A calorie is a unit of energy. Nothing more, nothing less. The textbook definition of calorie, or caloric, density is “a measurement of the average calories per weight of that food.” But how does knowing that help us?
In non-scientific terms, the fewer calories per bite/ounce/gram of a food there are, the more of that food you can eat. For those of us who like to eat but want to maintain a healthy weight and leanness without having to kill ourselves in the gym every day, this is good news.
An example of a calorie density scale, which does not (thank goodness!) tell us what to eat, may look something like what Jeff Novick MS RD of Forks Over Knives presents:
- Vegetables 60 – 195 calories/pound
- Fruit 140 – 420 calories/pound
- Potatoes, Pasta, Rice, Barley, Yams, Corn, Hot Cereals 320 – 630 calories/pound
- Beans, Peas, Lentils (cooked) 310 – 780 calories/pound
- Breads, Bagels, Fat-free Muffins, Dried Fruit 920 – 1,360 calories/pound
- Sugars (such as sugar, honey, molasses, agave, corn syrup) 1,200 -1,800 calories/pound
- Dry cereals, Baked chips, Fat-free crackers, Pretzels 1,480 – 1,760 calories/pound
- Nuts/Seeds 2,400 – 3,200 calories/pound
- Oils 4,000 calories/pound
The way eating with calorie density in mind works is that you choose foods that are lower in calorie density to make sure you stay within your healthy calorie allowance for the day. The good news is fruits and veggies are almost an all-you-can-eat event. The not so good news is breads (even whole-grain types), pastas, and dry cereals fall pretty far down on the ok-to-eat-in-large-quantities scale. Meats and fish, generally speaking, are calorie dense, so go easy on eating them.
What about vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients we need and don’t get in either a typical American diet or a typical vitamin supplement? According to Mr. Novick, low calorie-density foods are high in nutrient density, so we’re good.
According to www.CalorieKing.com, calorie density (more calories per weight) is not the same as nutrient density (more nutrients per calories by weight). You want to aim for lower calorie density, but higher nutrient density.” “The nutrient density standard, as defined by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), is the ratio of the amount of beneficial nutrients relative to the food’s energy (calorie) content per amount customarily consumed.”
Another term nutrition experts bandy about is “energy dense.” This is a scientific term for food that has a lot of calories per bite, but not much in the way of nutrition. We used to call it “empty calories.” Things like cakes, chips, cookies, doughnuts, pies, pastries, and stuff with any kind of sugar in it (including diet sodas and energy drinks) are calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. High-fat dishes get us in trouble, too. Fettucine Alfredo, for example, has about 420 calories per cup, 15 grams of fat, and only 3 grams of fiber. Calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. And most of us eat a lot more than one cup at a time.
Is there one right answer? Probably not. Our challenge is to keep at it until we find the combination of foods and nutrients that works for each of us. Knowing about calorie density and nutrient density adds to our being able to make decisions that get us closer to what works for us.