Why Calories Are Important (But Not In The Way You Think)

Written by Dr. Alona Pulde

You've probably heard it before: Do this diet and you'll be thin. Eat this way and you'll be happy.

Unfortunately, the process is rarely enjoyable, few people actually remain thin (or happy) and sometimes, a diet can even make you sick. That magic pill, potion or program being sold doesn't work. That much we know and that's why we're forever looking for the next best thing. What you may not know is that it doesn't work because it can't.

Let's start from the beginning: the focus on calories. If we increase the number of calories in our diet without an increased energy need, we'll gain weight due to our body's desire to store any unused energy. Conversely, if we eat less of them, the pounds will come off as we burn through our energy stores. People's understanding of this has led many to read labels and seek out foods with limited calories.

The problem with decreasing calories is that the only way to do this on the Standard American Diet is to decrease the quantity of food we eat. However, we need to eat a certain quantity of food at each meal before our stomach stretches enough to signal satiety. Restricting and portion control leads to less volume of food, less stomach stretch and more feelings of hunger.

In other words, this diet strategy only works for people who don't mind feeling hungry and it does nothing to address the medical issues resulting from consuming smaller quantities of these same unhealthy foods. If only there was a way to get fewer calories while still stretching the stomach adequately enough to shut off hunger signals.

Lucky for us there is!

One of the major advantages of a whole-food, plant-based diet is that these foods have a lot more bulk since they contain more fiber and water than the standard American "diet" foods. This bulk takes up more space, so our stomachs end up stretching sufficiently to shut off hunger signals despite our having consumed fewer calories overall.

Because animal foods contain no fiber and little water, and processed foods have most of their fiber and water removed, a whole-food, plant-based diet is the only way to eat if you want to feel full while also consuming fewer calories.

Now while we don't recommend that you count calories, we do think it's helpful to understand calorie density, the number of calories in a given weight of food. We tend to express this as calories per pound.

Certain foods have more calories packed into them pound-for-pound. For example, leafy vegetables contain 100 to 200 calories per pound while oil contains 4,000 calories per pound. If you're eating a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains and legumes, the meals you consume will average a calorie density of approximately 550 (or fewer) calories per pound.

Eating in this range will provide both the correct number of calories and the appropriate volume of food needed to properly and timely signal your body that it's had enough to eat, helping you reach or maintain a healthy body weight.

While it's common for people to believe that body weight is primarily determined by our ability to control portions and "walk away from the table," the reality is quite different. Body weight is more a function of food choices. The more calorie-dense our food is, the more likely we'll be to find ourselves overweight because foods with a high calorie density take up less space in your stomach, leading you to consume more calories than you need in order to feel full.

For example, 500 calories of baked potatoes will provide over three times the stretch in your stomach than 500 calories of those same potatoes fried in oil. This means you can satiate yourself with 1/3 of the calories by simply consuming baked potatoes until full instead of French fries.

The bottom line is that in order to reach a comfortable body weight, we simply need to choose the right foods. This is much easier, more effective and enjoyable than counting calories and controlling portion sizes. If we choose the whole, plant-based foods that are healthy for us, our body's natural mechanisms for controlling weight will take care of the rest.

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