Most of us are aware of the connection between how filling a food is and how many calories it has. A double cheeseburger may have 20 times the calories of a healthy plate of plain lettuce, but if you knew your next meal wouldn't be for another six hours, you'd grab the cheeseburger, right? I certainly would.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with trying to lose weight by mindlessly cutting calories. If we tilt our diets too far toward light and low-calorie foods, we're going to spend a lot of our lives feeling ravenous and miserable. This is a key reason why diets tend to fail.
Photo credit: MR+G
Thankfully, the relationship between calories and how filling a food is isn't quite as simple as it seems. In fact, some foods can fill us up for a long time with surprisingly few calories. And on the other side of the spectrum, there are foods with horribly high calorie counts that hardly satisfy our appetites at all.
Here's the punchlines: both types of foods offer us opportunities to beat the system by creating a diet around foods that are both filling and healthy. And in today's post, we're going to hack into the secrets of the satiety factor of foods to find out how to take in fewer calories without feeling hungry or deprived.
Before we get started, let me define four terms:
Satiety: In a dietary context, satiety is just a fancy word for being full to the point where you limit further eating.
Satiety Factor: The relationship between how full a food makes you feel and how many calories that food contains.
High Satiety Factor Foods: Foods that fill you up yet contain relatively few calories, and therefore foods you should eat more of if you want to lose weight.
Low Satiety Factor Foods: Foods that don't fill you up yet contain a large amount of calories, and therefore foods to avoid if you want to lose weight.
Let's get back to beating the system. Thanks to a study done in Australia in the mid 1990s, we now have a way to measure a food's satiety factor. The authors of this study fed a group of adults a variety of foods, measuring the effect each food had on the subjects' appetite over time.
Idiosyncrasies of the Satiety Factor Scale
Here's where we get to the intriguing part. It turns out that some foods offered extremely high satiety on very few calories, while some foods offered a horrendous amount of calories and didn't fill the subjects up at all.
Here's a list of the types of "good foods" that offer an exceptionally beneficial trade-off between calories and satiety:
High Satiety-Factor Foods:
Boiled potatoes, skin on
Whole grain pasta
Fiber-rich whole grains, especially oats
Lean meats, such as chicken, white turkey meat or lean cuts of beef
Leafy greens (swiss chard, collards, kale, spinach and cabbage)
High water content/high fiber vegetables (grapes, apples, oranges, grapefruit, carrots, bell peppers, eggplant, etc.)
On the other hand, some foods, like donuts or candy bars, are shockingly high in calories, yet they offer very little satiety. Here's a list of typical "bad foods" that offer a terrible trade-off between calories and satiety:
Low Satiety-Factor Foods:
I know I have some of the smartest readers in the food blog world, so I'm certain that by now that you've figured out the secret of hacking the satiety factor: Eat more foods from the first list, and limit foods from the second list. Yep--that's pretty much the secret.
By the way, there are some notable surprises on both lists, aren't there? Some relatively fatty foods like cheese offer surprisingly attractive satiety factors, in part because high-fat foods take a long time to pass through the stomach. At the same time, some seemingly healthy foods don't offer as good a tradeoff as you'd expect. For example, corn flakes and white pasta have shockingly low satiety factors--they're not much better than cookies.
Two additional insights:
1) You can make a big difference in your weight without experiencing any extra hunger if you simply cut out just one or two "worst offender" foods from the second list and replace them with one or two foods from the first list.
2) You'll also notice that many of the foods on the "preferred" list are first-order foods that lack embedded processing, cooking or branding costs. Many of these foods, including potatoes, lentils, eggs, beans, leafy greens and oats, are extremely nutritious and cost very little money. Still more evidence that food does not have to be expensive to be healthy.
Yes, there really are foods out there that offer us the caloric equivalent of a free lunch!
When High-Fat Food Can Actually Be Healthy For You
The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet
Make Your Diet Into a Flexible Tool
Scarred For Life By a Food Industry Job
Resources for Further Reading:
The Fullness Factor at Nutritiondata.com
What Really Satisfies at Mendosa.com
How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by purchasing items from Amazon.com via links on this site, or by linking to me or subscribing to my RSS feed. Finally, you can consider submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon. Thank you for your support!