Some years back I put up an article here on the site with the title The Often Forgotten Benefit of Adhering to a Healthy Diet. In that piece I made the case that it’s typically less stressful, not more, to have a set of dietary rules or principles to abide by; the rationale being that this relieves one of the tension of constantly having to make choices on the fly. Basically, if one has already decided, in advance, that doughnuts aren’t a part of one’s diet, one is freed from having to make the impromptu decision of whether to dig into the selection of doughnuts that line the kitchen counter at work or not, which, with their alluring smell and colouring, are practically screaming for attention.
After a while, if one manages to stick with one’s principles, one may actually find that the screaming appears less intense, perhaps altogether muted out. This touches on a related benefit of eating a healthy diet, which is that one’s appetite/eating preferences will adjust over time in such a manner that one’s desire for unhealthy food lessens. This equals not only a slimmer waistline and a healthier body, but also increased mental freedom!
In today’s article, I thought I’d talk about another benefit of eating a healthy diet, which is that one can eat a greater quantity of food. This very tangible benefit not only accentuates the significance of the aforementioned ones, but it is in itself a huge plus to healthy eating….
Why healthy eaters can get away with eating more food
It may seem counterintuitive that healthy eating allows for greater food consumption than unhealthy eating. After all, we’re constantly being told that we’re taking in too much food, and that that is the reason why so many of us carry a lot of extra weight around the hips and abdomen. If we just ate less, we wouldn’t be in such weighty dire straits, right?
The problem with this idea, when presented in this manner, is that the focus is on the amount of food we’re taking in, as opposed to on the amount of energy. Because that’s certainly not the same thing. It’s possible to take in a big pile of food, yet coming up short to covering one’s daily caloric needs; however, it’s also possible to far surpass those needs with very little food. It all depends on what types of foods that one consumes.
If one consumes a diet rich in convenience foods such as pizza, chocolate, and potato chips, the total volume of food that one can take in before coming up on let’s say 2500 calories, which is roughly what a typical male needs every day to stay in caloric balance, is very low when compared to the amount of food that one can take in if one mostly eats vegetables, lean meats, fruit, and the like. In other words, in the latter scenario, one can get away with eating a lot more food than in the former one. This is by no means a ‘secret’ that almost nobody knows about; however, it’s something that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it arguably deserves.
The obvious reason why there’s a difference in this respect is that foods differ with respect to their caloric density. Whereas some foods, such as honey, butter, and cheese are very calorically heavy, other foods, such as broccoli, shrimp, and apples, are fairly low in calories. This is not to say that they’re devoid of useful energy (they certainly aren’t), but there’s no doubt that they don’t pack the same caloric punch as the former ones.
Why calorie density matters
I’m sure some people are going to disagree with me, but I strongly believe that caloric density is a useful metric for determining the healthfulness of a diet. This is not to say that energy density is all that matters in this regard (it certainly isn’t), that all calorie-rich foods are unhealthy, or that everyone would be best of eating mostly low-calorie foods; however, as I see it, in general, it’s much better to base one’s diet on foods with a low-moderate energy density than foods with a high one.
The cogency of this argument immediately becomes apparent when one considers the fact that most natural whole foods have what could be considered to be a low or moderate caloric density. Exceptions such as honey and nuts do exist, but they are just that, exceptions. If we look at the types of foods that we humans have historically eaten, throughout our evolution, we’ll see that an ‘energy density pattern’ emerges.
Hunter-gatherers generally don’t eat a lot of very low-calorie foods, for the simple reason that it’s irrational to expend energy on locating and collecting things that barely provide any calories, at least if one has the option of going for more energy-dense food items. They generally don’t gorge on foods with a very high energy density either though, for the simple reason that very few of the foods that are available to humans in the wild fit that bill. Honey does, but it’s only seasonally available in certain parts of the world. Nuts tend also to be fairly rich in calories; however, unlike us, our ancestors obviously didn’t have the option of going down to a grocery store and buying a big pack of shelled, salted walnuts. Rather, they had to put in quite a bit of effort to locate, collect, and crack any nuts that may have been present in their local milieu.
What all of this is to say is that if one takes all of the foods that we humans currently have available to us into account, the foods that have been with us for the longest generally fall somewhere around the middle to the lower end of the energy density spectrum. They are not super low in calories; however, they are clearly separated from modern junk foods, which are outliers with respects to their energy density. Also, of note, they scatter in a different area than many grain and dairy products, in particular cheese and butter, which are very calorically dense. Given that ths is the case, it’s not surprising that well-designed Paleolithic type diets come out as having a low-moderate energy density, as compared to other diets.
Perhaps the most recognized benefit of sticking with traditional foods with a low-moderate energy density is that they tend to be more nutrient-dense than higher calorie foods. In other words, you’ll end up taking in a lot more vitamins and minerals than if you went the high-calorie route. Additionally, such foods tend to provide more fiber and be more satiating. Furthermore, given that it’s those types of foods that we have evolved eating, one would expect such foods to agree better with our biological selves; a postulation I’ve provided much evidence for here on the site. Finally, as I’ve alluded to in this post, by eating healthy, one can take in a greater quantity of food. That’s arguably a benefit in and of itself, as eating is very much a pleasurable undertaking.
If you’re mostly eating very calorie-dense foods, you’re arguably missing out on a lot of nutritional enjoyment
Besides the actual energy content of foods, certain other nutritional factors need to be taken into account when the amount of food that a person can take in without gaining or losing weight is to be determined, including his or her intake of protein (it’s more energetically expensive for the body to break down, absorb, and make use of protein than carbohydrate and fat). Furthermore, one needs to acknowledge that big bodies need more calories than smaller ones. If a person who’s used to eating mostly junk food suddenly adopts a healthy diet, he’s bound to lose some weight, as well as adapt in other ways, and as a result, require less energy to sustain his body, which means that any food intake calculations need to be adjusted accordingly.
Nevertheless, the key point remains: If you eat healthy, you can get away with eating more food than if you’re mostly subsisting on junk. This is not to say that it’s a good idea to eat celery and cucumber for every meal; however, as I see it, there’s no doubt that it’s wise to limit one’s consumption of foods that have a very high caloric density. Personally, I eat a lot of food, but I’m fairly lean nonetheless, in large part because I mostly eat foods with a low-moderate energy density, while usually steering clear of bacon, chocolate, cheese, ice cream, and other caloric heavyweights.
Some might perhaps say that healthy foods are bland and boring, but that’s most likely because they’re used to eating chocolate, pizza, burgers, and the like; and hence, have grown accustomed to the intense sweetness, saltiness, and fatness of such foods. If they gave seafood, root veggies, and fruit a try instead, they may just find that they gradually develop a taste for these healthier options, which they could theoretically eat a lot more of without getting fat, and hence, get a lengthier satisfaction from. Not to mention the fact that it’s bound to confer improved overall physiological and mental well-being.
In discussions about the upsides of healthy eating, much attention is usually devoted to the increased absolute intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and the like. Less attention is typically dedicated to a related issue, which is that people who eat a healthy diet can get away with eating more food than folks who are less concerned about what they eat, for the simple reason that healthy foods tend to have a lower caloric density than unhealthy ones.
Basically, if you’re mostly subsisting on for example vegetables, fruit, lean meats, seafood, and eggs, you’ll have to eat a much greater volume of food to meet your daily caloric requirement than if you’re eating a lot of energy-dense foods such as chocolate, cheese, and pizza. The former foods may by many be perceived to be less tasty than the latter; however, if one sticks with a healthy diet over time, one may actually come to find that this is turned on its head, in that one starts gravitating more towards healthy foods than unhealthy ones, which is great, in part because one can get away with eating a lot more of those.