2.04 Calorie Density
In this HeartStrong.com video/article, we are going to talk about the very important topic of “calorie density.” Understanding this concept is crucial for those who are overweight or obese and still important for those at a normal weight.
While on a whole foods plant based diet, calories are not counted. Lets not forget this important fact. Having said that, understanding how many calories are in a given food is still important. The information you will learn here will reinforce the reasons why sticking to whole plant foods leads to weight loss and good overall health. Also, if you are not losing enough weight, examine the foods you are eating to see if you are overeating those with a higher calorie density.
Humans on average eat 3-5 pounds of food each and every day. A lot of people do not think of food as measured in pounds, but you will see why this concept makes sense. So 3-5 pounds of food every day.
Lets look at an example of an obese man, 5 foot 10 inches tall weighing 240 lbs at age 50. This man has a body mass index (BMI) of 35 which is significantly obese. His basal metabolic rate which we have already learned about is about 1800 calories. Say he is quite active and exercises as he is trying to lose weight and burns another 700 calories per day. This means overall he burns 2500 calories each and every day.
If this man eats 5 pounds of food per day, so how many calories per pound should he eat to not gain or lose weight?
5 lbs/day x ____ calories/lb = 2500 calories
The answer is 500 calories/lb
Alright this makes a lot of sense. He has to eat 500 calories per pound to keep his weight the same. To lose weight he will need to eat less than 500 calories per pound OR burn off more calories through physical activity OR or use willpower to restrict the overall amount of food he eats. We know that you can never out exercise your diet and willpower can only last so long before it fails, thus the best way is to be sure that his food choices average under 500 calories per pound.
Now, lets examine every single food group we can think of to see how many calories per pound they have. Once you have this information in your head, you will understand why we avoid certain high calorie foods and stick to whole plant foods.
Lets look at a line with 0 calories per pound on the left and 4000 calories per pound on the the right. The most calorie dense food that we eat in the human diet is oil which comes in at 4000 calories per pound. This includes olive oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, coconut oil, sesame oil and any other kind of oil you can think of. Oil is pure fat and packs 9 calories per gram.
Many people say, “there is no way I eat a pound of oil” but guess what? The average American eats about 85 pounds of fat every year and about half of that is oil! That makes almost 1 pound per week if you add it all up.
This insanely high calorie density of oil is one important reason we avoid it, however oil also has other negative effects on endothelial cell function, those important cells that protect our arteries. Oil should be avoided at all costs if your goal is to reverse heart disease and should be severely restricted and limited if you are just trying to lose weight and prevent the development or progression of heart disease.
The next most calorie dense food that we eat is butter which is mostly fat. High in the bad saturated fat and cholesterol, butter packs a huge 2800 calories per pound. Everyone knows butter is bad for them. Don’t let any sneak in your diet.
The next one surprises people a bit and that is nuts and seeds which actually have the same number of calories pound for pound as butter! Of course the type of fat in nuts and seeds is much healthier, the good unsaturated fats and some omega-3 fatty acids, but they do pack a large calorie punch. This is why nuts and seeds are severely limited in serving size in most recommendations to 1.5 oz per day only 4-5 days per week.
Think to yourself how many nuts and seeds do you eat? Do not just think about eating the nuts or seeds by themselves like many do, but this about how they sneak in all over the place. Nuts in cereals, on salads, candy or granola bars and even in breads. Then the ever popular peanut butter. Lets look at the ingredients of peanut butter now. We have peanuts as the first ingredient, then oil??? They actually add oil to the peanut butter! This is cheap for food companies and gives an even better, fatty taste. The third ingredient is usually sugar.
Sugar sugar sugar…this is the next most calorie dense food at 1800 calories per pound. This makes sense though. One pound is about 450 g. One g of sugar is 4 calories. So pure sugar will come out to 1800 calories per pound. Again, people really think “I will never eat a pound of sugar”, but the data shows that each American eats about 100 pounds of sugar every year. That is almost 2 pounds per week! Considering how calorie dense sugar is, it is no wonder why so many Americans are overweight and obese.
The food industry has not helped us any in regards to sugar in food. One study showed added sugar was found in 80% of products in the grocery store. Sugar comes in many different names, 61 to be exact. So this gets very confusing to people reading labels to see if sugar was added to a product.
The next most calorie dense food is cheese coming in at 1600 calories per pound. Cheese is 70% fat, high in cholesterol and saturated fat of course. Cheese is simply the fat that is taken off skim milk and solidified. Salt is added. Cheese is very unhealthy and even the USDA recognizes that. Their recommendation is to use “low fat cheese”. Who do you know that eats low fat cheese on a regular basis? Call a pizza place and ask them if they have low fat cheese available. The answer will be no. Cheese just needs to be avoid completely, but in America we put cheese on our breakfast, lunch and dinner increasing the calorie density of each meal!
Coming in at 1400 calories per pound is refined carbohydrates. Think noodles, white bread and white rice. Remember these “processed carbs” have had the fiber and micronutrients removed leaving behind mostly just the calories.
Compare this to whole grains like whole wheat noodles, whole wheat bread and brown rice.
One quick side note. The problem with almost all breads that increase their calorie density is added oil and sugar to the bread. Look at the ingredients. The “light” breads or “healthy” breads that are lower calorie frequently remove or significantly reduce the oil and sugar. If you looking to be completely oil free which is ideal, bread is difficult to include.
Lets examine now the calorie density of different meats and seafoods. There will be quite a bit of variability here which mostly relates to the fat content of the food, but lets be sure to remember to compare these values to other foods high in protein such as legumes which we will get to soon.
Salmon is quite a fatty fish and comes in at 920 calories per pound and quite a bit of cholesterol and saturated fats as well. This would then mean that salmon is not a healthy choice for someone trying to lose weight, despite the belief of most people. Here is how different fish look like with their calorie density (assuming baked and not fried):
Now lets see the calorie density of different “fatty protein” sources, those that come from meat. It is clear that bacon and sausage is not at all healthy. Short ribs are quite fatty and even 85% lean ground beef comes in at 975 calories/lb. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is only 499 calories per pound, but still packs a large amount of cholesterol and saturated fat.
Eggs are about 630 calories per pound, just barely over the 500 we are looking for. Of course remember one egg will have 200-240 mg of cholesterol which ideally we should not have any at all in our diet. Eggs are also high in saturated fat as well. A heart healthy diet should completely avoid eggs.
Beans and Legumes
Lets not forget about the beans. Legumes, lentils and the many variety of beans come in around 200-700 calories per pound. They are high in protein and high in fiber. Compare these protein sources to that of meat and seafood. You will see that beans and legumes win not only in calorie density, but their fat content will be quite low, usually less than 10% which is important as you will see on a heart disease reversal diet. Most importantly, no cholesterol and minimal if any saturated fat!
Vegetables that are non-starchy come in around 100-200 calories per pound! Why are vegetables so low in calorie density? One word…fiber. Fiber has no calories at all, but gives food a lot of “bulk”. Remember animal based foods contain absolutely no fiber while whole plant based foods are high in fiber.
The starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn get a bad rap. They actually come in at 349 calories per pound! Why do potatoes have such a bad reputation? The main reason is…sour cream, butter, frying them in oil…all of this adds significant fat calories and thus calorie density to them. Many of the most successful civilizations and longest living cultures were predominately “starch” based getting 70-90% of their calories from potatoes, frequently sweet potatoes. These vegetables are healthy as long as you do not add extra fat to them that will increase their calorie density.
Examining the calorie density of fruits you will see that they can be a great part of a healthy eating plan to lose weight. People focus too much on the sugar content of fruit, however there are high amounts of fiber and other nutrients which make them quite a healthy part of a heart healthy diet. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Make note of the higher fat vegetables. Avocado and coconut are quite high in fat significantly increasing their calorie density. Eating too much avocado and/or coconut will make it difficult to keep your weight in a healthy range.
Junk Foods and Processed Foods
Now lets look at some foods common in the American diet that may be a combination of many of the above that we talked about.
The “Standard American Diet” is high in processed foods and whole plant foods are essentially not included at all. Think potato chips, french fries, Cheetos, Oreo cookies, beef jerky, soda and juice, candy, fruit loops, yogurt, popcorn, hot dog (with bun), chili cheese dog, nachos, ice cream, pizza, Big Macs, crackers, bagels, bologna, salami, pepperoni, sausage biscuit with cheese and candy bars. You get the point. These need to completely out of all American’s diet.
Now you can get a good idea why 1/3 adult Americans are obese and another 1/3 are overweight. Perhaps more importantly, you may see why so many children struggle with their weight. Kids have a very high metabolism and are very physically active, yet there is major childhood obesity problem in America. Foods with a high calorie density, especially liquid sugar calories and junk/processed foods are the culprit.
Understand this concept of calorie density and use it to your advantage. Stuff your face with fruits and vegetables that are low in calories. Avoid all high calorie density foods except in certain situations small amounts of nuts and seeds. Do this and you will keep your weight right where it needs to be and you will be healthy forever.
Applying Calorie Density
Lets now look back at our example person who needs to get their food to under 500 calories per pound to lose weight. What food can they eat to get there?
Whole plant foods win. While other animal foods such as boneless, skinless chicken breast may be somewhat low in calorie density, one 4 oz serving packs a whopping 70 mg of dietary cholesterol and even worse for eggs. Stick to whole plant foods with no added sugar or oil and you will keep your overall calorie density low and lose weight while still getting every bit of nutrition you need to be healthy. The best part is, you have thousands of great plant foods to chose from!