Stop Counting Calories

Keeping track of calories has long been seen an essential to any weight loss plan, but that’s an outmoded way of thinking about food that just doesn’t add up (in fact, it’s a big part of what led to the obesity crisis). Today, many dietitians, including Sun Basket’s Lindsey Kane, believe that nutrients, not calories, are what matter most. 

In physics class, you likely learned that the density of material is the mass per unit of volume. The same concept applies to your food, but in this case, density refers to the number of nutrients per calorie. That means that a food with a low nutrient density has few nutrients per calorie, while every calorie in an ingredient with high nutrient density delivers an abundant amount of nutrition.

The closer to its natural state, the more nutrient-rich it is. For example, compare a potato to potato chips. A potato straight from the ground, loaded with minerals and packaged with fiber, vitamins, and energy, is in its most nutrient-dense state. But if we take that potato and turn it into chips, we strip away the skin, where most of the fiber and vitamins live, drastically reducing the nutrients. Then, it’s fried in refined oil and doused with salt and maybe a top-secret, highly processed seasoning that includes both sugar and MSG. That nutrient-dense potato has both lost most of its nutritional value and the number of calories it contains has skyrocketed. 

The beauty of nutrient density is that you don’t have to track it in order to benefit from it. All you need to do is eat a variety of whole foods. Studies have found that focusing on nutrient density and diet quality alone, without concern for portion size or calories, is the key to sustainable weight loss

Why does nutrient density work?

We eat for many reasons, the most important is to flood our body with the nutrients it needs to thrive. Yet many of us are so focused on weight that we lose sight of the big picture. We’ve been misled into directing attention to restricting calories, so we turn to so-called “diet foods” that are low in calories, but also contain few nutrients. 

It’s not that calories don’t matter, they absolutely play a role in maintaining weight, of course, but caloric value should never, ever take priority over nutritional value. Healthy eating is about maximizing nutrients, not minimizing calories. The goal is to get as many nutrients as possible out of your diet while keeping calorie intake at a consistent, moderate level. Here’s the good news, If you focus on nutrient density, you’ll consume fewer calories. Here’s why: 

  • The most nutrient-dense foods naturally happen to be the most calorie dilute. There’s no burden of calorie counting; the work is done for you. Think about some of the most nutrient-dense foods out there: kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, cauliflower, blueberries, and strawberries. They’re all rich in nutrients and low in calories.
  • The most nutrient dense foods also take up more space, both on the plate and in your stomach. This means you can enjoy that are extra generous portions at little caloric cost. When you fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods, you find that a healthy calorie quota will leave you comfortably full. It’s very hard to go overboard when you top a bowl of quinoa with kimchi and salmon. 

Rather than focusing on minimizing calories (which only leads to deprivation and dissatisfaction), go for the maximum number of nutrients, put calorie counting on autopilot, and replace deprivation with abundance.