The Obstacle Meter – 20: Caloric Density

20: Caloric Density

I tend to eat foods that are savory (contain lots of fat AND carbohydrate).

There is really no getting around this one.  Highly palatable foods containing high amounts of sugar, fat, and/or salt are just too difficult to resist eating. Whereas other obstacles often have more user-friendly solutions, caloric density tends to not have easy solutions.

We are evolutionarily designed to seek out sugar, fat, and/or salt for reproductive and survival advantages.  This innate programming worked to perfection for millennia helping us to survive and reproduce.  Not anymore. What was once an advantage has now become one of our greatest weaknesses and it is all because of our food environment. 

Nowhere in human history has such highly palatable food containing high amounts of sugar, fat, and/or salt been so abundant and easily accessible.  Our environments and the access they provide to these goods are literally killing us.  Savory foods, those foods that contain high amounts of sugar AND fat are especially dangerous, here is why.

If we break down foods that we eat that have empty calories, we can categorize them into


The lines between these categories can be blurry, that is, certain foods are not just in one category but can spread across several categories.  For simplification and not getting too bogged down in the details, we have created these categories.  Now, if we look at the types of foods within each category, we have

Foods with Empty Calories by Category — Table


Of these foods, it is difficult to accumulate too many extra calories with hard candy, jellybeans, skittles, bread, pasta or rice if only eat those foods.  You will likely become sick of eating plain rice, bread or even jellybeans before you accumulate too many calories.  You can, however, easily accumulate too many calories by drinking too many soft drinks, beer or juice.  Although beer often does not have too many carbohydrates, I am counting alcohol as carbohydrate because it acts in a similar metabolic fashion (i.e., it protects your fat stores from being burned).  So, with the exception of soft drinks, beer, and juice, foods containing only carbohydrate are somewhat difficult to overdo it on.


It is extremely difficult to eat too many calories in foods where salt is the primary taste.  Although humans have a huge appetite for salt, salt is rarely ingested as the primary ingredient to a food.


Unless you are a cheesecake Fein or have an exceptional problem, you are not going to overdo it on just butter or cooking oils.  It is possible to use too much butter or oil when cooking, but in general some bread or other carbohydrate source is involved.


It is extremely easy to eat too many calories from this category.  The combination of sugar AND fat not only makes these foods super energy dense but also very difficult to resist.  Carbohydrate on its own may be difficult to overdo, fat on its own may be difficult to overdo, but the combination of the two makes our taste buds and our brains go a little crazy.  One plus one does not equal two in this case, the combination of carbs and fats has an exponential effect on our ability to eat too much of the foods that contain these combinations.


The sugar, fat, and salt combination can rival (and in some cases surpass) the sugar and fat combination in terms of being unable to resist eating too many calories.

Ok, so this does not mean that you need to eat like some type of food Puritan, but you do need to be careful around foods that are calorie dense (high amounts of sugar, fat, and/or salt).  It is somewhat difficult to overdo it on foods that are only high in one category (high in sugar, high in fat or high in salt) but very easy to overdo it when exposed to foods that are high in sugar and fat. 

Notice that I intentionally left salt out of the last sentence.  Yes, foods containing sugar, fat, and salt are dangerous to your waistline but sometimes food manufacturers and restaurants will use salt as the primary flavor in order to reduce the amount of sugar and fat needed to make the food taste great and therefore the calories in that food may be a little lower. Calorically dense foods are definitely the most difficult to resist and are readily available as meals, snacks, and desserts.


Identify Problem Foods: keep a diet log with detailed portion sizes to determine where your extra calories are coming from.  BE HONEST with yourself, this is not a time for pride.  You also do not need to be embarrassed about your food log, think objectively about it knowing that many people have much worse food logs than you do.  For most people, the majority of their calories are likely to come from savory foods (carbs AND fats) but beware of those extra calories coming from simple sugars as well.

Clean Up Your Environment: you need to do your best to limit your exposure to the foods you have identified as problem foods whether that be at your home or workplace.  You cannot eat what is not there.

Look at Your Overall Week and Calorie Budget: you can still have calorically dense foods, but you will have to mix these with lower calorie, nutritionally dense foods.  If you deprive yourself and only choose low calorie, nutritionally dense foods you are going to fall off the wagon as this is not sustainable.  Burn out is likely, it is inevitable.

Exercise: The more you exercise, the higher calorie foods you can fit into your calorie budget.  Many athletes can eat and eat and eat and not gain any weight because they are so active.  I am not saying that you need to be an athlete but the more activity you log, the more calories you have to work with (i.e., you do not have to be so strict or careful).

Take Your Weight Loss Goals into Account: how much weight do you need to lose and how fast do you want to lose it?  This is something you need to negotiate with yourself.  There is no right or wrong way to go about this, however, you should note that the further you are after the initiation of the start of your diet and the closer you are to your goal weight, the more difficult it will be to lose weight (and the stricter you will likely have to be to see any further results). 

On the other hand, the greatest amount of weight is lost at the start of a weight loss diet (first two months) so you may want to be as strict as you can the first two months to lose as much weight as you can since the amount of weight you lose in the first two months of a diet is predictive of the amount of weight you will keep off for the coming years.  No time is ideal to take a diet break, so you need to choose a time that is right for you, not anyone else.

Anticipate Events and Seasons: birthdays, graduations, funerals, weddings, promotions, awards, appreciations, parties, Thanksgiving, Christmas, you name it, they are all occasions when there tends to be highly palatable food and/or drink around.  Try to establish your own set of NUTRITION RULES for dealing with these occasions, no matter how arbitrary they may seem.

Predetermine Frequency and Portion Sizes: you can continue to eat the foods you love that to eat, but you will need to change the frequency and portions of the ones that are high calorie.  Eating high calorie foods needs to be controlled and purposeful.  Mindlessly eating high calorie foods will always get you in trouble.

Try to Make Lower Calorie Versions: find lower calorie options that can be substituted in your favorite recipes, without compromising taste. Try omitting butter, swap mashed banana for sugar, use milk instead of cream. Check out some of our ideas for healthy substitutions in Obstacle 16: Palatability. You may not like all the changes you try, but you may find a few that you cannot tell the difference.

Spices: play around with the spices. They help to give flavor without the extra calories.  Much like food manufacturers and restaurants use salt to make food taste better, you can use spices to make food better without the long-term negative consequences that salt creates.

Fat: you do not have to cut out fat, it is important for making meals taste good. Just be mindful of how much you use.  Many fats end up –hidden– in our foods.  If you put a stick of butter in a dish, it tends to blend into the dish, and you end up with no idea how many extra calories are coming from fat.

Colors: you eat with your eyes. If it looks beautiful, it will be more satisfying.

Method: choose cooking methods that do not use extra fat in cooking. For example, choose steaming, roasting, baking, grilling, and boiling over frying or sauteing.

Toppings: choose low calorie condiments and toppings. Add lemon, vinegar, ketchup, salsa, hot sauce or mustard.