Weight Loss through the Magic of Calorie Density

15 Apr

In 2002, I weighed 260 pounds. In January, 2003, my wife started working at losing weight. Her doctor had threatened her with having to take hypertension medication for the rest of her life and she didn’t want to do that, so she was strongly motivated to reduce her salt intake and lose weight to get her blood pressure under control.

I wanted to weigh less and feel better, so I joined her. At first, we counted calories and tried various strategies we had learned in the past. We had both done Weight Watchers, so we used what we had learned there.

After we had each lost about halfway to our respective goal weights, we ran out of steam. It got very difficult to continue losing. Remembering a book she had read years before, Karen went to our local used book store and tracked down another copy of Dr. McDougall’s book, The Mcdougall Program for Maximum Weight Loss. We started implementing Dr. McDougall’s ideas and started making progress again. Dr. McDougall’s approach also helped us find new ways to reduce our sodium consumption, so our blood pressures continued to improve as well.

In 2004, I was weighing in at around 190 pounds. In the summer of 2006, I hit my low weight of 175. Over the course of the next couple of years, I gradually regained to 190, not because I went off the program, but for reasons that will become clear as we explore the concept of caloric density.

I eat about 4 pounds of food every day. If each of those pounds contained 1000 calories, I’d be eating around 4000 calories a day. But a pound of what I eat averages around 500 calories. So I wind up in the neighborhood of about 2000 calories per day.

Foods available to humans vary widely in terms of how many calories each pound contains. Oil is the most calorie dense food on the planet at 4000 calories per pound. Green and yellow vegetables (kale, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, carrots, summer squash, etc.) comprise the least calorie dense group of foods there is, averaging around 100 calories per pound. That’s a ratio of 40:1. Caloriewise, oil is 40 times as concentrated as vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables have the fewest calories and the most nutrients

Photo courtesy of

That this is the case offers us an amazing way of reducing the number of calories we take in without deprivation or hunger. If we adjust the average caloric density of our diet downward, we’ll take in fewer calories while eating the same volume of food.

Researchers like Roy Walford have found one reliable way to extend the lifespan of experimental animals of all kinds. It’s not a genetic manipulation. You would think that well fed animals would be healthier and live longer than animals that receive less, but that has not turned out to be the case. In fact, research has consistently shown that as long as nutrient requirements are met, calorie restriction over time within limits leads to greater longevity in experimental animals. Restricting calories too much (over 50%) eventually results in starvation. However, more moderate calorie restriction has consistently produced extended lifespans in the animals studied. There is every reason to believe that the same will hold true for humans.

Survival of Mice on Various Degrees of Calorie Restriction

Source: Roy Walford, M.D., "Beyond the 120 Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years", 2000.

Calorie restriction through portion control leaves the victim hungry and wanting more. Calorie restriction through reducing the average caloric density of the diet, so that we continue eating the same volume of food, has the potential to painlessly, effortlessly (well, almost) let us shed pounds, regain glowing health, and live longer with less illness.

The only way to achieve calorie restriction without reducing the amount of food eaten is by eating mostly foods lower in calorie density. So, what does that mean in practice? How can we tell which foods to choose and which to avoid? We can learn the average caloric density of various groups of food and let that knowledge guide our choices. Here it is:

Average Cal/LB
brocolli, cauliflower, spinach, kale
apple, banana, watermelon
Starchy Vegetables
white potatos, sweet potatos, winter squash
Whole, Intact Grains
rice, wheat berries, oats, millet
beans, lentils
Lean Meat
lean beef, skinless chicken
Steak, Eggs
beef, chicken eggs
Refined Grains
1200 – 1500
breads, cakes, pastries
1200 – 1800
mozzarella, cheddar
Nuts and Seeds
2600 – 2800
walnuts, peanuts, almonds
canola, olive, sunflower

Experiments based on the concept of calorie density have shown that when humans eat a diet averaging 400 calories per pound or less, they lose weight. Eating between 400 and 800 calories per pound on average, they stayed about the same, subject to their level of exercise. Eating over 800 calories per pound caused almost everyone to gain weight. The only exception was elite athletes who were very active. Over 1200 calories per pound, everyone gained, no matter how active.

In choosing foods with low caloric density, water is our friend. Water content tends to reduce caloric density by increasing the weight of the food. Pasta and Italian bread contain the same ingredients but a pound of cooked pasta will contain about half the calories of a pound of bread because of the water absorbed during cooking the pasta. In general, baked and fried foods (i.e., food cooked without water) tend to be more calorie dense.

Photo courtesy of

So now you know the secret. Simply focus on the foods that fall near the beginning of the table and avoid or minimize the foods toward the bottom of the table. If you find yourself hungry, eat some more. Eating this way, there’s never a need to deprive yourself. It’s not a good idea to gorge, but you can eat veggies and fruit to satisfaction and still lose weight. It’s the foods high in calorie density that get us in trouble.

You also know why my weight crept up between 2006 and 2010 — the average caloric density of the food I was eating was a little too high. Between the ages of 8 and 17, I lived in Indonesia and learned to love Indonesian peanut sauce. One of the recipes in one of Dr. McDougall’s books is a simple and yummy peanut sauce recipe that I was using almost every day. That was enough to raise the caloric density of my diet a little too much.

Since the foods near the top of the table (i.e., veggies and fruit) are the most nutrient dense foods, you don’t have to worry whether you’re getting all your nutrient requirements. The government recommends that we eat 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day because that’s where the nutrients are. Cows and pigs and elephants grow big and strong because they eat plants. They get all the protein and fat and calcium and other nutrients they need from the plants they eat. We can, too. All the protein we need is available in whole plant foods.

We can get along fine without animal foods, eating only plants (I’m living proof, having eaten essentially no meat, eggs, or dairy since 2004). I call my way of eating a “holophyte” (meaning whole plant) diet. Words like “vegetarian” and “vegan” only tell what a person doesn’t eat. What we do eat is what really matters, so I prefer a name that reflects what I do eat rather than what I don’t.

We cannot thrive on a purely animal food diet. Societies that have tried, like the Inuit, tragically have a somewhat elevated incidence of osteoporosis and shortened average life span. The human organism is very adaptable, but some foods do work better than others.

In contrast, societies that have exceptional lifespans, like the Okinawans, have traditionally subsisted primarily on vegetables and starches — sweet potatos, rice, and greens. And the Okinawans have traditionally practiced what they call hara hachi bu — eating only until they are 80% full. Their culture has taught them to practice calorie restriction, which may help explain their unusually long lifespans.

So the peanut sauce is gone and I’m eating my food “undressed” these days, and the extra ten or fifteen pounds I’ve been wanting to lose are starting to come off.

Note: I am not a doctor and this article is intended only to be informative. Please don’t take it as medical advice. If you have health concerns, please consult your health care provider.


Posted by on 2011/04/15 in nutrition


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16 responses to “Weight Loss through the Magic of Calorie Density

  1. JDLang

    2012/04/06 at 00:53

    I’m very interested in “calorie density”. I would love to learn more, as I am trying to lose weight. Any additional information would be helpful.

    • Tom

      2012/04/06 at 06:16

      Hi, JD,

      Thanks for the comment. My wife is a follower of Dr. John McDougall ( and I’m a follower of my wife. Most of our information has come from her reading of the books and websites of Dr. McDougall, Jeff Novick (, Colin Campbell, Rip Esselstyn, etc. There’s more on calorie density specifically in Jeff Novick’s posts on Dr. McDougall’s forum. For example, Once you’re in the forum, you can do searches for “calorie density” and find more. I hope this helps.


  2. weight loss

    2012/11/30 at 12:24

    May I simply just say what a relief to find someone that genuinely knows what they are talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people must read this and understand this side of your story. I can’t believe you’re not more popular since you definitely possess the gift.

    • Tom

      2012/11/30 at 19:58

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Weight Loss.

  3. PB

    2013/01/28 at 14:12

    Recumbo, I see you ride a trike. I ride a bent myself but I found this though the calorie density post. I’m a calorie density fundamentalist and I will hold down folks and “preach them the good word” any chance I get. Well, I’m really not that bad, but almost. Btw, are on BROL?

    • Tom

      2013/01/28 at 19:07

      Not on BROL. My attempts to register there have never been successful for some reason. I am on

      Actually, my wife rides the trike. I have a two-wheeler (an old USS Vision R-60).

      Thanks for the comment. That’s awesome that we have so much in common! Whereabouts are you located?

      • PB

        2013/01/28 at 21:37

        I’m in CT. I ride an easy racers bike but I also still ride upright bikes. Too cold and snowy to ride right now so I’m walking and hiking instead–but once the warm weather hits, I’m all in on cycling. Btw, I’m registered on but I only posted once or twice. I don’t really spend much time on any forums any more but there are quite a few food and nutrition threads on BROL and I get sucked into them because of some of the foolishness people post.

  4. Tom

    2013/01/30 at 17:55

    @PB: Interesting. My wife grew up in Stratford, CT. We live in Oak Ridge, TN, now. Sounds like you’re really keeping the faith. Props to you.

  5. Andera Roule

    2013/02/07 at 20:33

    I do trust all the concepts you have introduced to your
    post. They are really convincing and can certainly work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are too short for starters. Could you please extend them a bit
    from next time? Thank you for the post.

    • Tom

      2013/02/18 at 06:57

      Thanks for the comment, Andera. I notice that I often don’t make it all the way to the end of longer blog posts. I guess we have a different sense of what the best length is. I appreciate hearing your perspective.


    2013/03/21 at 21:06

    fantastic put up, very informative. I wonder why the
    opposite specialists of this sector do not notice this.
    You must continue your writing. I’m confident, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!


    2013/08/03 at 05:43

    Wow, fantastic blog structure! How lengthy have you ever been running a blog for?
    you made running a blog glance easy. The total glance of your
    web site is great, as well as the content!

    • Tom

      2013/08/03 at 12:34

      Thank you for the kind words. I’ve been blogging for a few years now, not very intensively or frequently, but it’s something I enjoy. Thank you for visiting.

  8. landog

    2017/02/10 at 19:47

    Hi Tom,
    I hope that you and your wife are still having success with this lifestyle!

    • Tom

      2017/02/12 at 05:37

      Thanks, Landog!

      We are. I can’t imagine what our lives would’ve been like without it. We have had our challenges from time to time, but I think our lifestyle choices have helped us survive them and thrive in ways that would not have possible for us otherwise.

      I hope you and your family are well. Thanks for the comment. It’s good to hear from you again.


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