When it comes to food, calories are king.
People often think about the caloric values of food before anything else. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but calories aren’t the secret to taming your appetite. If you’re looking for a fresh perspective on nutrition, you should start thinking about how much food you’re actually eating. I’m talking about the weight, volume and density of what you chow down on. As it turns out, most people eat about the same weight of food every day, and overweight or unhealthy people aren’t necessarily eating “more food” than healthier people.
Here’s why you should stop counting calories and start thinking more about where your four pounds comes from.
4 Pounds a Day
Research has found that the average person eats between three and five pounds of food per day.
In a pamphlet entitled Low-Energy-Dense Foods and Weight Management: Cutting Calories While Controlling Hunger, the CDC writes, “Research shows that people eat a fairly consistent amount of food on a day-to-day basis. This finding holds true whether the amount of food contains many or few calories.”
“That’s the level of food people eat,” says Ryan Andrews, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. “Whether it’s three to five pounds of cheese and candy or three to five pounds of vegetables and fruits. It’s an important factor to feeling satisfied throughout the day.”
Obviously, the exact amount of food consumed varies among individuals, depending on their size, gender, habits and weight goals. But there’s a general daily volume of food many people need to eat to feel satiated throughout the day. “Studies have shown that people tend to consume about the same amount [weight] of food each day, but not necessarily the same amount of energy [calories]. So it is possible to trick ourselves into consuming less energy, without feeling hungrier, by eating a lower energy density diet, which still makes up the same weight of foods overall throughout the course of a day,” the British Nutrition Foundation writes on their website.
What is energy density? Also known as “calorie-density,” it’s a measure of how many calories are in a unit of food. To calculate the energy density for a given food, divide its total calories by its weight in grams. Calorie-dense foods contain a lot of calories in a small volume of food. Think candy bars, potato chips, milkshakes, cheese, butter, cookies, etc. Foods that aren’t as calorie-dense contain fewer calories in larger amounts of food—think fruits and vegetables.
What determines a food’s calorie density? Water content is a big factor. Fruits and vegetables in their whole forms contain an enormous amount of water. Many popular produce items are more than 90 percent water by volume, and practically all produce is at least 75 percent water by volume. Produce’s high water content adds bulk, weight and volume without adding extra calories. High-fiber foods also tend to be larger in volume, and fiber doesn’t contain many calories. Fiber also takes a long time to digest, so high-fiber foods can help you feel fuller for longer. Other foods that aren’t very calorie dense are cooked whole grains such as legumes.
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Highly processed foods, on the other hand, often have a very low volume of water. They’re also typically high in fat and added sugar—ingredients that can add a ton of calories while barely increasing its bulk and volume. A single tablespoon of butter, for example, contains 102 calories—more than you get from three cups of chopped broccoli. As you can guess, those three cups of broccoli weigh much more than the tablespoon of butter, allowing a person to feel fuller while consuming the same number of calories.
“I’ve ran into so many clients who would eat these foods and tell me, ‘gosh, I’m always hungry. I never feel satisfied.’ They tell me they eat these very rich foods that don’t have much volume and weight. ‘I had a couple Pop Tarts for breakfast, or I had a bagel for breakfast, and I’m still hungry. I had chips and a sandwich and a cookie for lunch, and I’m still hungry.’ They weren’t eating any of the foods that contribute to that volume effect,” Andrews says.
When you look at whole foods versus highly processed foods, the difference in volume one must consume to get an equal number of calories is eye-opening. For example, a standard Twix only weighs two ounces, but it contains 286 calories (and 28 grams of sugar). Know how many strawberries you’d have to eat to consume 286 calories? 74. Or how about a one-ounce bag of Cool Ranch Doritos? That contains 150 calories—nearly the same amount as six cups of asparagus.
You know that produce is better for you than junk food. But the sheer amount of food one can healthily consume by eating fruits and vegetables is staggering—more than enough to shatter the long-standing myth that going on a diet means eating less food. If you want to eat healthy while never feeling full, high-volume, low-calorie foods are the secret.
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Knowing the difference between high energy-density and low energy-density foods can help guide your choices. Prioritize fruits, vegetables and cooked whole grains, and you’ll be able to eat large portions of food while keeping the calorie count low. The biggest problem with the average American diet is that it starts with highly processed choices. Indeed, a recent study found that the average American gets 61 percent of his or her calories from highly processed foods. By making calorie-dense foods with very little volume the foundation of their diets, Americans are setting themselves up for failure.
“Prioritize some of the more nutritious stuff—don’t put it off. Don’t say you’ll have fruit later. Don’t say you’ll have vegetables later. Have it now, try to eat that stuff now. Eat it at breakfast and lunch and definitely dinner. Then after you kinda have your bases covered, if you say ‘hey, I want a cookie,’ go ahead and have the cookie. But if you start with the cookie, you might just keep having more cookies and never get to the nutritious stuff,” Andrews says.
You don’t have to entirely cut out guilty pleasures to lose weight, but by prioritizing more nutrient-dense options, you’ll naturally find yourself eating junk food less often and in smaller portions.
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