Calorie Density



This brief article is about dieting for weight loss.  It is not about treating your medical conditions or extending your lifespan. It is not specifically about treating disease.  It is simply about decreasing body fat content and exerting less gravitational force against a scale.

First of all, I suggest that you take a look at the section on weight loss psychology, as you will likely be unsuccessful if you have the wrong mentality.

Take a look at the theoretical background for an explanation of why this strategy works.
Limitations of the calorie density principle are discussed here.
I also have an article providing evidence for this principle.

The most simplistic way to describe this principle is with pictures. Both of the following pictures were taken using the same plate and depict exactly 400 Calories of food. Which would fill you up more-the cantaloupe or the cake?















Needless to say, most people would be fairly hungry after eating the modest piece of cake, but the same people would struggle to take down the entire heaping plate of cantaloupe. I required nearly two full cantaloupes to make that photo. In this video, I tried to stuff myself but could only eat 800 grams of blueberries before feeling full (compared to 1333 grams of cantaloupe depicted above). The general idea is that if you eat foods like cantaloupe (low calorie density) instead of foods like cake (high calorie density), you will end up eating less calories, and your body will catabolize fat to compensate for the deficit.

I will start with a brief list of foods and their calorie densities as that is the meat of this article:

A general list (source: Jeff Novick)

Food............................................................................................Calories/gram
Water................................................................................................................................0

Vegetables.......................................................................................................................0.15-0.45

Fruit...................................................................................................................................0.3-0.9

Potatos, Pasta, Rice, Barley, Yams, Corn, Hot cereals..........................................0.7-1.4

Beans, Peas, Lentils (cooked)......................................................................................0.70-1.7

Breads, Bagels, Fat Free Muffins, Dried Fruit..........................................................2.0-3.0

Sugars (table sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup)........................................2.6-4.0

Dry Cereals, Baked Chips, fat free crackers, pretzels, popcorn.........................3.3-4.0

Nuts/Seeds......................................................................................................................5.3-7.0

Oils.....................................................................................................................................9.00


A more detailed list can be seen by scrolling below or clicking thelink


This is summarized also in the Caloric Density Pyramid (courtesy of the Okinawa Diet program)




























There are many ancillary benefits related to changing your diet to the one I recommend, but the advice below is strictly geared towards weight loss. The summary of this article is as follows:  Decrease the calorie density of the foods you are eating.  In other words, change the type of foods you are eating such that the calories per unit mass is significantly decreased.   This will result in reduction in total caloric intake (19, 20, 21, 35, 40, 41, 42, and others) and weight loss (12, 34, 36, 47, 48, 53, others). There are many ways to do this, but the most practical and healthy way is to eat more low-calorie-density fruits and vegetables and less processed food and animal products (42).  The article teaches general principles which you can tailor to your own preferences and lifestyle. I guarantee success if you do this. 


"This type of eating plan, which emphasizes the types of foods to be integrated into the diet as opposed to emphasizing those that should be restricted, provides a positive approach to weight management." (48)


This diet has a 100% success rate.  Not 99%. 100%.  If you fail to lose weight, it is because you are not following the diet properly.  You will always eventually lose body fat if you consume significantly less Calories than your metabolic rate.  Otherwise, you would be violating the first law of thermodynamics, and you should apply for a Nobel prize in physics. You will lose weight slowly.  You will have periods of frustrating plateaus where your weight remains stable for weeks. However, you will not have hunger pangs. Your stomach will be full.  You will not be fatigued or weakened. You might read this article and say “Duh…I already knew that cauliflower was healthier than French Fries.”  Fair enough, but there are some things you don’t know, and this strategy is an efficient and straight-forward way to minimize caloric intake without suffering too much or causing other health problems. I recommend you find and watch the documentary “forks over knives.” It isn’t very scientifically accurate, but it is entertaining and inspiring. The movie recommends a whole foods vegan diet and has some biases against animal products.  Nonetheless, I think you would do well for yourself by following this type of diet.


Why diet to lose weight?


There are various reasons to change your diet to lose weight including the following…


1) Increase your power to weight ratio to improve your athletic or physical performance (43). Marathon runners improve their time by one minute per pound of body weight without improving fitness.


2) Decrease your risk of various weight dependent medical conditions:  a) arthritis, b) heart disease, c) stroke, d) type II diabetes, e) sleep apnea, and so forth


3) Medical conditions can be cured or alleviated with weight loss in some cases such as a) sleep apnea, b) pseudotumor cerebri,  c) type II diabetes, d) high blood pressure, e) arthritis, f) high cholesterol.  Of course, not all medical conditions can be cured by weight loss.


4) Decrease your overall risk of morbidity and mortality.  According to the world health organization, maintaining a healthy weight is the #2 modifiable behavioral risk factor (#1 is exercise)


5) Improve your self-confidence and energy level.


Some general principles:


I explain in the article on theory/background that eating foods which are lower in calorie density will result in decreased total calorie consumption, a calorie deficit, and loss of fat tissue.  Generally speaking, modern processed foods are higher in calorie density than natural foods. 


Ritz crackers have more calories per gram than squash.  There is nothing magical about a food product being natural or processed.  Everything is turned into a sludgy mix in your stomach within minutes.  The presentation and color of the food do not matter.  It is just that processed foods are usually designed to be extra tasty.  Manufacturers tend not to add water and fiber to foods as these dilute the taste and increase shipping costs. Also, dry foods preserve better. There are many exceptions to this.  For instance, Scandinavian bran crispbread crackers are fairly low in calorie density (if you like eating figurative cardboard), and avocados and nuts are fairly high in calorie density.  Nuts and avocados have various health benefits, but weight loss is not one of them.  If you don't believe me, watch this videowhere I consume 1000 Calories in macadamia nuts in 4 minutes without feeling full.  There are plenty of obese vegans who eat mostly natural foods. 


Generally speaking, animal products such as meats, eggs, milk, and cheese are higher in calorie density compared to fruits and vegetables.  In case you are curious, the statements in the movie “forks over knives” about animal protein vs. plant protein are pseudo-scientific in my opinion.  However, if you want to go full vegan, more power to you. The diet I am recommending is one which is much lower in calorie density than your current diet.  Obviously, this is a generic article, and I don’t know your specific dietary habits, but the changes you most likely need to make are to eat fewer animal products and processed foods and more fruits and vegetables.  If you already eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, switch to fruits and vegetables with more water and fiber content and lower calorie density.  This article provides details starting with a list of foods:



Calorie density of foods (composed from various sources):


Food.................................................................................Calories/gram

Water.............................................................................................................0

Cucumber.....................................................................................................0.14

Celery.............................................................................................................0.175

Tomato..........................................................................................................0.175-0.23

Lettuce (raw)................................................................................................0.2

Spinach..........................................................................................................0.245

Green Cabbage............................................................................................0.245

Peppers..........................................................................................................0.25

Kale..................................................................................................................0.28

Water Melon..................................................................................................0.28

Broccoli (cooked) .........................................................................................0.3

Cantaloupe (raw) .........................................................................................0.3

Red peppers..................................................................................................0.315

Red cabbage..................................................................................................0.315

Eggplant..........................................................................................................0.35

Squash.............................................................................................................0.35

Brussels Sprouts...........................................................................................0.35

Onion...............................................................................................................0.385

Carrots (raw) .................................................................................................0.4

Strawberries...................................................................................................0.43

Beef broth.......................................................................................................0.45

Oranges ..........................................................................................................0.46

Pineapple........................................................................................................0.49

Soy Milk............................................................................................................0.5

Soda/Juice........................................................................................................0.5

Apples (raw, with skin ) ................................................................................0.52

artichoke..........................................................................................................0.45-0.52

Blueberries......................................................................................................0.55

Pear...................................................................................................................0.56

Grapes..............................................................................................................0.67

Tofu....................................................................................................................0.7

oatmeal (cooked)............................................................................................0.71

Peas and other legumes...............................................................................0.77

Corn...................................................................................................................0.82

Wine...................................................................................................................0.83

Banana..............................................................................................................0.86

Sweet potato,  (cooked) ...............................................................................0.90

Potatoes, baked (with skin) .........................................................................0.97

Whole milk .......................................................................................................1

Beans (boiled) .................................................................................................1

Brown rice (cooked) ......................................................................................1.1

Tuna...................................................................................................................1.1
lobster...............................................................................................................1.125

Yams..................................................................................................................1.155

Yams..................................................................................................................1.155
King crab...........................................................................................................1.15
Cod.....................................................................................................................1.2
Halibut, poached............................................................................................1.3

Whole wheat pasta.........................................................................................1.4

lentils..................................................................................................................1.5
shrimp................................................................................................................1.575

olives...................................................................................................................1.67

spagghetti..........................................................................................................1.7

avocados............................................................................................................1.83

Whole wheat bread..........................................................................................2

Chicken ...............................................................................................................2

Egg........................................................................................................................2

B.L.T. chopped salad (subway)......................................................................2.0
Salmon................................................................................................................2.025
Tuna.....................................................................................................................2.075

Egg McMuffin®...................................................................................................2.2

Dried apricots.....................................................................................................2.4

High fructose corn syrup.................................................................................2.75

Dates.....................................................................................................................2.8

Bagel......................................................................................................................2.9

White bread ........................................................................................................3

Shrimp (breaded/fried) ....................................................................................3

Raisins ..................................................................................................................3

Salad dressing ....................................................................................................3

Corn flakes...........................................................................................................3.5

cream....................................................................................................................3.5

Donuts..................................................................................................................3.5

sausage.................................................................................................................3.5

McDonald’s hamburger patty.........................................................................3.5

Cheerios...............................................................................................................3.6

Table sugar..........................................................................................................3.78

Hard candy ..........................................................................................................4

Cheese...................................................................................................................4

Pretzels .................................................................................................................4

Baked Lay's®........................................................................................................4.1

crackers.................................................................................................................4.4

cookies..................................................................................................................4.6

granola bar...........................................................................................................4.7

tortilla chips.........................................................................................................4.8

Chocolate .............................................................................................................5

Pork .......................................................................................................................5

blue cheese dressing..........................................................................................4.84-5.6

Bacon ....................................................................................................................5.7

Cheetos..................................................................................................................5.95

cashews.................................................................................................................6

peanuts .................................................................................................................6

Margarine...............................................................................................................7

Butter......................................................................................................................7

walnuts....................................................................................................................7

Oil (olive, canola, soybean, etc) ........................................................................9


Lists for specific categories on the list page


I suggest you look over this list several times, and do a google search to look up other items which you like to eat if they are not on my list page.  Here are some patterns which emerge:


1) Non-starchy vegetables such as celery, spinach, eggplant, carrots, and cucumbers are very low in calorie density.  These are awesome!  Find ones you like and eat a lot of them


2 ) Fruits are generally moderate to low in calorie density.


3 ) Starchy vegetables are generally moderate in calorie density (around 1 kcal/gram)


4) Some foods that are generally considered to be “healthy” are actually high in calorie density.  Examples include avocados, dates, nuts, olive oil, and dried fruits.  Minimize these.


5) Fruit juices, sodas, and other forms of liquids tend to be low in calorie density. This is due to high water content which dilutes calorie density.  However, I still recommend you avoid drinking your calories because they do not give you the same satiety that solid foods too.


6) The foods on the bottom of this list are massively higher in calorie density than the low calorie density foods.  Consider peanuts at 6 kcal/gram versus eggplant at 0.35 kcal/gram.  Thus, it is not difficult to significantly lower your total caloric intake by selecting low-calorie density foods.


7) Even healthier animal products such as chicken, fish, and egg are moderate in calorie density, so try to consume moderate amounts of these.


8) Processed versions of natural foods are almost always much more calorie dense (note high fructose corn syrup or corn flakes versus corn)


9) There is tremendous variation even within a single type of food.  For instance, bananas (0.875 kcal/gm) versus watermelon (0.28 kcal/gm) or sweet potatoes (1kcal/gm) versus squash (0.35kcal/gm). 9) The tastier foods are at the bottom of the list.  It sucks. 


“If it tastes good, spit it out” -Jack LaLanne 


10)  "Diet" products with artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose) are low in calorie density because artificial sweeteners have no calories.  However, I would not necessarily recommend these as there is some evidence that these products promote our addition to sweet foods promote our addiction to refined sugars (27).


So tell me what to put in my mouth already!


Generally speaking, the majority of your diet should consist of foods which are 1 Calorie/gram or less. 


How strict and aggressive you have to be depends on...


1) your current diet

2) Your current body weight

3) Your exercise

4) your age

5) your appetite

6) your coexisting medical conditions.


If you are older, inactive, not very overweight, and have a huge appetite, you are going to have to be very strict in order to lose weight.  If you weigh >300 lbs, exercise regularly, and are younger, you can probably get away with being somewhat less strict.  I suggest you make changes gradually and increase strictness as needed.


Step 1:  Recount and write down what you ate in the last 48 hours as accurately as possible.  If you cannot remember, eat your normal diet for a few days and record everything you are eating.  Then, review the calorie density of  all the items you ate and identify problem areas.  Think about what types of foods you tend to eat and where they fall on the list.


Step 2: Completely or nearly completely eliminate the foods at the bottom of the calorie density list from your diet.  Oil, nuts, butter, cheese, junk food, starchy snacks, fried foods…these are absolute killers.  You can quickly negate a lot of hard work by eating these foods.  If you add dressing, nuts, and cheese to a salad, it no longer is low in calorie density.


Step 3: Look at the top of the calorie density list and pick out the fruits and vegetables that you like to eat and start increasing the quantity of these foods. Most people prefer starchy vegetables such as yams and sweet fruits to lower calorie density foods such as spinach and radishes.  Try to incorporate some very low calorie density foods (<0.4 kcal/gram) into your diet. Try some new vegetables that you have never tried before or eat very rarely. YOU CANNOT GET FAT EATING THESE FOODS!  It’s impossible.  You simply will not be able to consume the ridiculous volume of these foods needed to match your metabolic rate. Make sure to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.  Plant foods are deficient in certain amino acids, so you must eat a variety of plant based foods to cancel out these deficiencies and get adequate protein.


Step 4:  Look at the foods in the middle of the list around 1-2.5 kcal/gram.  These are items like dry cereals, chicken, fish, beans, and lentils.  You can continue to eat these foods, but limit the quantity.  Eat a single breast of chicken with a plate of vegetables and fruits rather than a huge steak.


Here is an example of what a meal plan for an individual day could look like :


Breakfast: 1 apple Bowl of oatmeal with non-fat milk or light soy milk Cup of black coffee (no sugar, no cream)


Lunch: Sandwich with whole grain wheat bread, arugala, single chicken breast;  no oil/dressing/cheese Canned black beans Miso soup Broccoli on the side  


Afternoon snack: 1 grapefruit (no sugar added) Lettuce salad without dressing


Dinner: Tofu grilled with peppers and mushrooms with low-salt soy sauce (no oil) Turnips, zucchini, and spinach on the side Glass of water Applesauce or berries for desert.


This is just an example.  Change the calorie density or specific foods as needed.


Replacements:


Here are some suggestions for some specific replacements


Orange juice > oranges + water


Fried beans > baked beans


Lucky charms + whole milk> oatmeal+ nonfat milk or [even better] oatmeal + water


Soda > diet soda, water, tea


Pork/beef > chicken, fish, or turkey


Candy bars/sweets > blueberries,strawberries, pears, other sweet fruits


Salad dressing > vinegar


Oil/butter/cream cheese >no replacement; just stop using these.  Even the replacements like margarine or low fat cream cheese are garbage.


Mocha/capaccino/latte > black coffee (no cream, no sugar), tea


Nuts > popcorn (no butter/salt), rice cakes


Dates/dried fruit/raisins > pears, apples


Avocado > squash/eggplant


Crackers > celery


Muffin/bagel > fruit/oatmeal/brown rice


Frozen Yogurt/Ice cream > fruit


Alfredo or other creamy sauce > marinara sauce


Pasta with cheese sauce > pasta with vegetables


Oil packed canned tuna > water packed canned tuna


Whole eggs >egg whites


Cake >angel food cake or gingerbread


Ice cream > popsicles


Mayonnaise > mustard, vinegar


Creamy soups > broth based soups


Guacamole > salsa


French Fries >baked potato (no oil, sour cream, cheese, or other toppings); can add grilled onions/tomatos/peppers


Protein/granola bars > just stop; eat real food.


Oil > nonstick cookware or light cooking sprays


Tips and tricks


1) Take a before picture in a bikini or with your shirt off so that you can compare it to an after picture.  Weight loss occurs slowly, so you may not notice a big difference subjectively, but if you look back at your before picture, you may notice an obvious change.


2) Do not get discouraged or quit.  Intermittent failure and cheating on your diet is normal.  If you cheat on the diet, stop wallowing and feeling sorry for yourself.  Just redouble your efforts and immediately restart the diet for the next meal.  Try to eat especially low calorie density foods the following meal/day.   If you find your new diet too bland, be patient.  Dietary preferences change over time (45).


3) Do not get too excited about initial weight loss.  You will probably lose about 5 lbs in the first week because your new diet is much lower in salt than the processed garbage you have been eating.  This is not true fat loss, and you will gain it back instantly if you stop the diet. Do not expect to maintain this early rapid rate of weight loss.  Be patient. If you are 100 pounds overweight, this is going to be a long and slow process.  Be satisfied with gradual weight loss.  There is evidence that losing weight more slowly helps to preserve lean body mass (44).  Most people are looking for the quick and easy solution.  Don’t be one of those people.


4) Weigh yourself once per week.  If you weigh yourself every day, you are mostly measuring fluctuations in water and salt.  You should only expect to lose 1-2 pounds per weeks which is <0.5 lbs per day, far outweighed by the fluctuation in water weight.  Think about it;  Wrestlers and boxers can lose 15 lbs in 2-3 days easily.  If you insist on weighing yourself daily, try not to worry about the exact numbers so long as the overall long term trend is downward.  Expect to have periods of “plateaus” where your weight remains stable for 2-3 weeks.


5) Measure your waist line once per month.


6) Always make sure to have low calorie density foods available.  From time to time, you will get hungry randomly. You are more likely to keep the diet if you have healthy options readily available requiring minimal preparation. If you are hungry late at night, eat some cooked spinach with a large glass of water to fill up your stomach. Go to the supermarket twice per week instead of once per week so that you always have fresh produce.  Snacking is ok.  Just make sure your snack is low in calorie density.  I also recommend cooking a lot of vegetables at once and storing them in a tupperware container so that they are readily available.


7) Sequence your meals from low calorie density to high calorie density. Fill up your stomach with lower calorie density options before consuming high calorie density items, and you will probably end up eating fewer calories overall.  Ideally, you would eat something very low in calorie density with water about 20-30 minutes before your main meal to allow satiety to take effect.


8) Don’t drink your calories (41).  Drink water. Don’t drink fruit juice.  Eat fruit and drink water.  The fiber content of actual fruit will provide satiety and force you to eat more slowly


9) Eat more slowly.  Give your stomach time to induce satiety so that you don’t overeat.


10) Exercise!  The specific exercise I would recommend depends on your age/health/activity level. However, here are some general recommendations: a) Do resistance training.  With this diet, you will likely end up reducing both your total caloric intake, your protein intake, and your insulin levels.  Because of this, there is a tendency to lose some muscle mass along with fat.  Mitigate this by doing resistance training. b) Do interval training. c) Train to improve.  Gradually increase resistance, increase speed, or decrease rest.  Don’t keep doing the same relaxed exercise forever.  If you improve your fitness, you can work harder and burn more calories per hour.


11) Don’t go to restaurants too often.  Restaurants generally cook with high calorie density items to improve taste and improve their business.  Salads come with dressing, cheese, nuts, and oil.  Sandwiches have spreads and oil.  Meat and pasta are cooked with oil and rich sauces.  Rice is cooked with butter and oil.  Even restaurants which make claims about serving healthy foods are generally garbage.  Vegan restaurants drench their vegetables in oil.  Trust me.  Any restaurant that actually served healthy food would probably go out of business because Americans like tasty food.  If you are forced to go out to the cheesecake factory, try eating something low in calorie density with a large glass of water before leaving for dinner.


12) Tell your friends and family about your diet and ask them to help hold you accountable in your moments of weakness


13) Try to get other people who live in your household to change their diet too so high calorie density foods aren’t sitting around in the refrigerator and tempting you constantly.


14) If you are very hungry before a meal and feel like you are about to overeat, try eating something low in calorie density like eggplant or peppers with a large glass of water about 20-30 minutes before your main meal to induce some satiety.


15) Don’t overcook vegetables.  Overcooking food decreases the water content and increases the calorie density.  Raw vegetables are actually preferred if you can palate them.


16) When you get down to your goal weight, do not go back to your prior diet.  Continue the diet, but incorporate some healthy but higher calorie density items like nuts, avocados, olives, and coconut in moderation.  Do not seek to obtain a very low body mass index, as this can be dangerous.  You don’t need a perfectly flat stomach or a 6 pack.  You don’t need to look like a professional model or actor.  Just try to achieve a healthy weight.