Ask a Nutritionist: What is Caloric Density?
One of the most annoying things about starting a new diet or changing your lifestyle is the counting of things. Whether it is how many miles you walked, or how many calories are in that salad, it can get overwhelming. Especially if you are not a numbers person, or have a hard time reading tiny labels. So, is there some sort of system in place that can appeal to common nutritional sense, and help you make better food choices overall? Luckily, there was something that exists to help you generally get in the right mindset without having to overcalculate. The measurement of caloric density.
The Nature of Calories
What is caloric density? First, before we introduce the concept, you want to understand the very nature of calories.
We know that calories are a unit of energy that we get from food. And we do need them to survive because we naturally burn them to a degree. However, there is only so much that we can naturally burn off. Our bodies for the most part, when they reach physical maturity need about 2,000 calories for sustainability. Any more than that and we store it in our bodies as auxiliary energy for times of starvation, aka fat. Any less and our bodies will lose mass through starvation.
So, where does caloric density come in? It comes in when you try to balance getting enough nutrients, feeling full, and not adding unnecessary calories to the mix.
Aside: Higher Caloric Density means Less Satiety
Not only does it add unnecessary units of energy away that get stored as fat, but it also decreases the chances of satiety. Because not only are foods with a higher density have a higher calorie count, they are not usually filling. High-calorie counts attach themselves the most to oils and sugars. Things with a higher fiber count and are harder to digest often offer little in the way of caloric density.
Since when have you ever heard of a person feeling full after eating a chocolate bar? You wouldn’t.
The Density Scale
When something is dense, we usually picture something that is thick or super heavy. Like a metal block that is so tightly packed it’s hard to pick up. This is because density is a scientific word related to the measurement of weight and volume. So when you put the words together and try to relate it to food, you realize that the term “caloric density” is the amount of volume in a serving of food.
When the density is on the higher end of the scale, that means there are more calories in a serving of food. When the density is on the lower end of the scale, then there are a lot fewer calories on the scale per serving.
The scale itself is more simple and possibly effective compared to calorie counting when it comes to weight management. It is also can help people eat more filling portions overall, while still decreasing caloric intake. This is the science that often is behind the “points” system of weight watchers.
And it is effective. According to healthline.com “Several studies have shown that individuals who consume low-calorie-density diets also eat fewer total calories per day. This is linked to lower body weight, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference. ”
But caloric density is not just limited to the type of food that exists.
Cooking Processes and Caloric Density
Calories are not just a byproduct of food content. They also change by the cooking process. For instance, according to a nutritionist article, “Frying a food increases its caloric density 3.5 times more. One serving of boiled potato contains only 0.87 calories per gram but one serving of french fries contains 3.07 calories per gram.”
And this isn’t just limited to frying, “Dehydrating fruit is a good way to increase its density by almost 5 times more! Raisins contain 5 times more calories per serving than grapes (and they are the same fruit).”
Cooking methods can not only change the composition of vitamins and minerals in a food item but can also add to the caloric density into a type of food. It is why fried foods triple the caloric density of the food. It is also why many a nutritionist, scientists, and people who understand how it works talk about how bad fast food is for you.
Rules of Thumb for Caloric Density
The fact is, we could easily reverse our country’s exploding health care budget if we threw out all the calorie counters and followed a simple calorie density chart. There are just three key rules:
- The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the better.
- For at least 90 percent of your daily diet, stick Vegetables, Fruits, Whole Grains, Legumes, and Nonfat Dairy
- Pick one food from the meat category(seafood, lean poultry, lean red meat) – and no more than 4 ounces a day – to keep your arteries in good shape.