How I Used Calorie Density to Lose Weight – I’ll Never Diet Again!

POPSUGAR Photography / Jenny Sugar

Before the pandemic started in March 2020, I was doing CrossFit four to five days a week and doing extreme forms of intermittent fasting to lose the last five pounds my body was holding on to since my son was born eight years earlier. Spoiler alert: the restriction only made me overeat, which made losing weight impossible. During the pandemic, I was happily stress baking, but realised it only made me gain five more. But I was able to lose 11 pounds in two months without restricting when I ate and without tracking my calories, but instead by eating a huge volume of food and never feeling hungry. I used the principles of calorie density that I learned by reading Eat to Live and The Starch Solution.

By eating foods that are low in calorie density (have fewer calories per pound), you can fill your plate up without measuring your food, eat until you’re full, and lose weight without even trying. I know it sounds like a gimmick, but it’s really true! I’ve had such a long history of trying to lose weight since I was in high school, mostly by restricting when I ate. Now I eat whenever I want, which is at least four times a day, and I feel energized and happy! And the best part is that I can eat a large volume of these low-calorie dense foods, which makes me not even realise I’m eating in the slight calorie deficit I need to lose weight. And because these foods contain more water and fibre, they fill up my stomach so I feel satisfied for way longer than I did eating small servings of higher-calorie dense foods.

So which foods are low in calorie density? Veggies, fruits, legumes, and starches – all the good stuff! These whole, plant-based, high-carb, low-fat foods are what I ate mostly, which I love anyway since I’m vegan. Animal products, sugar, flour, processed foods, and high-fat foods are high in calorie density, and those are the foods I limited.

Here’s a basic breakdown shared by Craig McDougall, MD (son of John McDougall, MD, the author of The Starch Solution) in order from lowest to highest so you can get an overview of calorie density:

Food Calories per pound
Non-starchy veggies (carrots, broccoli, greens, tomatoes) 100
Fruits (bananas, apples, grapes, oranges) 300
Starches (potatoes, winter squash, corn) 400
Whole grains (oats, rice, millet, quinoa) 500
Legumes (lentils, black beans, chickpeas, split peas) 600
Higher-fat foods (avocado, chicken, and eggs) 700
Beef, tortilla, ice cream 1,000
Bread and dried fruit 1,200
Cheese and sugar 1,700
Cookies, chips, and chocolate 2,000 – 2,300
Nuts and seeds 2,800
Butter 3,200
Oils 4,000

Since most of us don’t necessarily measure our food in pounds, here’s a list to compare the amounts of what approximately 200 calories would be for common foods. If if you’re a visual person, I’ve taken photos of most of these foods so you can see calorie density come to life! These photos show what 200 calories looks like on your plate.

What 200 Calories Looks Like:

Veggies Amount
Baby carrots 500 grams or about 81 baby carrots
Broccoli 6 2/3 cups or about two medium crowns
Cauliflower rice 6 cups
Cherry tomatoes 7.4 cups or just over four pints
Mixed greens or baby spinach 28 cups
Fruits Amount
Apples 2 medium apples
Bananas 2 medium bananas
Grapes 4 cups
Raisins 1/3 cup
Strawberries 4 1/4 cups
Starches Amount
Butternut squash 3 1/4 cups
Corn 1 1/4 cups
Pasta 1/2 cup uncooked or 1 1/2 cups cooked
Rolled oats 2/3 cup uncooked or 1 1/2 cups cooked
Short grain brown rice 2/3 cup uncooked or 1 cup cooked
Sweet potato 1 7/8 medium or 1 3/4 cups
Legumes Amount
Black beans (canned) 1 1/4 cup
Garbanzo beans (canned) 4/5 cup
Hummus 6.7 tablespoons
Tofu (super extra firm) 1/3 of a block
Processed food, animal products, sweets Amount
Bagel 3/4 bagel
Chocolate chips 2 1/4 tablespoons
Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream 1/5 pint
Eggs 3 large
Fruit and nut granola 2/5 cup
Flour tortilla 1 1/3 tortillas
Ground beef (85% lean) 3.3 ounces
Oreos 3 cookies
Pretzels 52 grams or 40 pretzels
Shredded mozzarella cheese 2/3 cup
Sliced wheat bread 2 slices
Tortilla chips 15 chips
Fats Amount
Almonds 30 nuts
Avocado 3/4 of a medium avocado
Butter 2 tablespoons
Olive oil 1 2/3 tablespoon
Peanut butter 2 tablespoons
Ranch salad dressing 3 tablespoons

Let’s be clear: There are no “bad” foods and I’m not saying to never eat healthy, more calorie-dense foods like avocado, peanut butter, almonds, bread, and dried fruit, or not-as-healthy pizza, brownies, or ice cream. I’m just saying that these foods high in calorie density are easier to overeat, which is what I did, and that’s why I was gaining weight.

And take a page from my weight-loss story: don’t just eat the foods that are lowest in calorie density and think you’ll lose weight faster. Only eating raw salads, baby carrots, and apples won’t fill you up, and it’ll kick your hunger into overdrive, leading to overeating. You need to balance the veggies and fruits with the starches and beans to feel satiated.

An easy way to use this information without weighing your food or counting calories is to use the 50/50 plate: half of your plate will be non-starchy veggies like steamed broccoli or kale, zucchini noodles, roasted cauliflower, or salad, and the other half will be a starch like brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, oil-free air-fried potatoes, or baked sweet potato. You can also add a small portion of beans to your plate, which aids in satiety. If you’re hungry after that first plate, make yourself another 50/50 plate and eat until you are satisfied, but not stuffed. As far as fruits go, enjoy two to three a day. I like to eat them after lunch and dinner as a “bookend” to let my brain know I’m done eating for that meal.

If you keep reading, you can see photos of what plates of what 200 calories looks like, as well as example meals I ate to lose weight. These meals were so delicious and physically satisfying. Since I haven’t been eating much sugar or processed food, these whole foods tastes amazing! And I love that I have a healthy relationship with food now and that I’m modelling healthy habits for my daughter by eating such a nutrient-dense diet. I’m feeling more confident, more energetic, I’m sleeping better, have better mental clarity (thank you carbs!), and feel more vibrant. All this because of calorie density!

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