What is Calorie Density?

What is Calorie Density?

Calorie density is not a new idea, it has been called energy density, and volume eating.  Barbara Rolls wrote a book called The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet, which probably got the idea to the public.  It’s basically the idea of eating foods that have a lower number of calories per pound, or maybe even what may be called low calorie foods.  

However, the types of foods that are eaten with low calorie density are also very important.  Low calorie cookies are NOT considered low calorie dense, or is skim milk or diet soda.  Along with the idea of low calorie density, is the idea of high nutrient density.  Otherwise, eating cardboard would be included in this concept.

You may have heard of this concept before, but the full idea is new to me, so I thought I would try to present this idea to you.  I am definitely not an expert, but since weight loss seems to be an important topic for so many people, I thought I would try to give this a fair evaluation.

Caloric Density and Fat

First, let me tell you how I got here, which may explain some of my take on this concept.  I was doing research for the issue of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and what diets had the best efficacy for health.  I found quite a bit of research actually shows that a plant based diet (one very low in animal products and fats) appears to have great results.  Not just over a long period of time, but quite quickly. One of the reasons seems to be the almost total elimination of fat from the diet.

Like you, perhaps, I had always heard that sugar was the problem with diabetes and insulin resistance, because it’s glucose in the blood, right?  As I learned that fat can also be a strong issue with both insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, I had to follow the research.  I was pretty astonished.  Fat, even “healthy fats”, appear to be a strong culprit in both of these health issues. 

Does that let sugar off the hook?  Of course not, although it forced me to take another look at how “sugar” actually is categorized.  I don’t believe a single health advocate would say that refined sugar is a healthy food.  However, “sugar” has been widened to include all carbohydrates, from potatoes to lettuce.  The “low carb” camp seems to have vilified anything that translates as a “carb”.  

Caloric Density and Whole Food Plant Based

So let’s look at another “diet camp” (the low caloric density, high nutrient density camp,  that seems to be having great success with reversing many diseases, as well as weight loss.  These people have a lot of research behind them, and success stories as well, so I don’t think we can ignore them, even if we don’t want to follow their ideas.

What really is calorie density?  I will take the Whole Food Plant Based approach, outlined in the movie Forks Over Knives, which shows quite a bit of research and success stories as well.  In fact, the food looked so good in the movie, I have been on a recipe hunt since I watched the movie again.  

By the way, if you are interested in some of the research on this topic, but don’t want to read all those research journals, two good books to read are: Food Over Medicine by Pamela Popper, and How Not to Die by Dr Gregor.  I got them on Audible, because I’d rather geek out while on a long drive.  I will also put some links at the end of this article (I love Youtube!).

Whole Food Plant Based and calorie density.  Why do they have to be bound together?  Because eating cardboard won’t fit into that definition, where it might if we just said low caloric density.  This is an extreme example, but you’ll see why in a bit.

All Real Foods are Healthy, but Not All Real Foods Are Low in Caloric Density

First of all, should we decide to follow a diet of low calorically dense foods, we are not saying that higher caloric foods are unhealthy.  We may just chose not to eat them.  For example, avocados, nuts and seeds are very healthy foods, but they are higher in caloric density than someone may choose to eat, if they are trying to lose weight.  If they are very active, and not trying to lose weight, then a person may choose to eat these foods.  The same goes with dairy and animal products.  If your goal is to lose weight and improve your health, you may need to have another look at how you view what you are eating.

Let me also say that there are other approaches to losing weight, such as fasting, but today I am looking at calorie density.  Fasting and intermittent fasting have some good research behind them, but I honestly think most people like to eat, eventually, and I worry that trying to fix a bad diet by not eating a few days a week doesn’t fix the problem in the long run.  (Don’t get me wrong, fasting is a great thing to do in certain circumstances, according to research done by Dr Longo and Dr Fung.  It just doesn’t fix a bad diet.)

Low Caloric Density Foods

“So what are foods that are low in calorie density?  And are they healthy?”

Vegetables

This may not surprise you, but the foods that are the lowest in calorie density are the ones many people (not just myself), consider the healthiest ones….vegetables.  Non starchy vegetables, such as greens, cabbage, carrots and zucchini (biologically categorized as a fruit, but never mind), come in at around 100 calories per pound.  You could honestly eat a pound of green salad (probably at least 4 cups) and have only eaten 100 calories! 

There is one issue: we all know that a giant green salad, without nuts, seeds, fruit and salad dressing won’t excite us or make us feel satisfied, so some have said this is a great place to start your meals.  Then you can add some of the more caloric dense foods to get more satiety.  So let’s look at the next category.  

Fruit

The next highest category is fruit, coming in at around 300 calories per pound, with bananas up to 400 calories a pound.  

Wait, all that sugar?  Isn’t that “bad for you”?  

This is the WHOLE fruit, apples, grapes, oranges all with their water and fiber intact.  This is not the juice or dried fruit, just the whole, intact fruit.  These foods are satisfying and low calorically dense.  If you wanted to eat all your calories in apples, you would have to eat 25 apples to get to 2000 calories!  I don’t see anyone doing that.

Starchy Vegetables and Whole Grains

Next, at between 400 and 600 calories is those starchy, “bad carbs”: potaotes, sweet potatoes, whole grains and legumes.  

Wait, these are low calorically dense?I thought they are “fattening”!

Surprise!  A bigger surprise is it’s actually the other things you put on these foods that is fattening.  You would have to eat 5 pounds of potatoes to use up your 2000 calories.  Could you eat a 5 pound bag of potatoes?  I’m not saying you should, or you should eat 2000 calories (which is the standard judge of % of food in a diet), but letting you know that these foods are not, in fact, “fattening”, unless you drench them in butter and sour cream…then where are the calories coming from?  Don’t blame the potato for that!

“Aren’t these things “carbohydrates”, though?  Aren’t “carbs” unhealthy and fattening? “ 

Again, these whole foods have their fiber and water, and nutrient intact.  As long as you are eating rice, and not rice pasta, or a potato and not potato chips or fries, they are not “fattening”.  As for unhealthy, all “carbs” are not equal, just as all “sugars” are not equal.  An apple is not the same as table sugar, and potato chips are not the same as a baked potato.  Rice is not the same as Cheese Puffs (which are made out of what, exactly?).  I agree that refined sugars and processed grains should be eliminated; but eating whole grains and starchy vegetables in their natural form are very healthy.  The processed foods are the ones that are unhealthy.

 What about the gluten in grains?

Some people should definitely avoid gluten products, but probably not all whole grains.  Most people don’t eat wheat berries, but if you are gluten sensitive, please don’t.  That doesn’t mean you can’t eat gluten free oats, rice, millet or quinoa.

All of these foods: vegetables, fruit, grains and legumes are considered low calorically dense, and should be the main elements in your diet.  These foods are very healthy and eaten and subsided on in most parts of the world.  These foods are inexpensive, and even considered “peasant food” because only rich people could afford rich foods in most of our history.  Kings and monarchs had diseases of excess, such as gout, heart disease and diabetes; but peasants had diseases of insufficiency only if food was not available.  There goes the excuse that “eating healthy is so expensive”; it’s actually the cheapest real food available.

More Calorically Dense Foods

Now, on to the more calorically dense foods.  Again, these are not “unhealthy” foods, just foods you may choose not to eat very much of simply because of their caloric density, if you are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

Avocados

Avocados come in at 750 calories a pound.  Most of us wouldn’t eat a pound of avocado…would we?  Have you had guacamole lately?  Perhaps a slice or two of avocado may be a nice addition to a salad, but thinking that “more is better” is not the case with avocado.  

Meats

Meats come in at around 1000 calories per pound.  It IS easy to see someone eating a half a pound of hamburger or chicken, and that would take a large chunk out of the total calories for the day. So you can see that this should be a smaller portion of the daily intake of food, if you are looking to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. 

In fact the fastest weight loss happens when the foods eaten come in at less than 600 calories per pound.  Anything beyond that will slow weight loss for most people. Therefore, the idea is to not count calories, but keep the most food eaten at less calories per pound, and eat until full.  The bulk of the high fiber, intact foods will fill you up before you can truly overeat; but only if you keep the calorie density low. 

Dried Fruit

Dried fruit comes in at around 1300 calories per pound.  Again, you would probably not eat a pound of raisins, but they don’t help if you add them to other calorie dense items, such as granola or cookies.  There is nothing wrong with raisins, dates, or raisins.  These are basically good foods, but they should be limited, if eaten, simply because they pack on the calories with just a small amount.  One miniature box is only 42 calories, and if you are adding them to a huge salad, they may be a great addition.  However, if you are adding handfuls at a time, it may be something to reconsider.

Refined Grains

1200 to 1800 calories: here come the refined grains, such as bread; as well as dairy products, such as milk and cheese.  If you don’t think you would eat a pound of these foods, make a sandwich (bread, cheese and whatever else) and weigh it.  If it even weighs half a pound, there is half your daily food allowance in just one food item!

Chocolate

Chocolate (everyone’s favorite) comes in at 2500 calories a pound.  I’m pretty sure most people would get sick before they ate a pound of chocolate, but how about 6 pieces of See’s candies?  That’s 1/4 pound.  I can easily see someone eating that much.  You could either eat 6 pieces of chocolate, or a salad, an apple and rice and beans with salsa…which would carry you through the day better?  Chocolate or sweets may be a great treat on Valentines Day, but if you are “treating” yourself every Friday, and can’t figure out why you can’t lose weight, you may want to give it a second thought.

Nuts and Seeds

What about nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters? They tip the scale at 2800 calories a pound.  Again, we don’t expect you to eat half a jar of peanut butter, but those calories can add up quickly.  Just a tablespoon of peanut butter comes in at almost 100 calories.  Not bad, but it may be that spoonful you sneak between meals.  Also, if you make a PBJ sandwich, you are making that sandwich even more calorically dense. 

Some doctors agree that just a few nuts or seeds are a good addition to a healthy meal, perhaps sprinkled on a salad.  However, if you are the type that “can’t eat just one handful”, you may want to consider whether this is a good idea or not.  Flax seed may be an exception; I have never heard of anyone tempted to eat handfuls of flax seed as a binge.

Oils

How about “healthy” oils, such as avocado oil, coconut oil and flax seed oil? Keep in mind, these are concentrated calories, and even the whole foods are calorically dense.  These rank up there at 4000 calories a pound, winning the highest caloric density on this chart.  In the past, I have said, if you think you need “healthy oils” from avocado, olives or flax, you should eat the whole foods.  Now I’m thinking even that may be a bad idea for most people trying to lose weight. 

If there is anything most of us aren’t deficient in, it’s fat.  We are storing it on our hips, on our bellies, and all over our bodies.  When that fat is used up, or if you are very thin like my sister in law (who I want to take out for a steak, because she is so thin), then go back to eating those healthy foods; eat those olives and that avocado, but I’m not sure you need the oil.

The Best Foods To Eat for Weight Loss

With all this information, you can see that vegetables, grains, legumes and starchy vegetables should be the basis of your meals, then just a small percentage of higher calorically dense foods can be added.  

“Wow, that is a huge difference from the Paleo and Keto movement!”

Yes it is.  It’s a lot to think about.  I won’t tell you what type of eating is “right” for you, but I will make this observation:  the paleo and keto folks are often quite young, spend many hours in the gym, (which makes them great to watch videos on!) and often brag about how they only eat one meal a day, or two at the most.  Intermittent fasting and fasting are huge aspects of these diets. 

Eating small amounts of high calorically dense foods is an approach, should you decide to take it, but you may want to look to see if any research has been done on the long term health prospects of these diets.  I am trying to do some research on this topic, but the longest research I have found so far on this diet is 6 months, and that isn’t long term enough for me. I will keep researching, though.  

Here is the small disadvantage of eating healthy and not restricting your calories, you lose weight a bit slower.  No deprivation, no starvation, just good, healthy food breakfast lunch and dinner.  If you want to skip a meal and do some intermittent fasting to speed weight reduction you can, but this is a lifestyle choice and not really a “diet”, or quick weight loss fad. 

The concept of eating low caloric, high nutrient foods makes a lot of sense over the long run.  You will be eating healthy foods, getting full, feeling satisfied and not deprived, and also you can go back to eating those healthy “carbs” that you may have been depriving yourself of!  And you don’t have to weigh and measure every bite you put in your mouth.

Making it Easy

Here is the difficult part…most people don’t know how to make vegetables and grains and legumes taste delicious without adding the high calorically dense foods such as butter, cheese and oils.  So this may seem to be a new way of eating and cooking.  Well, I have the answer for you….Chef AJ to the rescue!  I saw an interview with her and decided to look her up on Youtube (did I mention I love Youtube?).  Guess what, she has over 100 videos where she demonstrates how (and why) to cook delicious meals without high calorically dense foods, and eliminating sugar, salt and oil. 

If you don’t feel you can omit salt, you can add back the salt, but consider why she eliminates the salt.  Most people are addicted to the salt, fat and sugar flavors, and adding salt to food may kick in some cravings to go back to that combination.  If you don’t really worry about bingeing on cashews or craving corn chips after eating a bit of salt, then you can add the salt back in at the table, but avoid it in the cooking, if you can.

Does this all seem too extreme?  Try some of Chef AJ’s recipes, or come to one of my cooking classes and taste it for yourself.  It is really surprising how good this food can taste, you just have to get used to it.  Even my meat eating Texan husband enjoys some of this food.  He laughed at me for months at my breakfast until he started eating it, and he really enjoyed it.  I eat water sautéed greens for breakfast with starch, usually a sweet potato.  Sound terrible?  That’s what he thought. Try it, you might like it.

Calorie density may be another way of looking at food when you are deciding what to buy and eat.  It may give you more incentive to add those vegetables to your diet, and learn to cook them so they taste delicious.  Trust me, it’s possible.  Part of it is learning things to add to them and sauces to make to add some flavor.  

If you would like help rethinking what you eat and why, feel free to contact me.  

As always, if you have any friends that may be helped by this article, feel free to share it with them.  My goal is to help others learn how to improve their health with food and lifestyle changes that are easy to do.  Sometimes we just need someone to help us along the way.  

To your health!

Patti Bealer

Health Coach and Health Advocate

I said I would give you some resources, so you can look into this for yourself, so here they are:

Youtube Channels:

(keep in mind that these folks are vegan, but stress a healthy plant based diet, and some allow a small amount of higher calorically dense foods)

Chef AJ, (anything by her!)

Dr. Alan Goldhammer

NutritionFacts.org (Dr Michael Gregor)

Jane Esselstyn

Pamela Popper, specifically this one 

Brenda Davis, this is a good one, (good discussion on carbohydrates, protein and fats)

Movies:

Forks Over Knives (not my favorite, but it’s better than trying to read The China Study.

Books:

Food Over Medicine, by Pamela popper

The Secret to Ultimate Weight Loss, by Chef AJ

The Pleasure Trap, by Dr Goldhammer and Dr Lyle