This article is part of a series on Discovering the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Featured Author Jane Birch.
Last week, I introduced three key principles in the Word of Wisdom way to weight loss:
- Focus on low calorie dense whole plant foods.
- Abstain from foods that trigger cravings.
- Rely wholly on the Lord.
This week I’ll be exploring the first principle in a little more detail. You might want to read last week’s article before starting this one: “The Word of Wisdom Way to Weight Loss: The End of Dieting.”
Calorie Density for Weight Loss and Health
Increasingly, weight loss experts are telling us that the key to weight loss is to focus on calorie density. Not only is calorie density important for weight loss, it is important for health. As Registered Dietician Jeff Novick tells us:
Calorie density is the simplest, easiest approach to healthy eating. It is easy to understand and follow and . . . by following the principles of calorie density, you will also meet all your other nutritional needs including vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, essential fats, etc. 
If calorie density is key to both weight loss and health, it shouldn’t surprise us that it correlates with the dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom. While the Word of Wisdom does not define calorie density, the foods recommended by both the Word of Wisdom and the calorie density approach are the exact same foods.
What is Calorie Density?
Calorie density is the relative number of calories a food has per unit of measurement, for example per ounce or pound. Here is the calorie density chart I introduced last week:
These are rough averages, of course. There is a range of calories in each food category, but this gives you ballpark figures.
As I discussed last week, the dietary principles in the Word of Wisdom encourage us to get our calories from “wholesome” plants foods, which are exactly those foods found at the top of this chart, those that are not calorie dense: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. While promoting “wholesome” plant foods, the Word of Wisdom provides NO endorsement for highly processed/refined foods (which are not wholesome or prudent): white flour, sugar, junk food, and oils. At the same time, the Word of Wisdom specifically discourages the consumption of animal flesh and contains no endorsement for dairy or eggs—both of which have a nutritional profile similar to meat.
Focusing on foods that are less calorie dense naturally leads to weight loss. Scientific studies reveal we tend to eat about the same weight of food every day, regardless of the calories, so eating less calorie dense foods means we can eat a much larger bulk of food and still consume far fewer calories. If we want to lose weight while eating high calorie dense foods, we have to eat much less food, but this leaves us feeling hungry and unsatisfied. If we eat higher calorie dense foods until we are satisfied, we inevitably consume more calories than we need. In other words, it is easy to over-consume high calorie dense food, but relatively difficult to over-eat low calorie dense foods.
As an example, to get 1,000 calories from any of the low calorie dense foods, we could eat:
- 10 pounds of vegetables
- Over 3 pounds of fruits
- 2 pounds of whole grains
- Not quite 2 pounds of beans
On the other hand, if we wanted to consume 1,000 calories on higher density foods, we’d have to limit ourselves to:
- 1 pound of meat
- 3/4 a pound of refined carbohydrates
- Less than a half a pound of junk food
- 1/4 a pound of oil
Which group of foods is going to fill you up? Obviously, it is the low calorie dense foods. To get the same feeling of fulness, you’d have to eat MUCH more of the calorie dense foods, but if you eat more, you are consuming more calories, which leads to excess weight.
Using Calorie Density to Lose Weight
Scientific studies have calculated the effect of calorie density on weight loss and gain. These studies reveal that people who eat meals that average:
- Less than 400 calories per pound — all lose weight, no matter how much food they consume
- Between 400–600 calories per pound — most lose weight
- Between 600–800 calories per pound — with moderate exercise, all lose weight
- Between 800–1200 calories per pound — everyone gains weight, except for heavy exercisers
- Over 1200 calories per pound — everyone gains weight
Think about how much you exercise in an average week. That will tell you the range of calories per pound you should be averaging to lose weight. Of course, if you simply eat a whole food, plant-based diet (the foods on the top half of the calorie density chart), there is no need to count any calories! A starch-based diet of whole grains, beans, and starchy vegetables, together with plenty of fruit and veggies will have a calorie density of less than 500 calories per pound. Even a coach potato is likely to lose weight on this diet!
If you want to indulge in a few high calorie dense foods occasionally, you need to balance out the calories with plenty of low calorie dense foods so that the overall calorie density stays within your target range.
The advantages of focusing on low calorie dense whole foods include:
- We eat a far greater volume of food.
- We naturally consume fewer calories (without having to count them).
- It is much more difficult to over-eat.
- We lose weight.
- We are not hungry.
- We are healthier because these foods are also more nutritious.
- Our tastes change, and we can overcome our addictions to unhealthy foods.
I marvel at the wisdom of the Lord in establishing the dietary principles of the Word of Wisdom!
How to Lower the Calorie Density of Your Food
Here are scientifically tested principles for reducing the calorie density of your meals:
- Make sure your diet is mostly, or even exclusively, the whole foods that are naturally low in calorie density: veggies, fruits, whole grains, and beans.
- Eat a large vegetable salad (with an oil-free wholesome dressing) or low-fat soup first, before you eat the rest of your meal. These foods are very low in calorie density and will fill you up, leaving less room for more calorie dense foods.
- Center your meals on unrefined starch foods: whole grains, potatoes, yams, beans, corn, etc. You need the calories in these wholesome plant foods to sustain you. If you skimp, you may go hungry.
- Don’t skimp on food and go hungry! When you are very hungry, you are more likely to reach for any food that is convenient, which may be a pretty unhealthy choice. Eat until you are comfortably full, then stop.
- As you cook food and fill up your plate, increase the ratio of vegetables and fruits versus grains and starchy vegetables. Make your plate half vegetables for optimal weight loss.
- Eat more raw vegetables. Because they are less digestible, they have fewer calories.
- Don’t drink your calories. Liquid calories do not supply satiety.
- Eat fruit for dessert. These are God’s sweets.
- Use higher density foods sparingly and choose the healthiest options. Use these as condiments and not as staples. If you use any of the high calorie dense foods, reduce the calorie density of the entire meal by adding plenty of low calorie dense foods, especially vegetables.
You can find recipes here: WFPB Recipes. Use the principles of calorie density to choose wisely!
Of course there are foods that are exceptions to the calorie density rule. There are lower calorie dense foods that are not healthful to the body. Most of these are not “whole” foods. These include:
- Skim milk (150 calories per pound)
- Egg whites (250 calories per pound)
- Low fat yogurt (400 calories per pound)
- Lean meat (700 calories per pound)
These foods provide some nutrients, but not as many as the whole plant foods. At the same time, they contain substances that can be harmful to our bodies, like cholesterol, animal protein, animal hormones, and unhealthy chemicals. Most importantly, the Word of Wisdom discourages us from consuming the flesh of animals and does not endorse dairy or eggs. They are foods good for times of need, but in other times, we should eat them very sparingly, if at all.
There are also whole plant foods that turn out to be relatively calorie dense, for example:
- Avocados (700 calories per pound)
- Dried fruits (1200 calories per pound)
- Whole wheat flour (1500 calories per pound)
- Nuts & seeds (2800 calories per pound)
These whole, relatively unrefined plant foods have lots of nutrients, but they are also very calorie dense. Adding a few of these to our diet adds delicious flavors and texture, but we need to be aware that calorie dense foods inherently increase the risk of overconsumption and excess calories.
Note the calorie density of whole wheat flour. It is very difficult to create a food with flour that is low in calorie density, even if it is made from a whole grain. Whole grain bread, crackers, chips, pretzels, cold cereal, etc. typically have about the same calorie density as their highly processed/refined counterparts made from white flour.
What does all this suggest? For best weight loss, high calorie plant foods should also be used sparingly, as a condiment. There is also no harm in eliminating them if we choose. We can get the same nutrients they contain from other plant foods with far fewer calories. If used, choose the healthier high calorie dense foods and try limiting all high calorie dense foods to 10% of calories.
God Made Our Hunger Drive for a Purpose
God gave us our wonderful bodies with all of the strong impulses we experience for a purpose. The hunger drive is one of those impulses that we need to embrace and be grateful for. It serves an important biological function ordained by God for the survival of the human species. The reason traditional fad diets don’t work is that they battle against our God-given hunger drive by depriving our bodies of food. Battling against God’s gift is rarely a good idea!
A whole food, plant-based Word of Wisdom diet is the most sensible way to make sure we get all the calories we need, never go hungry, and yet lose weight and regain our health.
I love God’s counsel in the Word of Wisdom. It is not flashy, but it works . . . and brings joy!
Aren’t Whole Foods Boring?
If we eat only wholesome foods and relatively few of the high calorie dense foods, is that a boring diet? Does Heavenly Father really mean to deprive us?
The answer is definitely NO! The fact is the wholesome foods our Father created for us are delicious, but our taste buds have been hijacked by diets filled with rich foods: meat, cheese, fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. As we eat this SAD diet, the pleasure of wholesome foods diminishes. If a sweet peach or watermelon seems boring, our taste buds are way out of whack!
Fortunately, our taste buds can and will change as we change our diets. Scientific studies show that our fat receptors can down regulate within 90 days. Likewise, substantially reducing other rich foods in our diet enables our taste receptors to detect and enjoy the natural, yet subtler, flavors in whole foods.
Wouldn’t it be better if the foods you loved to eat were the same foods that are best for your weight and your health? This is the promise of the Word of Wisdom. The Lord tells us:
All things which come of the earth . . . are made for the benefit . . . of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart . . . for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. (D&C 59:18–19)
To Learn More and Get Started!
I’ve just scratched the surface on calorie density. For more details, see “The Word of Wisdom Way to Weight Loss.”
Next Time in “Discovering the Word of Wisdom”
I’ve recommended using high calorie dense foods sparingly, but what if you find this impossible to do? You are certainly not alone! Not only are calorie dense foods easy to overeat, they appear to be physically addictive, in ways similar to well-known drugs. Next week’s article will address the topic of food addiction by covering the second principle of the Word of Wisdom way to weight loss: “Abstain from foods that trigger cravings.” (See a complete list of my articles on the Word of Wisdom here: Featured Author Jane Birch.)
Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective (2013) and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom.
 Barbara Rolls, The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet: Smart, Simple, Science-Based Strategies for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off (New York: HarperCollins, 2012). See also: Perez-Escamilla R, Obey JE, Altman JM, Essery EV, McGrane MM, Wong YP, Spahn JM, Williams CL. Dietary energy density and body weight in adults and children: a systematic review. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2012; 112(5): 671-684.
 Jeff Novick “A Common Sense Approach To Sound Nutrition” (May 20, 2012). I credit Registered Dietician Jeff Novick for the information and data in this article on calorie density. I encourage you to read more of Novick’s excellent resources on calorie density, see: “The Word of Wisdom Way to Weight Loss.”
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: What About Dairy and Eggs?” Meridian Magazine (August 5, 2014).
 Barbara Rolls, The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).
 Jane Birch, “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: The Flesh of Beasts, Part II,” Meridian Magazine (June 10, 2014).
 An exception is pasta made from whole grain, because when you cook pasta, it absorbs lots of water, bringing the calorie density down to about the level of other whole grains and starchy vegetables.
 Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure (New York: Avery, 2007)
 Michael Greger, “How Fatty Foods May Affect Our Love Life,” NutritionFacts.org (October 28, 2014).