels, Popcorn||1,480 – 1,760||325 – 387|
|Nuts and seeds||2,400 – 3,200||527 – 703|
As a start, you can start to focus your diet on the first 5-6 rows of the table and especially include more fruits. vegetables and starches. So many people worry that “carbs make you fat” and are afraid to eat rice and potatoes but in reality these foods are very filling and satisfying and will give you the energy to live an active, healthy life! I want to keep it simple and not put too much attention on micro-nutrients in this article but you will notice that the foods towards the top of the table tend to be mostly whole foods which also provide a lot of vitamins and minerals to keep your body healthy. Eating plenty of these foods will help to you stay well and also to maintain your ideal body weight.
Summary of the calorie density of foods
I’m not one for extremes and I definitely don’t think you should never include higher calorie density foods or more processed foods such as bread, pasta and sweets. I think they do have a place in a balanced healthy diet and it’s good for your mental health to eat fun foods and enjoy eating with friends and family. I’m all about focusing on what you do most of the time and including more low calorie density foods in your diet is definitely a great step towards improving your overall health and losing weight if that’s your goal.
Over to you…
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