With so much misinformation in the media and at the water cooler about nutrition, it can be so hard to know what factors are actually important in the food you eat.
Do you need to eat all organic? What about GMOS? Should you eat all paleo food? Maybe only “superfoods”? And what about wheat and dairy?
Given the fact that the mainstream media likes to flip flop their nutritional stances every 10 years (fat is bad for you! Fat is good for you, carbs are bad! Carbs are good for you, GMOs are bad!) it’s no wonder so much confusion exists today.
Our goal with this post is to give you a few useful, practical ways of judging the quality of the foods you eat.
Here they are:
Chances are good you’ve heard of the concept of nutrient density before, so we’ll start there first. If nutrient density was a mathematical equation, it would be:
Nutrients / calories = nutrient density (higher is better)
Nutrients would be defined as things such as vitamins and minerals. So, using this equation, vegetables would be super high in nutrient density, because they have a lot of valuable vitamins and minerals in them, while not having very many calories.
Nutrient density is important, especially if you want to make sure you are being healthy. But for the purposes of losing weight, two other metrics are even more useful.
If you know nothing else about nutrition, knowing how the concept of calorie density applies to your own eating patterns will take you a very long way.
The equation of calorie density looks like this:
Calorie Density = calories in food per serving / (how satisfying the food is + how long does the food take to eat)
Basically, calorie density means: how easy is it to stuff your face with a food and consume a lot of calories quickly?
And here, unless you are aiming on gaining weight or muscle, a lower calorie density is better than a higher one.
Let’s use a few examples to illustrate why calorie density is so useful.
Ice cream is very high in calories for a given serving, and can be eaten very quickly. It’s relatively satisfying, but otherwise has a high calorie density.
Chips are a perfect example of a high calorie density food, because of their high fat content (and this calorie content), how non-filling they are (you famously can’t eat just one chip) and how quickly you can plow through a bag of Doritos.
Bread would be another high calorie density food, because as anyone who loves freshly baked bread will attest, it can be incredibly easy to quickly eat most of a loaf of bread, especially if oil, butter, or jelly are included in the mix.
However, lean grilled chicken breast is fairly low in calories, but more importantly, takes quite a bit of time to chew and eat. And most people can eat a lot more bread than chicken.
Same goes for most vegetables. Even if veggies like carrots can be eaten pretty quickly, they have such a low amount of calories per serving that they have a low calorie density. And salads often take quite a while to consume.
Calorie density is such an important concept because we all only have so much room in our stomachs, and time to eat meals.
So, if we are eating foods that are relatively low in calories, take a fair amount of time to finish, and are satisfying, then even if we don’t think about nutrition any further, we’ve already set ourselves up for weight loss and maintenance success.
And while you may need to look at labels for the calorie content, your gut intuition works pretty well for calorie density, because you know how satisfying certain foods tend to make you, and how much chewing is involved.
A final “density” measure that can be very useful, particularly if you are trying to lose weight, is protein density. Protein density’s equation would look like this:
Protein Density = grams of protein in a serving of that food / number of calories in that serving of food.
Generally, if you are trying to eat more protein (which is a good goal, as protein is quite filling and encourages muscle growth in the context of working out) you’ll want to eat foods with each meal that have at least 10 grams of protein relative to every 100 calories per serving. That is our standard baseline of a “high in protein food”.
For example, the Oikos “Triple Zero” Greek yogurt has 15 grams of protein but only 120 calories, making it a high density protein source. However, almonds, which are often marketed as a good protein source, only have 6 grams of protein for every 120 calories. That means when you’re eating almonds, you’re getting more calories from fat than anything else.
This isn’t a bad thing, as healthy fats are important in moderation. But if you want to eat a food high in protein, almonds aren’t your best choice.
This also explains why you can get plenty of protein in your diet but still be overeating on calories, as many fattier cuts of meat such as bacon, or hamburgers, have tons of calories from fat in them. Which is one reason that simply “eating high protein” alone might not work for losing weight.
Generally, you want to eat food that is as close to its original form as found in nature as possible.
For example, it’s much better to eat apples than it is to eat apple sauce, or apple juice.
This is because processing usually adds sugar, fat, or calorie density to a food by making it easier to eat.
A less extreme example would be eating brown rice or whole grain rice vs eating white rice, the main difference being that white rice has more processing involved, which makes it lower in fiber.
In the grocery store, this means sticking to the refrigerated aisles and produce sections, and avoiding the inner aisles of the store as much as possible. So think fruits, veggies, meats, seafood, and dairy products (if you tolerate them), and less pasta, bread, premade sauces, peanut butter, and frozen dinners.
Another rule of thumb: try to buy foods that don’t come in boxes, or foods that are a brand name. So, instead of buying “Chicken in a Biscuit” crackers, buy chicken breast. Or, instead of buying Gushers or Fruit by the Foot, buy fruit.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule. A prime example would be frozen fruit and vegetables, which are often much cheaper (and even fresher) than the room temperature produce you find at most grocery stores. And frozen vegetables have a lot less sodium in them than most canned vegetables as well.
While everyone knows vegetables are good for you, most people don’t eat vegetables consistently.
Why? Because they don’t enjoy the taste of vegetables, the experience of eating them. And if you don’t enjoy eating a food, you can only willpower yourself through for so long before you stop buying that food or it starts to spoil in your fridge.
Taste is very subjective, so we don’t have much guidance to offer you here, other than these tips:
If you hate vegetables, that’s OK. But be specific: which vegetables do you absolutely loathe? Which can you tolerate, and maybe learn to enjoy?
Then, remember: taste is learned. You probably eat many foods now that you didn’t when you were a young child. Give yourself the opportunity to learn to enjoy new foods.
Fresh, high quality veggies from a farmers’ market will usually taste a lot better than the vegetables you find at most grocery stores. Farmers’ market veggies are also usually a lot cheaper than their grocery store counterparts.
Finally, once you have good ingredients, even a basic understanding of cooking will make it much easier and cheaper for you to enjoy eating healthy food.
So, the key mindsets here are emotional honesty, a willingness to explore, and a desire to master new skills.
The key habits are regularly going to a farmers’ market, health food store, or a grocery store with an excellent produce section, and committing to learning how to cook vegetables in ways that taste good.
Because no matter which of the 3 food mastery metrics you use, vegetables should be a staple, a foundation of your diet.
As far as the rest of your diet goes, look for high protein foods to include, and consider calorie density, nutrient density, and levels of processing when evaluating your food choices.