Don’t Be So Dense! Understanding Calorie Density
Calories in, calories out, right? Well it turns out there’s much more to it than that. Different foods with the same number of calories can have a completely different effect in your body. And how you prepare the same foods can dramatically change their caloric impact, too. How you get your calories makes a big difference. Believe it or not, 240 calories of soda does not equal 240 calories of carrots. Let me show you why.
What is Calorie Density?
Simply put, calorie density is the number of calories in a given weight of food, usually expressed as calories/pound or calories/gram. Something with high calorie density has a large number of calories in a small amount while low-calorie-dense foods are just the opposite.
Our food is made up of three general macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Each macronutrient contains a specific amount of energy (calories):
- Carbohydrates: 4 calories/gram
- Protein: 4 calories/gram
- Fat: 9 calories/gram
Food often also contains two additional elements that affect calorie density, water and alcohol. They, too, have specific calories:
- Water: 0 calories/gram
- Alcohol: 7 calories/gram
The combination of these five elements determine the calories in what you eat. Grams are hard to visualize—they’re small, just 1/28 of an ounce. So let’s look at calorie density in terms of pounds of common foods..
As you can see here, those small differences in calories per gram make a big difference when you multiply them out. You may not be eating an entire pound of fat, but it’s important to realize that fats and oils are 40 times more calorically dense than nonstarchy vegetables, 13 times more dense than fruit, 10 times denser than things like potatoes, etc. Practically speaking, this means adding a single tablespoon of oil (120 calories) to your meal is the equivalent to eating 2 cups of blackberries! Which one is going to be more satisfying and filling…a tablespoon of oil or 2 cups of berries? I’m going to pick the berries!
Why Water Matters
While you may think that water being 0 calories/gram doesn’t mean much, it’s one of the most important factors in calorie density! That zero makes a big impact.
Consider grapes and raisins. They are the same fruit, but one is dehydrated, that is, the water has been removed. While all the same nutrients and sugars are present in a raisin that were in the grape, they are now concentrated in a smaller sized package. This makes raisins more calorically dense than grapes. Two cups of grapes will be much more satiating than 1/4 cup of raisins, for the same amount of calories.
Water content doesn’t just apply when comparing fresh fruit to dried fruit, it applies to vegetables too. One reason vegetables are so low in calorie density is due to the large amount of water they contain. This water increases volume and weight while keeping calories low.
But Fiber Matters Too
Fiber is virtually calorie-free, increasing weight and volume to food without increasing calories. And it’s found only in plant-foods, not at all in animal products. Remove the fiber, even if you leave the water, increases calorie density and decreases fullness.
While making your own fruit juice at home sounds like a really healthy choice, the process removes beneficial fiber, thus increasing calorie density. You’ll likely consume way more calories drinking your fruits and vegetables than you would if you just ate the whole fruits and vegetables. In fact, you probably couldn’t even eat the amount of whole fruits and veggies you used to make the juice from! For example, this makes 1 quart of green juice:
- 1 green apple (95 cal.)
- 4 cucumbers (62 cal.)
- 4 large celery stalks (24 cal.)
- 8 leaves green kale (15 cal.)
- 2 lemons (40 cal.)
- 1/2 bunch cilantro (2 cal.)
- 2 kiwi (84 cal.)
That’s 322 calories. However, put that all into a bowl, not juicing it, and you’re hard pressed to eat that amount of food in one sitting!
The problem with removing the fiber and drinking your fruits and veggies is that all of the sugars are released from the pulp, not bound in the fiber. These sugars are now all in contact with the gut wall and immediately absorbed, rapidly raising blood sugar. If you had eaten the whole fruits and vegetables, the sugars would have been stuck inside the fiber and absorbed much more slowly during the course of digestion. In fact, some of that sugar isn’t absorbed at all, never escaping the bonds of fiber, and simply eliminated from your body as waste.
This is exactly why 240 calories of soda does not equal 240 calories of carrots! First, 240 calories of soda is 1-1/2 cups of volume, and we’ll see next why this is important. Second, your body rapidly absorbs all of those 240 calories as they are immediately available to your gut wall. The carrots, however, are a different story. 240 calories of carrots is 5 cups of chopped carrots (which you probably wouldn’t even be able to eat at a sitting)! While we do chew our food, our teeth are not efficient enough to pulverize it to a point to completely release all of the sugars, fats, or proteins from the fiber. Therefore, you don’t even get a chance to absorb all of the carrot calories you consume. Thus, calories of soda do not equal calories of carrots. And this is true when comparing whole foods to all processed foods!
What Makes You Feel Full?
The physical amount of food you eat determines your level of fullness. Your stomach holds about a liter of food. Yes, it can stretch to hold more, but normal stomach capacity is a liter (imagine a quart canning jar). Stretch receptors in the walls of your stomach send signals to your brain to let you know when it is getting full based on the weight and volume of food you’ve eaten.
Regardless of the density, adults eat about 3 pounds of food a day, that’s what it takes to feel full. So it pays dividends to have those 3 pounds filling your stomach be lower calorie dense foods.
One thing to note, however, is that it takes a while for these signals to make it from your stomach to your brain, about 20 minutes in fact, so it pays to slow your eating down.
Forget About Calorie Counting and Eat More!
When you understand calorie density, you can free yourself from having to count calories. Some foods are just impossible to overeat due to their low calorie density—you just physically cannot put the volume of food into your stomach that hit the high limits of calories.
To make calorie density-based food choices easier, experts have developed a hierarchy of foods based upon calorie density. Using this chart, choose predominantly foods that are “left of the red line.” It’s okay to have some items to the right side, but the majority of your food should be the least calorie dense options on the left.
Use the principles of calorie density to your advantage in 3 simple steps:
- Cut Fat from Your Diet
- Add Vegetables and Fruit
- Increase Fiber
Remember, fat is the most calorically-dense macronutrient at 9 calories/gram (4,000 calories/pound). A single tablespoon of oil, any kind, doesn’t matter if it’s vegetable, coconut, olive, lard, canola, packs on 120 empty calories. Not only does fat not contain any fiber, the calories are packed in low volume. This is the number 1 thing you can do to help lose weight.
Ways to Cut Fat:
- Eat plant-based, more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Plant foods are generally very low in fat whereas animal foods contain a lot of natural fats, particularly harmful saturated fat.
- Don’t cook with oil. Substitute vegetable broth to saute or roast foods. Use silicone baking sheets or muffin liners.
- Use oil-free dressings on salads, vegetables, sandwiches.
- Replace high-fat foods with fruits and vegetables. Pureed winter squash, sweet potatoes, and prunes make excellent fat substitutions for baking. Eat fruits and veggies for your snacks.
- Eat nuts and avocados as part of a dish, not alone as snacks. These plant foods are very calorie dense and easy to overeat. Its fine to use them to make dressings and sauces or sprinkle on a green salad, but don’t eat them simply as snacks themselves.
Add Vegetables and Fruit
It’s really nearly impossible for someone to overeat vegetables and fruits and exceed their recommended daily calories. Adding fruits and vegetables to your daily eating will free you from counting calories and allow you to eat without guilt or fear. Vegetables and fruit are full of water, which decreases calorie density.
- Eat lower calorie-dense foods first. Fill your stomach up with a green salad, fruit, or broth-based soup before eating more calorie-dense dishes. You’ll actually eat less of a more calorie-dense main dish by using this tactic!
- Make complex carbohydrates the core of your meals.
- Include starchy vegetables such as potatoes and winter squash.
- Add fresh fruit to breakfast. Do this instead of raisins or other dried fruit high in calories.
- Eat fruit as dessert, even bake fruit!
- Add vegetables as fillers when cooking. Add sweet potatoes or squash to enchiladas, grate summer squash into casseroles, put extra veggies in tofu scramble or on pizza, etc. Try making a Chocolate Broccoli Cake!
They are also full of fiber…
Fiber has been called “the Body’s Scrub Brush.” It only comes from plant-based foods and is the structural part that we cannot digest. Animal products do not contain any fiber. By just increasing fiber consumption to the minimum recommended daily amount, you’ll decrease your calorie consumption by approximately 10%! Why is this?
Fiber benefits us in several ways. As noted above, fiber increases bulk and decreases calorie density. This helps us eat more food, increasing satiety for fewer calories. Second, fiber slows absorption of fat, starch, and sugars as fiber traps these nutrients. But it can also absorb fat, starches, and sugars from other foods eaten at the same time. You simply eliminate the fiber and trapped elements from your body as waste. Last, fiber feeds your gut flora, which signal your brain to suppress appetite, boost metabolism, and burn fat for up to 12 hours! Note, this effect is not seen when taking fiber supplements like Fibercon, Metamucil, and the like, only when eating the actually food.
You lose this benefit eating processed foods, which include refined carbohydrates stripped of fiber. Without fiber, these foods are extremely calorie dense, and similar to juice, the sugars and refined carbohydrates get rapidly absorbed in the gut. This is why whole grains and other fiber-rich foods are so important!
How to increase fiber:
- Choose whole grains. They are an excellent choice for breakfast.
- Include beans and legumes. Sneak mashed black beans into brownies!
- Increase fiber intake slowly over several weeks in order for your GI system to adjust.
Calorie density gives you the keys to the kingdom! Stacking your meals with low calorie dense foods gives you the freedom to eat the same amount of food you are used to with fewer calories. This means no deprivation, no scrimping, full stomachs, and no counting calories. If you’re hungry…EAT! Study after study have shown that eating diets lower in calorie density are key for weight control. Eat to the left of the red line and you’re good to go!
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Cindy wants you to be Trimazing—three times better than amazing! After improving her health and fitness through plant-based nutrition, losing 60 pounds and becoming an adult-onset athlete, she retired from her 20-year firefighting career to help people just like you. She works with people and organizations so they can reach their health and wellness goals.
Cindy Thompson is a certified Health Coach, Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Behavior Change Specialist, and Fit2Thrive Firefighter Peer Fitness Trainer. She is a Food for Life Instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Rouxbe Plant-Based Professional, and Harvard Medical School Culinary Coach, teaching people how to prepare delicious, satisfying, and health-promoting meals.
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