Recently I had the honor of being interviewed by Chef AJ in “The Fat, Lazy, Middle-aged Person’s Guide to Weight Loss” and I talked about how I lost 140 lb (half of me) and regained my health. I discussed my own path towards sustainable weight loss, and what the important factors are for me, including counting calories, taking into account calorie density to make that work, and whole food plant based eating to make it all healthy. I summarized some of those ideas in my blog post “Calories Count (whether you count them or not.)“
The other day I saw an interesting, short interview with Dr. Doug Lisle, “Losing Weight. Rules and Expectations.” There he brings up the concept of average calorie density, which consolidates some of these ideas in a sensible way. And while Dr. Lisle is opposed to calorie counting, as is Chef AJ, he does allude to the fact that calories do count when he talks about extra exercise as a means of furthering more weight loss.
I do believe total calories count. An interesting person introduced to me by Chef AJ, Dr. Marc Hellerstein of the University of California, Berkeley, is a world-renowned expert on de novo lipogenesis, the synthesis of new fatty acids. He and I have had some interesting correspondence which he said I may share, and it all makes a lot of sense. He does emphasize that there are no free calories. In his words, “it’s all arithmetic.” In my words, “calories count, whether you count them or not.” I will be writing about our conversation in a soon-to-come blog post, so please stay tuned!
I get a lot of kick-back on this from some whole food plant based people who insist you do not have to count calories in order to lose and control weight. So I want to clarify once again: I acknowledge that many people do not need to count calories. They get along fine just keeping to the left of the red line in the calorie density chart. When I say that calories count it does not mean you must count calories. OK?
That said, there are also many people like me who find they really do need to track their calories. I could not have lost as much as I did by simply minding calorie density. I know I’m not alone on this. Look at all the comments in my interview with Chef AJ – there are many other people who experience the same thing. All I’m saying is that whether you count calories or not they make a difference in weight loss and control.
So let’s look at these points one-by-one.
Calorie density is usually measured in calories per pound. You can see the chart above. Chef AJ recommends sticking to the left of the red line, which means whole foods less than 600 calories/lb.
I found this incredibly helpful in my weight loss journey, because while I count calories it’s easier to keep within your calorie limit when sticking to foods that are lower in calorie density. For example, instead of breads and pastas, potatoes and rice have much lower calorie density. Yet they are still satiating starches. It does help.
It’s not the end of the story though. Calorie density has some inconsistencies. For example, consider spices. The calorie density of black pepper is 1,156 calories/lb, way to the right of the red line! Does that mean you shouldn’t use black pepper? Of course not. Common sense tells you nobody’s going to eat a pound of black pepper.
Also consider nutritional yeast, which I add to my homemade salad dressing. I add one rounded teaspoon each time I make a salad. Two level tablespoons of nutritional yeast (9 g) has 35 calories. That means the calorie density is 454 g/lb divided by 9 g times 35 calories = 1,765 calories/lb. Chef AJ has even gone so far as to say that she is deprecating the use of nutritional yeast because it is so high in calorie density. That, even though multiple recipes in her own books use nutritional yeast. But my one rounded teaspoon of nutritional yeast only has 16 calories! I’m not going to be eating a full pound of nutritional yeast.
So calorie density is not the begin all and end all of weight control. There is more going on.
Average Calorie Density
This is where the interview with Dr. Lisle, mentioned above, comes in. My thoughts on his interview are these:
Slightly off-topic: Around 7:00 he says if you don’t have 3 lb/day of wet starches, for example if you have 2 lb/day instead, that he knows the extra pound isn’t going to be salads or fruit, it’s going to be something really high in calorie density like vegan pizza. My question is why does he think that? I can easily see filling in my extra foods with salads and fruit. Why does he think that’s an anomaly?
Anyway, going on…
Around 11:00 when he talks about the McDougall plan and the slightly more restrictive Chef AJ Ultimate Weight Loss plan he is talking sensibly about the effect of calories eaten on weight loss. So I do wonder why, in so many other places, does Dr. Lisle say that counting calories is nonsense? Calories are actually the basis of his argument. Sure he’s talking about calories per pound, but calories are used in calculating calorie density.
At around 13:00 minutes he does talk sensibly about reasonable expectations regarding rate of weight loss. Usually it’s not fast. That was my experience in losing 140 lb as well. But you find a sustainable way and stick with it. Later on he also talks reasonably about what I just mentioned – sustainability and not eating too low in calorie density in a way that will make you ravenously hungry at some point. And that’s why he says wet starches should be the center of your diet (wet because dried out starches zoom up in calorie density).
And at about 25:00 I’m glad he clarifies that the red line is an average, not the max of every food you eat. That’s the point I want to make here. He goes into the importance of sometimes mixing in things of higher calorie density (e.g. avocado) so long as the average of a meal stays lower in calorie density. Such practice can avoid long term frustration. And makes perfect sense. Consider the common-sense examples I mentioned above such as spices and nutritional yeast. He even throws pasta into the pot, assuming you’re going to be mixing it with something really low in calorie density, like oil free tomato sauce.
I also go into how the calorie density of rice radically changes depending how how it’s made in “Rice and Calorie Density – some hints for weight loss.“
He does overlook that there are certain wet starches that are much higher in calorie density than you might expect. My favorite example is Japanese sweet potatoes (yaki-imo). They simply have a much higher calorie density than ordinary potatoes. And I personally feel they are not any more filling. So they do seem to cause me to gain weight every time I try including them regularly in my diet. And that’s because there is more to it than just calorie density. And more to it than glycogen storage – look forward to the post about my conversation with Dr. Hellerstein for details on that.
My point is just that the total amount you eat also matters. That sounds like it should be common sense, right?
This is where total calories come in. There are other inconsistencies with calorie density which I discuss in my “Calories Count (whether you count them or not” post, the most obvious being that calorie density is just a ratio. It’s not an amount.
It surely matters whether you eat 1 banana (110 calories) or 4 bananas (440 calories). Likewise it matters if you are eating regular white potatoes or the same weight in Japanese sweet potatoes. The Japanese sweet potatoes have a higher calorie density, even though they are still to the left of the red line. The extra calories can impact your weight. And it obviously matters how many potatoes you eat.
I have acknowledged repeatedly that some people can stick to the left of the calorie density red line and manage their weight without counting calories. All I am saying is (1) whether people are counting their calories or not, the calories do make a difference and (2) many people actually need to count calories because they are not naturally stopping food intake by just taking into account calorie density. You don’t have to take my word for it. Look at all the people who commented on my interview and see how many experience the same thing.
So let’s all acknowledge that the weight loss experience can be different for different people. We each need to find the right method that works for us.
In my case it’s WFPB for healthy eating, Average Calorie Density to help me locate the foods I will find satiating without going overboard, and Total Calories to make sure I’m keeping within a reasonable limit. And that includes food eaten and exercise calories burned during things like walks, which Dr. Lisle and Chef AJ both talk about though they don’t describe it in terms of calories burned.
That’s what has made it work for me.