Can Low Calorie Density Foods Help You Lose Weight?
If you want to lose weight, then you’ll need to be in a caloric deficit, period.
In other words, you’ll need to be burning off more calories than you’re taking in on a daily basis, over an extended period of time.
Sounds easy doesn’t it? And if you have all day to weigh and measure your food, as well as hit the gym, it probably is. Problem is, the majority of us don’t have the luxury of time.
Luckily there are numerous tactics you can use to lower your daily calorie intake without measuring every gram of protein carbs and fat (although that’s not to say that’s not a legitimate tactic).
One example might be to increase the amount of protein you eat on a daily basis, this may work because it has been shown to increase satiety (the feeling of fullness) – check out the study here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104
Another perhaps less well known strategy is to use caloric density to increase the likelihood of you eating less calories throughout the day.
Caloric density refers to the amount of calories in a given weight of any food. For example, Peanut Butter is very calorie dense because it contains a lot of fat, whereas Broccoli is relatively calorie sparse. 100g of Broccoli contains just 34 calories, whereas 100g of peanut butter contains around 600 calories (depending on the brand and the ingredients), that’s almost 20 times the amount!
The point here is that the weight of food is the same, but the amount of calories are vastly different. This is so significant, because if your calorie target for the day is 2000, you’ll hit that with less than 400g of peanut butter. If you’re a huge Peanut Butter fan like me, you’ll know that it’s pretty easy to make your way through an entire jar in a day (Whole Earth Peanut Butter comes in 454g jars, so if you ate a whole one you’d exceed 2000 calories). The same amount of Broccoli would total less than 160 calories, i.e. less than 10% of your daily calorie requirements, so to eat 2000 calories purely from Broccoli would be virtually impossible (not that you’d want to anyway).
Very few people that know what they’re doing would eat 2000 calories-worth of Peanut Butter in a day (or 2000 calories-worth of Broccoli for that matter), but this example just demonstrates the huge differences in calories between the same weight of two different foods.
But here’s the interesting bit; the actual volume of food you eat can have an effect on your satiety (how full you feel), here’s an interesting study that explores the idea further http://ajcn.nutrition.orgcontent/72/2/361.long
This means that an easy way to make yourself feel full, and therefore subconsciously eat less calories would be to swap out some calorie-dense foods in your diet for less calorie-dense foods. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that you swap your sacred tablespoon of Peanut Butter for Broccoli, but there might be a few swaps you can make that won’t impact the enjoyment of your diet, but might decrease your calories enough to kick start the fat loss process.
You can clearly see in the table above which foods have a higher calorie density – most aren’t surprising; red meats and fats like butter are always the first things to go when most people diet, but Olive Oil and Mayo might come as a shock – this is often added liberally to the frying pan when cooking – cutting this out and swapping for a cooking spray like Fry Light can be a really easy way to cut a LOT of calories out your diet without even noticing.
Let’s take a look at all the macronutrients individually and see where we can make savings in specific areas;
Generally speaking, most people looking to lose weight would do well to increase the amount of protein in their diet, so I usually wouldn’t recommend lowering the amount of protein you eat.
What you can do to save calories while eating the same volume of food however, is to trade fattier cuts of meat for leaner options. The study quoted above states that protein has a bigger effect of satiety than fat, so you may be able to get the same feeling of fullness for less calories.
For example, say you’re eating beef once a day, you could reduce this to 1-2 times per week, and swap it for chicken on the other 5-6 days.
100g of Chicken Breast contains 110 calories while 100g of Rump Steak contains 175. Say you traded 200g of Rump Steak for 200g of Chicken Breast five days of the week, straight away you’ve saved 650 calories over the course of the week. This would equate to one pound of fat over the course of eight weeks, in theory (all else being equal).
This certainly isn’t to say that you should eliminate fatty meats from your diet completely, variety is important so you get a full profile of micronutrients which is vital for overall health.
As a general rule with carbs, ‘white’ varieties are more calories dense than ‘brown’ or wholewheat versions.
Let’s look at a few examples;
- 100g white rice contains 130 calories, 100g brown rice contains 110 calories
- 100g white bread contains 266 calories, 100g brown bread contains 259 calories (granted, not a huge difference)
- 100g cooked white pasta contains 130 calories, 100g cooked wholewheat pasta contains 124 calories (again, not much in it)
While the differences between wholewheat/brown and white carbohydrate sources is arguably negligible, another factor to consider is G.I or Glycemic Index, this is a measurement how quickly blood glucose rises after consuming a given food, generally foods with a LOWER G.I release glucose into the blood stream more slowly, which means more satiety, which in turns means you’re less likely to overeat.
This is a list of the G.I ratings of 100 different foods http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods
You can see that the differences between brown and white rice, as well as wholemeal and white bread are negligible – but the fact that they brown/wholemeal versions have slightly fewer calories and are slightly more satiating may mean that if you swap to those versions permanently, you could get a positive compounding effect in terms of weight loss/weight management. Anyway, that’s a subject for another post, back to caloric density. One of the most interesting things about caloric density and carbs in my opinion revolves around potatoes.
Sweet Potatoes have become really popular recently, I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald’s start serving Sweet Potato Fries soon, they’re generally considered as ‘healthier’ than their unfashionable white cousins (that sounds a bit racist). While Sweet Potatoes may contain lots of beneficial micronutrients (as do white potatoes), they’re actually much more calorie dense.
This means that, if you’re swapping white potatoes for sweet potatoes thinking you’re going to be eating less calories, you’re in for a surprise.
One other thing to mention about carbs and caloric density is that fruit and vegetables are excellent foods to eat more of – if you’re trying to lose weight and don’t want to calorie count – (in place of other items) because they’re so calorie sparse.
Their calorie sparsity, in relation to other foods is largely due to the fact that they contain lots of water, the fact that fruit and vegetables contain lots of fiber means that they pass through the gut slowly and could therefore increase the feeling of satiety.
As a general rule, if you’re trying to lose weight through manipulation of the caloric density of your diet, then cutting down (not cutting OUT) fat should be high on the agenda.
A gram of fat already contains over half the amount of calories compared to the equivalent amount of protein or carbs, add this to the fact that fatty foods are incredibly easy to over-consume as well as not particularly satiating compared to protein and you can see the issue.
One tablespoon of Olive Oil contains about 125 calories, just think how easy it is to add a couple of teaspoons (250 calories) to your otherwise calorie sparse salad. Do this twice a day and you’ve added 3,500 to your diet over the course of a week – the equivalent of a pound of fat.
By far the most calorie dense fat containing foods are oils and nut butters so severe limitation is advised if you want to decrease the overall calorie density of your diet.
Of course, essential fatty acids are essential (duh) for overall health, as well as testosterone production http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6538617 so eliminating them totally probably isn’t wise. Salmon and Avocados are two relatively less calorie-dense sources of fat that you may want to include limited amounts of.
You’ve listened to me ramble on for a while now, so let’s take a look at a real-world example of caloric density manipulation in action.
I’ve thrown together two sample breakfasts with the calories matched, the thing to look at is the overall weight of the food.
Although you’re getting virtually the same amount of calories in each meal, the first example contains almost 125g of extra volume, which is going to be more satiating; in part, simply because it’ll take up a lot more room in your stomach.
Yes, I realize the macros are very different if I had more time I could probably get them more closely matched, but this is simply to demonstrate the variability in caloric density between two popular breakfast options.
N.B. I’m not saying one is better than the other (the first is better).
If you don’t want to calorie count, which most people don’t, then eating less calorie-dense foods is an excellent way to subconsciously eat less and feel fuller and more satisfied, purely because you’re eating a larger overall volume (or weight) of food.
Fat is extremely calorie dense by its very nature, so limiting your intake of fat should be your first port of call.
Increasing the amount of fruit and veg you eat is a no-brainer, the amount of water contained in most fruit and veg means they are calorie sparse and can go a long way to making you feel more satiated.
There isn’t a huge amount to choose between when it comes to the caloric density of starchy carbohydrates, but if you are really trying to optimise and fine-tune then get in touch with me and I can help you out.
Protein should be kept high due to it’s satiating properties, opting for leaner meats e.g. chicken, turkey, white fish will help keep fat (and therefore caloric density down).
One last point to make is that if you’re trying to add weight, calorie dense foods can be your friends. If you have high calorie targets for each day then it can be difficult to consume everything you need without some calorically dense foods in there.