In all foods there is a balance between calories and nutrition. Foods that provide little or no nutritional benefit and have lots of calories are called “calorically dense” foods. Some people refer to them as empty calories. These include candy, alcohol, desserts and sweeteners. On the flip side, you have “nutrient dense” foods like fruits and vegetables which are loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, but they have little to no calories. If you’re currently struggling to follow a diet, lose weight or just control your eating there are some important factoids about these two types of foods you should know.
We all eat for a variety of reasons, some emotional and some physical. Mostly though, we’re trying to quench this constant urging intuition that we call hunger. Our hunger responds differently to energy dense and nutrient dense foods. It is well known that our stomach halts hunger signals when it is physically full of stuff; like a water balloon stretched to its limits. It doesn’t matter whether that “stuff” is hamburgers or baby carrots. Nutrient dense foods are important because they will physically fill our stomachs without providing a lot of calories. These foods take longer to digest and they keep us full for longer periods of time without having to rely on high calorie foods.
So, if your stomach can only hold about 4 cups of food (and this is about the average stomach size) and you fill those 4 cups with a calorically dense food like french fries, it will cost you roughly 640 calories to feel full. Not to mention you will be hungry again in a short period of time. Now compare that to a nutrient dense food like broccoli, which at 4 cups has just a little over 100 calories and keeps you feeling full for hours at a time. Of course you probably don’t eat just broccoli or just french fries for lunch, but it’s not hard to see the benefit of including nutrient dense foods with every meal.
Why Fiber is Important
Nutrient dense foods help us feel full mostly because of the fiber content in these foods. Fiber, especially soluble fiber, combines with water in our stomach to form a thick substance which expands inside of us and makes us feel full, or satiated. If you’ve ever had that feeling of being full from a large meal long after you’re done eating, that is the effect of fiber within our intestines. In addition to helping us feel full, soluble fiber also helps lower our cholesterol, protect against colon cancer, it keeps our blood sugar from spiking and usually comes with lots of age fighting antioxidants.
In a five year study involving around 1000 people, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that eating just 10 more grams of soluble fiber each day led to 3.7% visceral fat loss. Visceral fat is the kind that collects around our organs and is related to several diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Soluble fiber food sources include oatmeal, celery, berries, beans, peas, nuts, flaxseed, lentils, oranges, pears and carrots.
Mastering Your Hunger
So take away these simple lessons. If you want to be the master of your hunger on a daily basis, eat foods higher in soluble fiber, choose nutrient dense foods which fill you up without excess calories and drink plenty of water with every meal you eat. If you are someone who loves only a few fruits and vegetables, then you need to either use these foods on a daily basis to get full, or experiment with different foods to kill your hunger cues. I don’t recommend simply ignoring your hunger. Doing this on a daily basis is difficult and usually results in periodic gorging of high calorie foods to ease the starvation. Make it a goal to keep a balance of nutrient dense, high fiber foods in your diet. This will keep your hunger at bay and help with calorie control.