My eating has evolved over the past year and I think I’ve settled on something that is both easy and healthy. I follow Jeff Novick’s principles of a healthy diet, which he briefly describes as “plant-centered, minimally processed, calorie dilute, low SOS (salt, oil, sugar)” in this interview. The calorie density approach is summarized in this newsletter article.
Calorie density is the number of calories per weight of a given food. For most people, if you keep your average calorie density below about 600 calories per pound, you can eat satisfying volumes of food and lose weight without going hungry. It turns out that a lot of the most satiating foods have a calorie density around 300-600 calories/lb, and the most healthy foods have a calorie density below 800. So that tells me all I need to know: Eat mostly foods with calorie density below 700 calories/lb, and consider the higher calorie density foods as condiments, or avoid them altogether. Here is a table of calorie density of foods:
Vegetables 60 - 195
Fruit 140 - 420
Potatoes, Pasta, Rice, Barley, Yams, Corn, Hot Cereals 320 - 630
Beans, Peas, Lentils (cooked) 310 - 780
Breads, Bagels, Fat-free Muffins, Dried Fruit 920 - 1360
Sugars (ie, sugar, honey, molasses, agave, corn syrup 1200 -1800
Dry Cereals, Baked Chips, Fat-free Crackers, Pretzels 1480 - 1760
Nuts/Seeds 2400 - 3200
You don’t have to count calories or measure foods to use this chart. My approach is to eat mostly from the top 4 lines (vegetables, fruit, starches & grains, beans), consider everything else condiments, and eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I try avoid salt, oil, sugar, caffeine, chocolate (yeah, sucks!), and alcohol altogether because of their disease-promoting and addictive qualities. The rest I limit or avoid as well.
If you don’t see a particular food on the above table, you can determine its calorie density by looking up its nutritional information (google it or check it out in a calorie counting website, e.g., cronometer). For example, take popcorn: Type into google “nutritional info air popped popcorn” and you find that 24 grams has 93 calories. Divide 93 by 24 to get calories per gram and then multiply by 454 to get calories per lb. This gives you 1760 calories/lb for air-popped poprcorn! It’s okay to eat it, but don’t use your stomach sensations as a guide for when to stop—that’s a key point of this is that your satiation mechanisms don’t work well with the high calorie-dense food because they pack a lot of calories in small volumes. If you use your stomach as a guide, you’ll eat a lot of more the calorie-dense foods before you decide you are full. Another example is rice cakes, which are right up there with the popcorn. Meat ranges from 600-1200, and ice cream from 1000-1500. Isn't it interesting that even fat-free bread, crackers, rice cakes and dry cereals have more calorie density than meat? This might explain why many diets promote meat and fish over breads and crackers. However, I would bypass the meat altogether and go straight for the potatoes and vegetables and fruit.
An easy way to follow this plan is to fill “1/2 your plate (by visual volume) with intact whole grains, starchy vegetables and/or legumes and the other half with vegetables and/or fruit.”
Another important point JN makes in his article is to not drink your calories (even fruit juices and smoothies): “Liquids have little if any satiety so they do not fill you up as much as solid foods of equal calories.”
You might be wondering: Aren’t there certain foods we should eat every day because they are so important? JN says there are no superfoods in this article. If you don’t like a particular food, that’s okay. However Dr. Esselstyn suggests we eat leafy green vegetables at every meal, or at least, regularly. I eat a lot of the green and yellow veggies (e.g., kale, collards, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower) and salads and raw vegetables. I also eat potatoes, sweet potatoes, intact whole grains (rice, oats, quinoa, buckwheat), and beans. And I eat some fruit, and very occasional nuts, dried fruit, and avocado. That’s all there is to it. If you want added insurance that you are getting enough essential fats, add a tablespoon of some ground flaxseed or chia seeds. But Drs. McDougall and Campbell say it’s not necessary if you eat leafy greens and don’t consume oil (I talked about it more in this post).
Since the low-calorie dense foods regulate appetite, and are also the healthiest, it’s win-win to eat this way.
I asked JN some followup questions about how this works, and you can see his replies here.
If you follow this approach, it ends up being very similar to that outlined by Dr. McDougall for his Maximum Weight Loss plan (summarized here and here) and by Dr.Esselstyn for reversing heart disease.