In my previous post I reviewed the idea of nutrient density: a food’s nutrient bang for its calorie buck. If we classify foods based on their caloric and nutrient content, we arrive at four options:
- 1. Low Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: Most fruits and vegetables
- 2. High Calorie, High Nutrient foods: High starch vegetables (potato, sweet potato, corn, etc.), whole grains, avocado, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, minimally processed oils, low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish
- 3. Low Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Lo-cal/”Diet” foods, hard candy, popsicles
- 4. High Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Doughnuts, ice cream, candy bars, cake, cookies, fried foods, triple bacon cheeseburgers, alcohol
If you are trying to lose weight, you want to maximize nutrients while reasonably minimizing calories so you can satisfy your body’s needs while still being in a moderate calorie deficit. On the flipside, if you want to gain weight, you want to maximize nutrients while eating a bit more calories than your body needs each day. In both cases, you want to focus on high nutrient foods, however weight gainers should aim to have a bit more of the high-calorie, high-nutrient foods compared to those looking for weight loss. And of course staying physically active is essential for both groups to make sure you gain or maintain lean mass like muscle and bone rather than fat.
Though it’s relatively obvious that you want to replace high-calorie, low-nutrient foods with higher-nutrient options, each option has its own unique issues to be aware of:
High Nutrient, Low Calorie Foods: Getting More
Honestly, it’s very hard to get too much of these. You can eat most fruits and veggies all day and it is nearly impossible to overeat. Why? Because of all of the nutrients, water and fiber in them! High nutrient, low calorie foods tend to take up a lot of space in the stomach without us having to take in a lot of calories. A great example is to consider how many cups of veggies you would have to eat to equal the number of calories in an average candy bar (about 250 calories via Calorieking.com):
- 1 cup of broccoli (31 calories)
- 1 cup of carrots (50 calories)
- 1 cup of celery (14 calories)
- 1 cup of cucumber (14 calories)
- 1 cup of cooked spinach (41 calories)
- 1 cup of cherry tomatoes (27 calories)
- AND about 2 or 3 tablespoons of Italian Dressing or Hummus to dip the veggies into! (80 calories or so)
I’m not pointing this out to have you count calories, but merely to show how much food you can really eat for the same number of calories.
We all know that we should eat more fruits and veggies, but the biggest problem is we tend not to like them! If crunching down on a broccoli spear or celery stalk is not your idea of “enjoyable eating”, then check out my article at Nutrition411.com that lists a number of ideas, tips and tricks to trying new fruits and vegetables.
Sometimes I have clients focus on eating more of these foods first before trying to eliminate other foods from their eating habits. Usually less healthy foods fall by the wayside when they start eating more fruits and veggies because they are too full, or less tempted to eat them! Or, it’s just a matter of changing how much you have. For example, one client mentioned that she often makes lasagna and salad. She used to serve herself most of the plate with lasagna and a little salad. Now she fills most of her plate with salad and a little lasagna. She feels less stuffed afterwards and is just as satisfied because she can still eat the foods she wants (lasagna); she just eats less of it. And the weight loss that comes with it is even more satisfying!
High Nutrient, High Calorie Foods: Portion Control
The majority of the calories in our diet come from this section and these are the foods that give us something back for the calories we consume. The key to high nutrient, high calorie foods is portions. A portion of nuts is a palmful, not the entire container! One portion of olive oil is about the size of half a golf ball. And one cup of brown rice is about the size of your fist. We can have too much of a good thing, but that’s still better than too much of a bad thing.
Check out this link to a University of Wichita website that shows a bunch of great ways to quickly estimate portions. This way you can make sure your eyes don’t get bigger than your stomach!
Low Nutrient, Low Calorie Foods: Friend or Foe?
Low-Calorie “diet” foods have become a way for dieters to get a sweet “fix” or enjoy some other treat without having to pay for the calories. Unfortunately, these diet foods provide very little in the way of nutrients and leave our body craving the nutrients we should have received from eating. Some studies even indicate that consuming lots of diet foods, particularly diet soda can lead us to overeat! If you’re interested in learning more about the impact of “diet” foods (including what to consider if you’re diabetic), check out my blog post here.
That’s not to say you should never have another diet soda again, you just want to be aware that they are not a panacea, and that while they have been “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the United States Department of Agriculture, there are very few, if any studies, looking at the long term effects of having the chemicals found in diet foods over a lifetime. Have them in moderation and making sure they don’t negatively influence your other food decisions.
Low Nutrient, High Calorie Foods: Our Backstabbing Friends
Before you eat a meal or snack, stop for a second and ask yourself, “What is this food giving me in return?” If you are not sure, try eating the meal/snack and see how you feel a few hours afterward. Do you feel light, satisfied and energized? Or do you feel lazy, tired and lethargic?
The reason why we keep eating them is because our brains are hardwired to react to sugar and fat like a drug that gets us “high” when we first have it. But then we lose the high and crash. But then we start looking for the next high and our brains start anticipating that next”hit” of sugar and/or fat. If you or someone you know has ever stopped eating candy/sweets/cakes/sugar for a while, it’s amazing how foods you used to eat become “too sweet” when you have them again for the first time. Unfortunately, we tend to continue to eat them and then get hooked.
For the high calorie, low nutrient foods, while they tend to give us an initial sugar high or satisfaction (often for stress or emotional reasons), in the long run all they do is usually give us sugar crashes and expanding waist lines! They make us feel like crap!
Imagine you had a friend or acquaintance that made you feel like crap after hanging out with them…every time! Is that the kind of person you would want to keep hanging around with? Probably not. After a while you would tend to notice that you kept feeling lousy hanging around with them and then you would likely choose to start hanging out with them less. Time to do the same with your food!
Sometimes we may choose to indulge in high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, but we must make sure that these indulgences are by our own choice and not due to the whims of our environment or feelings. They shouldn’t be guilt-laced cravings or temptations. We should have them on occasion and enjoy them as a balanced part of our typically healthy eating habits. Check out my posts on indulgences for more info:
Our Takeaway: In general, we want to try to eat high-nutrient foods as much as possible and eat less low-nutrient foods. Those looking to lose weight should primarily fuel themselves with high-nutrient, low-calorie foods like fruits and veggies while supplementing meals with high-calorie, high-nutrient foods like whole-grains, lean protein and healthy fats. An occasional indulgence is fine, when enjoyed on your terms, without guilt.