Calorie density is the simplest, easiest approach to healthy eating. It is easy to understand and follow and is the most common sense approach to sound nutrition. In addition, by following the principles of calorie density, you will also meet all your other nutritional needs including vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, essential fats, etc.
The basic principles of calorie density are simple and outlined in the following pages.
Calorie density is simply a measure of the amount of calories in a given weight of food, most often expressed as calories per pound. A food high in calorie density provides a large amount of calories in a small weight of food, whereas a food low in calorie density has much fewer calories for the same weight of food. Therefore, for the same number of calories, one can consume a larger portion of a food lower in calorie density than a food higher in calorie density. On a day-to-day basis, people generally eat a similar amount of food, by weight. Therefore, choosing foods with a lower calorie density allows us to consume our usual amount of food (or more) while reducing our caloric intake.
Foods low in calorie density also tend to be higher in satiety so by consuming foods lower in calorie density, one can fill up on much fewer calories without having to go hungry. In addition, the foods that are lower in calorie density (fruits, veggies, starchy vegetables, intact whole grains and legumes) are also the foods highest in nutrient density. Therefore, by following a diet lower in calorie density, one also automatically consumes a diet higher in nutrient density.
Principles of Calorie Density
1. Hunger & Satiety
Whenever hungry, eat until you are comfortably full. Don’t starve and don’t stuff yourself.
2. Sequence Your Meals
Start all meals with a salad, soup and/or fruit.
3. Don’t Drink Your Calories
Avoid liquid calories. Eat/chew your calories, don’t drink or liquify them. Liquids have little if any satiety so they do not fill you up as much as solid foods of equal calories.
4. Dilution is the Solution: Dilute Out High Calorie Dense Foods/Meals
Dilute the calorie density of your meals by filling one half of your plate (by visual volume) with intact whole grains, starchy vegetables and/or legumes and the other half with vegetables and/or fruit.
5. Be Aware of the Impact of Vegetables vs Fat/Oil
Vegetables are the lowest in calorie density while fat and oil are the highest. Therefore, adding vegetables to any dish will always lower the overall calorie density of a meal while adding fat and oil will always raise the overall calorie density of a meal.
6. Limit High Calorie Dense Foods
Limit (or avoid) foods that are higher in calorie density (dried fruit, high fat plant foods, processed whole grains, etc). If you use them, incorporate them into meals that are made up of low calorie dense foods and think of them as a condiment to the meal. For example, add a few slices of avocado to a large salad, or a few walnuts or raisins to a bowl of oatmeal and fruit.
The Calorie Density Scale
# of Calories
60 – 195
140 – 420
Potatoes, Pasta, Rice, Barley, Yams, Corn, Hot Cereals
320 – 630
Beans, Peas, Lentils (cooked)
310 – 780
Breads, Bagels, Fat-free Muffins, Dried Fruit
920 – 1360
Sugars (i.e., Sugar, Honey, Molasses, Agave, Corn Syrup, etc.
1200 – 1800
Dry Cereals, Baked Chips, Fat-free Crackers, Pretzels
1480 – 1760
2400 – 3200
The 2007 report from the American Cancer Institute and the World Cancer Research Fund recommended lowering the average calorie density of the American diet to 567 calories per pound. One can easily do this by following these principles of calorie density, which allows us to eat freely of unrefined, unprocessed fruits, veggies, starchy veggies, intact whole grains and legumes without the addition of salt, sugar and/or fat/oil.
In May of 2012, a systematic review of the evidence on calorie density was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and concluded that, “there is strong and consistent evidence in adults showing that consuming a diet higher in calorie density is associated with increased body weight, while consuming a diet that is relatively low in calorie density improves weight loss and weight maintenance.” In addition, it also found that diets low in calorie density are also automatically higher in nutrient density and overall diet quality.
NOTE: For those who do not like numbers.
Research has shown that people can eat freely of foods that are 300 calories per pound or less and not gain weight. People can consume relatively large portions of foods that are between 300 and 800 calories per pound and still lose or maintain their weight depending on their individual activity level and metabolism.
And, when we look at the scale, we see that all vegetables, fruits, intact whole grains (potatoes, pasta, rice, barley, yams, corn, hot cereals) and all beans, peas, lentils meet that criteria. So, without knowing the numbers, we know we can eat freely of these foods as long as they are without added sugar, oil and/or fat.
When looking at the research, we also see that the intake of foods with a calorie density of 800-1800 should be limited as they can contribute to weight gain and interfere with efforts to lose weight. These include all breads, bagels, dry cereals, crackers, tortillas and dried fruit.
Additionally, the intake of foods over 1800 cal/lb should be extremely limited as these foods can very easily contribute to weight gain and obesity and can greatly interfere with efforts to lose weight. These are nuts, seeds, oils, solid fats and most all junk foods.
NOTE: For those who really do not like numbers.
To make it even easier, I can take the numbers completely out and it still makes sense and works.
(Foods Low In Calorie Density)
Fruits and veggies
Eat Relatively Large Portions Without Concern:
(Foods Moderate In Calorie Density)
Starchy veggies, intact whole grains and legumes
Limit These Foods:
(Foods High In Calorie Density)
Breads, bagels, dry cereals, crackers, tortillas, dried fruit
Extremely Limit These Foods:
(Foods Very High In Calorie Density)
Nuts, seeds, oils, solid fats, junk foods
The beauty of calorie density is that it frees us from all these numbers and having to count, portion weigh and/or measure anything. So, don’t get caught up in the numbers and for those who do not like numbers, just understand the principle.
Fine Tuning Calorie Density for Maximizing Weight Loss
Now, if you are not losing weight, the first thing to do is to review the principles of calorie density and make sure you understand them and are applying them correctly.
If you are following the principles of calorie density and your excess weight is not coming off as quickly as you would like, then there are some adjustments you can make to what you are doing in regard to the “calories in” and the “calories out” end of the equation.
In regard to calories out, you have three areas you can make adjustments, which are frequency, intensity and time (FIT). You can exercise on more days or more times in a day (Frequency), you can raise the intensity of your exercise (Intensity), and/or you can do it for a longer period of time (Time). For most people, 150 minutes of exercise per week, should be more than enough.
In regard to calories in, you can lower the calorie density of the diet, by shifting the composition of your meals to include more foods that are the lowest in calorie density (vegetables, salads, soups, etc). Make sure 1/3 to 1/2 of the visual volume of all your meals are low calorie dense vegetables. The other 1/2 – 2/3 should be unrefined, un-(or minimally) processed complex carbohydrates (legumes, intact whole grains, starchy vegetables.)
In addition, you can make the following modifications:
Salt: For many people, salt seems to act as an appetite stimulant. So, the less you salt your food, the less people tend to eat.
Variety: For many people, having a variety of foods available at each meal also seems to encourage over consumption. Therefore, the less variety at a meal, the less food consumed.
Raw Foods: Foods you can eat raw tend to be lower in calorie density and may not digest as efficiently as cooking helps the digestion process.
Sequencing: Eat the lowest calorie dense foods first. This fills you up so you eat less of the higher calorie dense foods.
Avoid (or strictly limit):
- all higher fat, calorie dense plant foods, nuts, seeds, oils, avocados, tofu, etc.
- all refined processed grains and starches that are higher in calorie density (breads, bagels, crackers, cookies, dry cereal, tortillas, etc., and anything made from ground-up flour) even if they are whole grain.
- all concentrated sugars/sweeteners (sugar, brown sugar, agave, honey, molasses, date sugar, etc.) even if they are natural and organic.
- all dried fruits.
If you follow the principles of calorie density and make the necessary adjustments as needed, you will lose weight in a healthy way at a healthy rate.