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Use Nutrient Density to Lose Weight by Eating Better, Not Less – Part 1

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

Fruits and Veggies - Nutrient Density Dynamos

It is entirely possible to eat all day and lose weight. The key is what you choose to eat. When you eat, your body’s goal is to get all of the necessary nutrients (carbs, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals and water) into your system regardless of the number of calories you consume. Of course you must consume a minimum number of calories to keep your body functioning properly, but the calories themselves are just one variable. The other important factor is the nutrients each food provides along with its calories, dubbed “nutrient density.” Nutrient density represents a food’s nutrient bang for its calorie buck.

Think of your body as a high-performance car. You need fuel in your car to have it run every day. Calories are the amount of fuel you put in the car. You need a certain amount of calories or fuel every day or your engine is going to stop running. The body’s engine is your energy level and metabolism. Have you ever been on a diet that had you eat very few calories day after day after day? After a while did you start to feel tired, lethargic, cranky and hungry? And then after a little while longer did you stop losing weight? When you significantly restrict your fuel, your engine (lean body mass) starts to break down, and ultimately your metabolism slows down. You need a minimum amount of fuel each day to run properly.

However, the quality of the fuel is the pivotal factor. Nutrients are the quality/octane of the fuel (those 87, 89, 91 numbers you see at the pump). The higher the octane, the better the car (a.k.a. your body) is going to run on the amount of fuel you provide. Better fuel leads to better performance, a better running system (think about GI issues like bloating, constipation, etc.) and a lower chance of breakdown, especially when many demands are placed on the car. The same goes for your body, especially when you are physically active. Greater physical activity requires greater nutrients for the body to recover and perform.

Have you ever noticed that you can eat lots of junk food all day, eat a ton of calories and still feel like crap? That’s because despite giving your body lots of fuel, the fuel was low-grade and only provided minimal capacity to run rather than energizing and improving the system. And just like cars, the body typically needs less fuel (calories) to function properly when the quality (nutrients) of the fuel is high. But having less calories does not mean you need to eat less.

Consider whether you could eat the following in one sitting:

  1. A quarter-pound fast food burger with cheese

  2. Medium fries

  3. Medium soda

Most people can polish that off and maybe even want a bit more. Now how about this meal:

  1. 2 Roasted Chicken Breasts w/ 2 Tbsp. BBQ Sauce

  2. 1/2 lb. Lobster w/ 1/2 Tbsp Butter

  3. 2 Sweet Potatoes w/ 1 Tbsp Brown Sugar and Cinnamon

  4. 2 Cups Steamed Broccoli w/ Lemon

  5. 2 Cups Spinach Sauteed in Garlic & 1 Tsp. Olive Oil

  6. AND a 6 inch turkey Subway sub (no cheese or oil)

Most of us probably can’t pack away that much food in one sitting. But what’s the one similarity between the two meals? They are the same number of calories! About 1321 calories to be exact. This is how high calorie, low nutrient foods make us gain weight. We can eat more of it and still not be satisfied! The second “meal” can probably satisfy you for lunch, dinner and a snack or two!

Also, foods with higher nutrient values tend to keep us feeling fuller longer because:

  1. 1. We are providing our body with both the quantity and quality of fuel it needs to run

  2. 2. High nutrient foods usually have fiber, protein and/or water which helps us feel full faster

By following the idea of nutrient density, we can classify thousands of foods into one of four categories based on calories (high vs. low) and nutrients (high vs. low). Let’s take a look at each of the categories with examples:

  1. 1. Low Calorie, High Nutrient Foods: Most fruits and vegetables

  2. 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. 3. Low Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Lo-cal/”Diet” foods, hard candy, Popsicles

  4. 4. High Calorie, Low Nutrient Foods: Doughnuts, ice cream, candy bars, cake, cookies, fried foods, triple bacon cheeseburgers, alcohol

Obviously we want to shift from high calorie, low nutrient foods toward low calorie, high nutrient foods. But look again and consider where you see the “healthy” foods. It’s not as simple as high calories vs. low calories. Some foods that are high in calories, such as nuts, olive oil, avocado, salmon, low-fat milk and brown rice give us a lot of other great nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids that our body needs to survive and perform. But we need to control how much of them we have, because ultimately eating more calories than we burn leads to weight gain. Ultimately, we want to eat foods that give us something back in return.

Your Take Home Message: In the end if we are trying to lose weight, we want to maximize nutrients while reasonably minimizing calories so we can satisfy our body’s needs while still being in a moderate calorie deficit. In other words, we want to maximize the “nutrient bang for our calorie buck.”

My post next week will discuss each of the four nutrient density categories in greater detail and the roles they play in our eating habits.

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