If there’s one thing most of us obsess over on a day-to-day basis it’s calories. Whether it’s how many we’re consuming each time we eat or how many we’re burning during our workouts, we’ve definitely become a calorie conscious society. Though taking stock of the number of calories we’re eating daily is integral to maintaining a healthy diet, another issue just as important but infrequently discussed is caloric density or CD. What exactly is caloric density? It’s the calorie content of the food you’re eating by weight.
Determining the CD of what you’re eating is an essential measurement to have if you’re trying to eat well or shed unwanted pounds. If you have a tendency to eat too many foods with a high CD, then you’re taking in way too many calories in one sitting. If weight loss is your ultimate goal your objective should be to take in fewer calories by eating foods that have a low CD. Of course, the benefit of consuming low calorically dense foods is that you can eat MORE. For those of you on a diet plan it doesn’t get any better than that because it gives you the opportunity to eat without the guilt of taking in an excessive amount of calories.
By now I’m sure it’s obvious to you which foods have the lowest CD -fruit and vegetables. Yet another reason why eating whole, unprocessed, plant-based nutrition is the best diet in the world! Whatever your specific dietary preference, knowing how to calculate the caloric density of your food intake is valuable information to have. And it’s quite easy to do! All it requires is that you take two numbers off the food label – the number of calories per serving AND the weight (in grams) per serving. Next you divide the calories by the weight in grams and the numeric result is the caloric density. In order to gauge whether the number you got is good, decent or just downright bad, use the following ranges:
0.0 to 0.7 = Very Low
0.8 to 1.5 = Low to Moderate
1.6 to 3.0 = Moderate to High
3.1 and up = Very High Caloric Density
Now, let’s see how this actually translates to a few foods that are commonly eaten:
- An average sized apple contains about 72 calories and weighs approximately 132 grams. If we divide the 72 calories by 132 grams the caloric density of this apple is .54 (78 cal/138 g). According to the range specifications above, this means that an apple’s caloric density is very low so you can virtually eat all as many as you want.
- A plain enriched bagel has about 182 calories and weighs approximately 71 grams. The CD of the bagel is 2.56 (182 cal/71 g). This has a moderate to high caloric density so you should definitely watch your portion size and try not to eat several bagels per day.
- One ounce of almonds (24 almonds) is approximately 163 calories and weighs about 28.35 grams. The CD for this handful of almonds is 5.6 (163 cal/28.35 g)!! This is very high, so you want to eat sparingly.
- One tablespoon of olive oil has approximately 119 calories and 13.5 grams. This small amount of oil has a caloric density of 8.8 (119 cal/13.5 g). This is really high so it’s in your best interest to use oil sparingly.
Figuring out the caloric density of what you eat is pretty easy isn’t it?
Again, if you’re looking to lose weight or simply want to eat better, you can reduce the CD in your overall diet by understanding a couple of principles. If most of what you consume on a daily basis is fruits and vegetables, then you are doing well and can generally eat as much of these two food groups as you want. One note of caution though: Try to refrain from eating too much dried fruit because the water content is extracted and what would normally be a low caloric dense food suddenly when dried becomes a high calorie dense food with concentrated sugar. Your best bet is to eat foods high in water content and fiber (i.e., fruits, vegetables, soups, and cooked grains) because they dilute calories and naturally reduce the CD. They also generally happen to be very high in nutrient density as well.
Cooked whole grains, beans, and potatoes in their skin along with lean fish and poultry, are largely in the moderate caloric density range. If I’m the one who has to make the choice and I’m trying to reduce my CD, I would select the plant-based foods over the seafood and poultry in part because I am vegan, but also the plant-based foods have fiber, provide more bulk in the stomach, and contain more micronutrients. Interesting to note, if you take cooked grains and make them into bread with whole or refined grain flour, the CD increases significantly (up to seven times)!
Even though I encourage my patients to eat whole, sprouted grain breads because they’re more nutritious and promote better health that refined flour breads, the truth is that one slice of bread whether from refined wheat flour or whole or sprouted wheat, has essentially the same CD. For example, the CD for a slice of the sprouted whole grain bread I personally love to eat is 2.64. The CD of a slice of pure white sandwich bread that I see many shoppers buying in my local grocery story is 2.5! That’s not that big of a difference. Why? It’s because breads no matter what type are a moderately high calorically dense food.
Generally (but not always) when the fiber content of a bread increases the CD goes down. Still, given how similar the caloric density is for both types, this is one reason why it’s often recommended that breads are eliminated or eaten sparingly when following a weight loss regimen. If (and this is a big IF!) you mustmake the choice between eating whole or sprouted-grain breads and refined white bread, the whole or sprouted grain bread is obviously the better choice. With increased fiber and nutrient content, you will likely eat less of it because the fiber provides the feeling of fullness and reduces hunger.
So, as you see, understanding what a “CD” is and how important it is to maintaining a healthy diet, will definitely set you on the path to making better food choices. That, of course, is a good thing. And for some it may even be a life saver!
As a certified physician’s assistant specializing in nutrition, prevention and integrative medicine, KIRK HAMILTON maintains that if there’s one cure all for chronic disease it’s what you eat. With his emphasis on consuming more unprocessed, micronutrient dense plant-food along with simple cross-training and mind/body principles, Kirk has been instrumental in guiding his patients and clients toward the path of optimal health since 1983. He has also been a valued educator to health professionals. As the founder of Clinical Pearls Publications, Kirk provided summaries of nutritional research to practicing physicians and researchers around the globe until he sold the company to Tishcon Corp. in 2004. Since 2009 Kirk has hosted his own radio program/podcast titled Staying Healthy Today. He has interviewed hundreds of the top experts in the medical field including Joel Fuhrman, Dr. David Jenkins and Dr. Neal Barnard. Drawing on his 28 year career, in August 2011 Kirk self-published the book titled “Staying Healthy in the Fast Lane – 9 Simple Steps to Optimal Health.” His book serves as a guide for individuals, professionals and policy makers on how to create a new health paradigm that is focused on staying well and prevention instead of treatment.
The greatest medicine of all is to teach people how not to need it.
Read about how to lose weight and prevent chronic diseases by purchasing Kirk’s book, “Staying Healthy in the Fast Lane – 9 Simple Steps to Optimal Health.” Order your copy here. Enter code “RX40” and receive an automatic 40% off your book purchase.