Energy Density

Perhaps the most useful idea I learned from Jeff Novick at the McDougall Program was the energy density of foods. This helps us to understand why we can essentially eat as much whole food from plants as we like and still lose weight or keep it healthy. It’s also a great way to understand one of the several reasons why nuts and seeds and oils aren’t so great. Jeff points out that oil is so full of energy, that a couple of tablespoons on your salad is the same in energy terms as putting a couple of scoops of premium ice-cream on there instead! Thinking of it in these ways, almost all of us would choose the ice-cream (which is actually more nutritious than the oil in any case).

So when we eat, what we choose to eat is really important. It’s almost impossible to ignore your own hunger drive, and many of us just aren’t programmed to deal with such highly processed foods. This means when we eat foods that are very energy dense, we often make mistakes in our unconscious calculations for our energy needs for the day. As a general rule we feel most satisfied and like stopping eating when our stomach is full of nutritious foods (because we have stretch receptors and nutrient receptors to help us make this decision). Things that make a food more likely to give us the ‘time to stop eating’ signal before we have overeaten include the amount of water and fibre in those foods.

When you think about it, this all makes a lot of sense. Animals in the wild do not become overweight, in fact, it would be dangerous for many of them to miscalculate and become overweight. And they certainly don’t have dieticians, nutritionists, doctors, or anyone else to tell them what and how to eat. They simply eat according to their hunger drive. This is what we can do too, but only if we are consuming foods that tend to be high in fibre and water and low in energy density. This just happens to include pretty much every food that you’d imagine would be part of a whole foods plant-based way of eating, and excludes animal products and processed foods, hmm…

Vegetables (non-starchy) are the lowest in terms of energy density, averaging 100 calories per pound (I know this is strange American numbers, but the principles still hold for us of course!) So you can literally eat them all day long and have a very hard time getting enough energy for the day. You’ll probably waste away to nothing if you only eat veggies so don’t try this! Fruit is a little higher at 200, so again you can eat fruit all day and really struggle to maintain weight. What have we learned so far? You can ALWAYS have vegetables or fruit if you’re hungry and still meet your weight loss goals.

Next, we have the starchy vegetables, weighing in at about 400. So that would be potatoes, corn, pumpkin, and kumara and a few others. These foods are a good option to include to provide energy in your day so you’re not eating every half hour or so as you will be if you tried to just get by on fruits and the non-starchy veggies. Some people do seem to have a bit of trouble with grains at times (e.g. people with gut problems) so if that’s you, try using more of these instead.

Wholegrains, like brown rice, wholemeal pasta, and quinoa are about 500. And beans and legumes are 600. There’s a magic number of 550 that Jeff gives that you need to average out below in order to lose weight. So you can see that you can eat all of these things as much as you like (arguably you could overdo it on the beans if you ate them exclusively, but that’s never going to happen!) and not worry about putting on weight. After that we start getting into foods that are going to make it more difficult for you, some of these are plant-based as well, it may surprise you.

Avocados are about 750. Then we have animal products averaging out at 1000, almost twice as high as that 550 sweet spot. Plus there’s a bunch of other reasons to avoid them anyhow, which we won’t get into here. Next we have processed and refined carbohydrates like white flour and bread at about 1400. They’re still a more sensible option than animal products when everything’s taken into account, but if you’re having too many of these and your goal is weight loss it won’t be helpful. Junk food is 2300, but no surprises there!

The biggest shock usually comes when I tell people that nuts and seeds are 2800, even higher than junk food! And about 5 times the energy density that you want to be aiming for. So this is a good reason to either limit or forget about these for the most part. They can be used as condiments to add a bit of flavour, but eating them as snacks doesn’t work well. Finally, oils are the highest of all at a massive 4000 calories per pound! Considering that, to add insult to injury, oils don’t even have any useful nutrients (which nuts and seeds do at least to some extent) you can see why a whole food plant-based diet avoids them! In fact for many people the difference between losing weight or not can be as simple as removing the oils.

Well that ended up being a lot longer than I intended! Next time perhaps I’ll write a little about why energy from different food sources isn’t created equal when it comes to weight loss.

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