Eat more and lose weight – what calorie density is all about

Lately I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about ‘calorie density’.   Once you understand it, weight loss and maintaining optimal weight is a lot easier.

Calorie density is simply the amount of calories in a serving of food.  

Some foods have a high amount of calories per serving, and a relatively  low amount of nutrients, while other foods have a smaller number of calories per serving but a large amount of nutrients.

calorie density

In general, animal foods are high in calorie density while plants are low in calorie density.  However, some plant foods are high in calorie density, like nuts for example. A handful of nuts has 150-200 calories and 15-20 grams of fat.  Most times we’re eating a lot more than one handful!

It’s not that we shouldn’t eat nuts, but if you’re trying to lose weight or eat low-fat, nuts can hinder your goal if you’re eating too many.  For weight loss, high fat plant foods should be eaten sparingly or as part of a meal. For instance, a few avocado slices on a sandwich, not a bowl of guacamole with chips; or a dressing with almond butter in it for your thai salad, not almonds by the handful in your car.  Get the idea?

My husband is 6’3” and 175 pounds,  works out, has trouble keeping weight ON and no heart disease, he is more than welcome to have a peanut butter energy bite (recipe below).  However, myself, who is trying to maintain my weight and even lose another 15 pounds, should not be snacking away on those peanut butter bites.  —Even though they’re plant-based!

Just because something is labeled as “plant-based” doesn’t mean that it is healthy for you.

Many times there are a lot of added fats, oils, sugar and salt. Ultimately, you want to eat foods that are in their whole form, not processed – fresh produce, dry rice, beans and lentils…you get the picture.

Our ancestors ate plants

Back when our ancestors were traipsing through the wilderness, living in huts and foraging for food, they ate mostly things that were grown…potatoes, vegetables, grains, etc.  They didn’t always have easy access to food, nor were they eating the high fat stuff regularly . When they found it, they ate it because they didn’t know when they’d find it again and winter was coming.

Nowadays we’re tripping over high-fat/calorie-dense foods.  We have grocery stores with anything you could imagine, gas stations loaded with packaged snacks and restaurants offering delicious foods that you don’t even have to work to make.  Modern day living certainly has its advantages. Most of us can concentrate on other things in life, not just from where our next meal is going to come . We even eat while driving, walking, watching TV, and working.

However, as this convenience has become the norm, we expend less energy and continue to eat the calorie-dense/high-fat foods.  It’s a recipe for weight gain and poor health.

How do we fix this?

Well, we eat more of the calorie-dilute and nutrient-dense foods.  In other words…plant-based foods in their whole form. Our body is designed to help us do this.   Your stomach has special receptors that will tell you when it’s satisfied: when you’ve eaten enough in volume and in nutrients.

Let’s look at one of my favorite pictures to illustrate this picture from Forks Over Knives :

Calorie density explained by the team at Forks Over Knives

On the left side of the spectrum is 500 calories of oil, which is not nearly enough volume to fill us up so we’re going to eat more and that results in a huge amount of calories!

On the right side is 500 calories of vegetables, which would take all day to eat enough calories.

To feel full and satisfied we need both volume and nutrients: the fruit, veggies AND the whole grains: beans, potatoes and legumes.  When we fill up on the good stuff (calorie dilute/nutrient dense) we don’t have to worry about eating too much because we’ll be full and satisfied long before we hit an obnoxious number of calories.  (See our post on snacking)

While we don’t promote calorie counting, we certainly want you to understand what foods have more fat and calories in the plant-based world:

nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut

Enjoy your plant based meals with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, potatoes, beans, and lentils; then use the calorie dense plant-based foods to help flavor the meal…justa little bit. 😉  #plantbased #caloriedensity #eattooptimal

Happy eating,


Peanut Butter Balls

(Calorie dense plant-based snack)

the plant partners

2 c oatmeal

1 c peanut butter

1/2 c ground flax

1/2 c honey

2 T chia seeds

1/2 c chocolate chips

Combine all ingredients, mix well and roll into balls.  Refrigerate to chill and enjoy. Great for kids’ lunches or for people who want to gain weight while eating plant-based.

Baked potato

(Nutrient dense plant-based snack)

Yes, a plain baked potato…whatever color you want.  Add herbs, salsa or your favorite fat-free dressing.

Kale Cannellini Soup

(Once more nutrient dense plant-based recipe)

2   carrots, peeled and diced

2  celery stalks, diced

3  cloves garlic, minced

1 15-oz can diced tomatoes, with juice

7 c  water

2 T  tomato paste

1.5 t  oregano

2 t  parsley

2 t  thyme

large red potatoes

1  bayleaf

6 cups  kale, stemmed and chopped

1 15-oz can  cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

salt+pepper, to taste

In a soup pot on medium-high heat, sauté carrots, celery and garlic with a pinch of salt using a few splashes of water to keep things moving around the pan.   Once tender, add garlic and cook until fragrant.  Stir in tomatoes and juice, add another pinch of salt, and cook for about 8 minutes more.

Add water, tomato paste, oregano, parsley, thyme, potato and salt to taste.  Bring to a boil, add the bayleaf, cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.

Add kale and simmer until the kale is tender.  Taste and adjust salt+pepper.  Stir in the beans and heat through.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.