What is calorie density?
Calorie density is a measure of the ratio of calories to weight or mass of a food. A calorie dense food is a food that is relatively high in calorie content given its mass. Calorie dense foods contain a lot of calories in a small amount of space.
What is Nutrient Density?
Nutrient density is defined as the number of beneficial nutrients per calorie of food. Foods with more nutrients in a given number of calories are considered more nutrient dense food choices. To help demonstrate the concepts of nutrient density and calorie density, I developed the following visual demonstration inspired by the work of Dr. John McDougall, MD.
Stomach vs Stomach: Nutrient Density and Calorie Density
Nutrient density vs. calorie density is a choice we make whenever we eat or drink. To help explain this choice, consider the four different fish bowl “stomachs” above. Each fish bowl is 1 liter, roughly the size of a human stomach. Each bowl contains 500 calories of “corn.” However, each of these 500-calorie meals is vastly different in what they deliver to the body. The bowl on the left contains 500 calories of whole corn. The whole-food version of corn is corn as it is found growing in the garden. This meal of corn contains carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, water, and an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. The 500 calories of corn chips is made of processed corn and corn oil with added salt. Notice the corn chips don’t fill up the stomach as much as the whole corn. They are more calorie dense and less nutrient dense than the whole food. Soda contains corn syrup, the isolated sugar from corn. Corn oil is the isolated fat from corn. Both corn syrup and corn oil are essentially one isolated macronutrient which is void of any essential vitamins or minerals. The chart below shows the nutrients contained in each stomach. Do you notice which number appears most in the columns for the 500-calorie soda or corn oil meals?
The Problem with Calorie Dense Foods
While evolution may have programmed us to seek out calorie dense foods in order to maximize the energy we were taking in, and increase our chances of survival and reproduction, in today’s world eating too many calorie dense foods can lead to excess weight gain and a host of additional health problems. One reason why calorie density can be a problem is because our stomach has stretch receptors that trigger satiety – the feeling of fullness that triggers us to stop eating. While whole plant foods fill up our stomachs with fiber and water and help trigger satiety, calorie dense animal foods and processed foods don’t have the bulk or water weight that help fill our stomachs up. Without our stomachs feeling physically full, we tend to want to keep eating. For example, to fill us up it may take more than ten chicken nuggets, which have 500 calories, or a whole bowl of lentil soup, which has just 100 calories. Whole plant foods fill us up with fewer calories which help us maintain a healthy weight naturally.
Nutrient Dense Foods Promote Wellness
The most nutrient dense foods available are whole plant foods. While processed foods always lose nutrients during processing, and most often become more calorie-dense, whole foods retain the whole package of macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytonutrients. Nutrient dense foods give the greatest nutritional benefit per serving, and why would’t you want the best for your body. Choosing a variety of nutrient dense whole foods from all the colors of the rainbow will ensure you are getting sufficient amounts of all essential nutrients, plus the protective benefits that phytonutrients offer.
The Stomach vs Stomach contest for nutritional value is always won by the whole plant food. The demonstration with oranges, pictured above, again shows how the 500 calories of whole oranges is nutritionally superior to any of the processed food options. When you choose whole plant foods you also make the nutrient-dense food choice that supports your bodies health and wellness. 🍊
The nutrition demonstrations pictures in this article were developed for LearnNutritionScience.com. For your guide to 133 nutrient dense whole plant food meals, check out The Frugivore Diet.