I am 15 pounds down in my sustainable fitness journey. It’s taken me about 3 months, and although I hoped it would happen faster when I began the journey, this is what I signed up for. Sustainable fitness is about forsaking overly restrictive measures that provide quick but hard to maintain results, and focusing instead on slow and steady progress that can be sustained over time. It is, by its very nature, going to take longer.
From the beginning, I decided I wasn’t going to count calories. That kind of thing stresses me out and threatens to push me toward disordered eating. So, while it may work for other people, it just isn’t something I can do. I decided instead to focus on making sure that I am eating nutrient-dense foods at every meal. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that provide a high concentration of essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, and dietary fiber, relative to their calorie content. These foods are rich in valuable nutrients that support optimal health and well-being. Nutrient density is an important concept when we consider the overall nutritional value of a food, as it helps identify foods that offer the most nutritional “bang for your buck.”
Not only are these foods just better for you in general — they also allow you to stop counting calories. Here are the main reasons why you don’t have to count calories and will likely still lose weight when eating nutrient dense foods:
Satiety (Knowing you’re full):
Nutrient-dense foods are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that nourish the body. When you consume these foods, they provide a greater sense of satiety, which means you feel fuller for longer. This feeling of fullness can naturally lead to reduced overall calorie intake, as you are less likely to overeat or snack on unhealthy options. I used to “graze” all day long, which, looking back, was really just snacking (meaning, I was eating junk). Now that I eat nutrient-dense foods, my snacking has completely vanished. And perhaps more importantly, when I do get the urge to snack between meals, I can trust that it’s because my body actually needs nourishment and not because I’m just bored.
Nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are typically high in dietary fiber. Fiber is not only crucial for digestive health but also contributes to a feeling of fullness and helps regulate blood sugar levels. As a result, you are less likely to experience rapid spikes and crashes in energy, reducing cravings for sugary and high-calorie foods. I can’t tell you how radically my food preferences have changed since making the change to nutrient-dense foods. I don’t crave sweets at all anymore. When I’m hungry for a midday snack, I find myself craving things like carrots and hummus, bell peppers with cream cheese, or Greek yogurt.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF):
Every time you eat, your body expends energy to digest, absorb, and process the nutrients from the food. This process is known as the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). Nutrient-dense foods often require more energy to digest, compared to processed and calorie-dense foods. As a result, you burn more calories during the digestion process, further contributing to weight loss or weight maintenance. My Apple Watch tracks how many calories I burn per day. Before I made the switch to nutrient-dense foods, I was burning around 250 calories per day (before working out). I now burn about 100 calories more than that on a typical day. And while no, I can’t say with 100% certainty that it’s the thermic effect that’s making that difference, it’s definitely noteworthy.
Processed Foods and Brain Chemistry:
Processed foods, particularly those high in added sugars and unhealthy fats, can impact brain chemistry and lead to addictive eating behaviors. These foods typically lack essential nutrients and can disrupt the body’s natural hunger-regulating hormones, such as leptin and ghrelin. As a result, people tend to overeat calorie-dense processed foods without feeling truly satisfied, leading to weight gain. I saw a video once where someone said, “when you’re eating nutrient-dense foods, you never have to count calories because your brain will be able to recognize when you’re full. It can’t do that as well when you’re eating processed foods.
Choosing nutrient-dense foods encourages a shift towards mindful eating. Mindful eating involves being present and attentive to your food choices, hunger cues, and eating patterns. When you focus on nourishing your body with nutrient-rich options, you become more in tune with your body’s hunger and satiety signals, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight without counting calories.
Overall, putting an end to counting calories and making intentional choices toward nutrient-dense foods has been a game changer for me. I eat when I’m hungry without worrying about how many calories I’m using up. I don’t suffer through the intense sugar cravings I used to have. And, most importantly, my body feels healthier than ever. Although calorie counting may be the most effective strategy for many people, I encourage you to try the nutrient-dense approach and see how you feel. You may find it out to be the best way to lose wait and keep it off.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.