Caloric Density: The Ultimate Hunger-Free Weight Loss Plan

In a previous post, I wrote about how the secret to maintaining a healthy weight was to eat like the person you want to become, and consistently eat foods with a low caloric density. Let’s unpack that in a little more detail today.

When it comes to weight loss, dieting is not a long-term solution. Although a diet can result in a temporary weight reduction, it’s often water weight and even muscle that is lost, and the fat that is lost is often regained shortly thereafter. Diets are unsustainable. The secret to weight loss that lasts is to make a permanent lifestyle change.

The problem is that the world tells us that we should eat less and exercise more to lose weight. There’s a better way.

In his book The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss succinctly lays out the problem with using exercise as your weight loss plan:

“Did you eat half an Oreo cookie? No problem. If you’re a 220-pound male, you just need to climb 27 flights of stairs to burn it off.” -Tim Ferriss

Runners have another way of saying the same thing: “You can’t outrun a bad diet.”

Which brings us to the other solution the world offers: eating “healthier.” This is so vague as to be unhelpful, which is why we see completely contradictory weight loss plans. One focuses on having the dieter eat less fat, while another suggests that more fat (but fewer carbs!) is the answer. The average person feels helpless amid this sea of contradictory advice.

In my previous post, I included a link to this calorie expenditure calculator. I recommend that you plug in your desired weight and activity level, find out how many calories that person would burn off every day, and then begin to consume no more than that many calories each day.

Unfortunately, accomplishing that is easier said than done. If you’re the kind of person who can simply count calories and stop at your target number, go for it. I personally know very few people who are like that.

For most of us, having the will power to stick to a caloric goal is an ongoing challenge. For me, personally, I can have great resolve toward a diet plan one moment, and a few hours later, as the hunger pangs kick in, that resolve is gone.

This is why the caloric density approach is so beneficial. It allows you to lose weight and then maintain a healthy weight without ever needing to feel hungry. This is where the world’s advice goes wrong: You aren’t going to lose weight from eating “healthier” food — you’re going to lose weight from eating food that has a lower caloric density.

Let’s look at two extreme options: 100 grams worth of carrots vs. 100 grams worth of peanuts. Both of these two snacks weigh the same and thus will make you feel equally “full.” The carrots have approximately 0.4 calories per gram of weight, so that 100-gram snack would have about 40 calories in it. The peanuts, on the other hand, have 6 calories per gram of weight, so that 100-gram snack has a whopping 600 calories in it.

The caloric density of the peanuts is fifteen times greater than the caloric density of the carrots! You would have to eat 1,500 grams (about 3.3 pounds!) of carrots to get the same number of calories as you would in 100 grams of peanuts.

“But Mark,” you’ll say, “isn’t this just the same as all other diets? Eat healthy stuff and you’ll lose weight?”

Not exactly. Eating foods that are low in caloric density can be different from eating foods that are generally considered healthy. (Many people, for example, would consider nuts a relatively healthy snack; as we’ve just seen, they are actually one of the worst things imaginable for people trying to lose weight.)

As you start to read nutrition labels and you begin to divide out the number of calories per gram of different foods you eat, some of what you find will surprise you.

I was happily surprised to find that shrimp, which I had always thought of as a special treat, had just 70 calories in an 85-gram serving (0.82 calories per gram). My favorite tortillas, which I had always thought were a healthy part of a veggie fajita meal I regularly made, had 140 calories in a 45-gram serving (3.11 calories per gram). Until I embarked upon the Data-Driven Life, I never imagined that these certain tortilla shells had almost four times the caloric density of shrimp.

Now that I know this, I eat more shrimp and fewer tortilla shells (and I also switched to a different brand of tortilla shells with a caloric density of just over 2 calories per gram).

So yes, focusing on caloric density can definitely give you a different result than simply trying to “eat healthy food.”

So what is a good amount of calories per gram? And what is an unacceptable caloric density? Let’s do the math.

The average person tends to eat between 3-5 pounds of food per day, depending on their height, activity level, and gender. Let’s take the example of an overweight, 35-year-old, 5’11” man who weighs 220 pounds and is used to eating about 4.5 pounds of food per day. Let’s also say that he wants to get down to a healthy weight of 170 pounds. If we go to the caloric expenditure calculator and enter his desired info (170 pounds, 5’11”, light exercise), we can see that he should be eating no more than about 2,300 calories per day.

With about 450 grams in a pound, this man will generally feel full if he eats about 2,025 grams of food each day. 2,300 calories divided among 2,025 grams of food equal about 1.14 calories per gram. If this man can eat foods that, on average, have just 1.14 calories per gram in them, he can get to his healthy weight without ever feeling hungry.

That rate of calories per gram is incredibly consistent. Take the example of a 40-year-old, 5’5″ woman who weighs 160 pounds, is used to eating 3.5 pounds of food per day, and wants to get down to a healthy weight of 130 pounds. If we enter her desired info (130 pounds, 5’5″, moderate exercise) into the same calculator, we can see that she should be eating no more than about 1,900 calories per day. Since she’s currently used to eating 1,575 grams of food per day, she needs to eat food with an average of no more than 1.20 calories per gram to lose weight without ever feeling hungry.

So there’s the small difference you do get when you add in more exercise: our hypothetical man who only wanted to do light exercise needs to keep the caloric density of his food down to 1.14 calories per gram, whereas the woman willing to do moderate exercise can go up to 1.2 calories per gram.

Try running the numbers for yourself if you wish, but I think you’ll come up with something similar: you can lose all the weight you want without ever getting hungry if the average caloric density of your food remains at or below 1.1-1.2 calories per gram.

How can we make that happen? Let’s break the foods we eat down into four categories.

Category #1: Foods with up to 1 calorie per gram (less than 30 calories per ounce):

Foods with less than one calorie per gram (or 30 calories per ounce) are outstanding. You may eat as many of these as you wish. In fact, the more of these you eat, the more likely you are to lose weight. Your goal should be to have 70%+ of your calories come from food with this level of caloric density.

Category #2: Foods with 1-2 calories per gram (30-55 calories per ounce)

Foods with between one to two calories per gram (30-55 calories per ounce) are still reasonably good. Your goal should be to have no more than 20% of your calories come from food with this level of caloric density.

Category #3: Foods with 2-3 calories per gram (55-85 calories per ounce)

Foods with between two to three calories per gram (55-85 calories per ounce) should be limited. Your goal should be to have no more than 10% of your calories come from food with this level of caloric density.

Category #4: Foods with more than 3 calories per gram (over 85 calories per ounce)

Foods with between more than 3 calories per gram (over 85 calories per ounce) should be eaten in rare and limited situations, such as at a special event. On a typical day, none of your calories should come from food with this level of caloric density.

If you follow this 70%/20%/10% plan for the food you eat, and you avoid drinking any calories, you will lose weight without ever feeling hungry.

To be proactive and take the first step, I urge you to begin calculating the calories per gram of the various foods you typically eat.

You might be surprised (like I was with the shrimp vs. the tortillas) by which foods have unknowingly been sabotaging you and keeping you from a healthy weight all this time. You might also be pleasantly surprised by certain foods which you thought were treats but which are actually not very calorically dense at all.