When you think of the word “diet,” what comes to mind?
Being hungry, cranky and anxious? Depriving yourself of foods you love?
If you think of these things, you’re not alone. Many people hoping to lose weight approach dieting with this mindset, only to give up a few days or weeks later.
The key to diet success is not deprivation. If you’re hungry, you’re going to be more likely to snack, cheat or give up altogether.
So how can you eat a health-conscious diet and still feel satisfied? It all comes down to nutrient density.
To understand the concept of nutrient density, you must first understand that not all foods are equal when it comes to nutrient content and energy density.
Foods with concentrated nutrient content enable our body to reap the most benefits by providing maximum vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients, and other nutrients per each calorie consumed. This means that our bodies can get all the necessary nutrients in order to stay healthy and full with a smaller amount of food, which helps prevent overeating.
Meanwhile, foods with concentrated energy content—measured in calories per gram—enable us to eat more to get the same amount of important and necessary nutrients. This can easily translate into eating more calories than we can burn, leading to unwanted weight gain, among other problems. Most common sources of energy-dense foods we eat come from “empty calorie” or “junk” foods/drinks with added sugars, added fats, and refined grains (aka pastries, fried foods and fast food).
By seeking out foods that are high in nutrients but low in energy density, you’ll be able to eat larger portions without excessive weight gain, satisfying your body’s nutritional needs and your hunger in the process.
Clinical studies have shown that eating a diet filled with low-energy-dense foods was more successful in helping participants lose weight than in eating a fat-restricted or portion-restricted diet.
That’s right—when you stick to low-energy-dense foods, you can actually eat more and still lose weight.
What are some nutrient-dense, low-energy foods?
- Fruits, especially fiber-rich ones like berries, apples and oranges
- Vegetables, especially greens and cruciferous ones like broccoli and cauliflower
- Soups (broth-based)
- Poultry (skinless, lean)
- Nuts & seeds
- Whole grains
And there are many, many others. For a comprehensive list of high-nutrient, low-energy foods, check out this library from Whole Foods. It ranks hundreds of foods based on their ANDI score, or ‘Aggregate Nutrient Density Index.’ The higher the score, the higher the nutrient density.
You can also eat more of your favorite foods by practicing a little clever plating.
Let’s say you love white pasta, for example. It’s not necessarily the greatest for you nutritionally, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have it in moderation from time to time.
Instead of cooking up a giant bowl of pasta, stick to a regular portion size, which is a much more moderate half a cup. Before you indulge, serve up a rich green salad filled with spinach, arugula, tomatoes, broccoli, and watercress, with few slices of chicken breast, all of which are nutrient-dense.
By the time you eat your pasta, four ounces will be plenty to satisfy both your hunger and your craving for the grains.
You can practice this same tactic with nearly any of your favorite indulgent foods.
By paying attention to nutrient density and eating a diet filled with low-energy-dense foods, you can satisfy your hunger and lose weight without deprivation or completely giving up your favorite foods.