Calorie Density: The #1 Reason Why People Abandon Plant-Based Diets

By now, you’ve probably read many articles about the effectiveness of getting a low-fat, plant-based whole foods diet. If you’ve done any reading on this blog, you may have read about how a low-fat, plant-based whole foods lifestyle can reverse insulin resistance, reverse heart disease, reduce your cholesterol level, improve mitochondrial function, and improve beta cell function. In this article, you’ll learn why eating plant foods with a high calorie density is incredibly important when creating a long-term sustainable lifestyle.

You may have heard people make statements like:

“I was a vegetarian for 5 years and I went back to eating meat because I needed more protein”

or

“I was vegan for a few years and I felt weak so I now eat chicken and feel better.”

 

As a research-based nutrition and fitness coach, I hear people make statements like these all the time. People often tell me that they are concerned about not eating enough protein, feeling weak, and being tired all the time when eating a plant-based diet.

You maybe asking yourself is the following question: “If I eat a truly plant-based diet, will I also feel weak, lose energy and…fail?”

The truth is, the #1 reason why many people fail to develop a sustainable and long-term approach to plant-based nutrition…

  • is not because they didn’t eat enough protein
  • is not because they needed more chicken
  • is not because their body was asking for yogurt

but likely because they simply didn’t eat enough calories.

I’ll admit, it can be challenging to eat enough calories on a plant-based diet if you don’t have a strategy in place. That’s where understanding calorie density comes into play.

What is Calorie Density?

Simply stated, calorie density is a measure of the number of calories per bite in a given meal.

In general, animal products have a high calorie density and plants have a low calorie density. Foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products can pack on a large number of calories with every bite, whereas foods like beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables and leaves contain a small number of calories with every bite.

Let’s look at a simple example. Suppose you eat a hamburger. In order to finish the hamburger, it would most likely take you about 10 big bites. The total number of calories in a typical hamburger is about 550 cal. Therefore, with every bite of food, you would be eating approximately 55 calories. We say that the calorie density of this hamburger is about 55 calories per bite.

Now suppose you eat two large baked potatoes. Using a fork and knife, you eat these potatoes and it takes you approximately 10 bites per potato, for a total of 20 bites. The amount of energy in two baked potatoes is approximately 550 calories. Therefore the calorie density of the baked potato meal is 550 calories / 20 bites = 27.5 calories per bite.

Think about this for a second, because it’s very important. If you take 10 bites of a hamburger, you eat 550 calories. If you take 10 bites of a baked potato, you eat 275 calories. That’s a massive difference.

hamburger-baked-potato

So if you eat a baked potato instead of a hamburger, then you have to eat more bites in order to avoid being ravenously hungry and low energy a few hours later. It’s just that simple.

 

This simple calculation exemplifies the general difference in calorie density between animal foods and plant foods, and between refined foods and plant foods. With every bite, animal foods and refined foods contain a significantly larger amount of calories per bite than do plants.

So what does that mean for you if you’ve chosen to eat a plant-based diet? Does that mean that you’ll end up starving because you can’t find enough calories to eat? Does that mean you have to eat like a gorilla and spend 10-12 hours eating every day? Does it mean that all people who eat plant based diets will suffer from weight loss, in a never ending game of I-can’t-eat-enough-calories-to-save-my-life?

No. Absolutely not.

As I stated earlier, the #1 reason why many people fail to develop a sustainable and long-term approach to plant-based nutrition is not because they didn’t eat enough protein, not because they needed more chicken, not because their body was asking for yogurt, but because they simply didn’t eat enough calorie dense food.

How to Eat Enough Calories on a Plant-Based Diet

So if you’re eating a large amount of plants on a daily basis, how do you get enough calories to feel great?

 

It’s actually quite simple. If you’re a plant eater and you’re trying to stay weight stable or gain weight, simply shift your food intake towards foods higher on the calorie density scale. If you’re a plant eater trying to lose weight, then shift your intake of foods towards lower calorie density foods.

Problem solved.

Take a look at the following table below. In this table, you will see foods ranked form lowest to highest calorie density. In this table, foods are ranked by calories per pound, which is another acceptable way to express calorie density. Aim to eat foods between 300-800 calories per pound, and you can still maintain or lose weight easily. Eating foods with a calorie density between 800-4000 calories per pound often results in weight gain, metabolic disease, insulin resistance and inflammation.

calorie-density-list

Image adapted from: The Calorie Density Approach to Lifelong Weight Management

My Daily Calorie Density Strategy 

Below is a breakdown of what I eat on a daily basis, to give you an idea of how I structure my calorie density with each meal.

Approximate calorie target: 2800-3200 calories

Weight goal: maintain current body weight (160 pounds)

food-log

As you can see, I eat many plant foods with a high calorie density, in order to eat enough calories every day. You will see many foods with a “high” calorie density, which is fine as long as these foods come from the plant world.

Note that I do my best to front-load calorie density early in the day, so that I avoid feeling low energy in the middle and end of the day. By doing this, I allow myself to eat a dinner with low calorie density, which does two things:

  1. Reduces the amount of insulin necessary at the end of the day, keeping my BG very manageable
  2. Keeps my digestive system empty as I head to sleep, reducing my digestive burden in the middle of the night

Is Your Diet Sustainable?

So now it’s time to ask yourself a simple question – is your current diet sustainable in the long term? If you’re eating a plant-based diet and struggling with unexpected weight loss, fatigue or a feeling of having to eat constantly, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate whether the foods you’re eating are high enough on the calorie density scale.

Migrating towards a diet high in calorie density makes a significant difference for long-term sustainability, so ask yourself this question now before you decide what many people prematurely conclude:

“A plant-based diet isn’t working for me!”

 

Take Home Messages

  • The #1 reason why most people abandon plant-based diets is because they don't eat enough to calories, not because they were protein- or fat-starved
  • To avoid feeling low energy, eat plants with a high calorie density at every meal
  • Frontload your calorie density to ensure that you are eating enough calories early in the day, to avoid feeling low energy in the early and late PM hours

Leave a Comment Below

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If you’ve had a difficult time maintaining your weight on a plant-based diet, how did you fix the problem?

About The Author

Cyrus Khambatta

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 22, I have spent over a decade learning the fundamentals of nutrition at the doctorate level. My goal is to share my knowledge of practical nutrition and fitness with people with prediabetes, type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is an OPPORTUNITY to attain excellent health. Reversing the effects of insulin resistance can be a fun and enjoyable process if the right system is in place. That's why I've spent over 10 years developing a rock solid system that can minimize blood glucose variability and insulin resistance.

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