Calorie-density is greatly underestimated when we plan and optimize our nutrition. The foods we choose affect how much we have to eat to reach satiety. Why calorie-density matters and how to include it in your daily nutrition is something you can learn today.
Calories and our food
A calorie is a measure of energy contained in food. We all consume energy with foods and drinks and expend it for our bodies to perform their optimal functions.
Different types of food contain different amounts of calories in relation to their weight. If we compare one pound of chocolate which contains around 2,750 calories per 500 g with a pound of spinach which contains about 115 calories for the same weight, the chocolate is more “calorie dense”.
Processed foods and calorie-density
Processed foods are often calorie dense, mostly through the addition of cheap and refined oils and sugar, which do not provide nutritional value and make us hungry despite the high calorie content. The removal of water and fiber increases the calorie-density of these foods even more.
Just comparing sweet potatoes and potato-chips shows how calorie density increases with processing: a sweet potato provides 389 calories per pound, while deep fried sweet potato chips provide 2,400 calories per pound.
Volume and Satiety
Calorie dense foods have less volume for the same number of calories compared to foods with low calorie density. Since volume provides satiety (stretching the stomach which provides the information of fullness to the brain), the importance of low-calorie dense food choices cannot be overestimated, given the prevalence of obesity and chronic diseases in most developed countries. Highly processed foods tend to confuse our satiety signals which makes us eat more of them, delivering far too many calories compared to what we need.
Calorie-density in modern nutrition
Naturally, we are evolved to seek high calorie-dense sources of food, because evolutionary these were rare. The main goal was to get enough calories in to survive. These days, when calorie-dense options are not the exception but the norm, this attraction creates problems (obesity, diabetes etc.).
Most of the highly refined foods are very calorie-dense (and stripped of nutrients) while whole and real foods often (not always) provide a lower calorie density.
Plant based Whole Foods
Especially vegetables and fruits have a high water-content which makes them less calorie dense. They are dense in nutrients while delivering not a lot of calories and great satiety. These foods should create the base of our nutrition. It is recommended to eat a plant-based diet which contains about 60-80% of unprocessed plant foods.
Nuts, seeds, and fatty fruits such as olives and avocados are real foods with a higher calorie density. They are a great addition to the vegetables and plant foods mentioned above. Compared to highly processed foods, real foods with a higher calorie density provide great nutritional value, which makes them much more satiating.
Combining whole foods with a low calorie-density with those whole foods with a higher calorie content creates a wholesome nutrition. It is your personal choice if you add some high quality animals foods, such as pasture raised meat, wild fatty fish and eggs or if you choose to eat a vegetarian diet.
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Here you can read more:
John Mackey, Alona Pulde & Matthew Letherman (2017): The Whole Foods Diet: The Lifesaving Plan for Health and Longevity.