Plant-Based Diets: Getting More Nutritional Bang for Your Calorie Buck
by: Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN
Whether you eat an entirely vegan diet or aim for a few plant-based meals per week, you’ve likely considered the health benefits of doing so. Whole food, plant-based diets are filled with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (nutrients found only in plants that have known health benefits) and have been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Research also shows vegans and vegetarians often have a lower body mass index than meat eaters, plus they may keep a stable weight long term without counting calories.
But if you do pay attention to calories, you may have noticed plant-based meals sometimes provide as many or more calories as meat-centered ones. How is this possible?
To explain this, I need to get a little scientific (stay with me). Calories come from foods made up of three different macronutrient categories: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram and fat provides 9 calories per gram. So, foods with fat contain more calories in a smaller amount of food. For example, 2 tbsp of peanut butter, a high-fat food, contains nearly double the calories of a medium apple, which is primarily carbohydrates. This is known as calorie density—the number of calories for the volume of food—and foods with fat are more calorie dense than foods without it. Most foods provide a mix of all three macronutrients, but we tend to categorize foods based on the macronutrient that contributes the most calories.
But, Calories Don’t Tell You the Full Story
The number of calories in a food tells us very little about the nutritional value of the food. One ounce of almonds has the same calories as one ounce of chips. Yet, the almonds are much more nutrient dense, because they provide fiber, poly and monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, calcium, and magnesium, whereas the chips provide practically no nutritional value.
When it comes to weight management and overall health, nutrient density is an incredibly important part of the equation. Focusing on calories alone could not only lead to a diet void of key vitamins and minerals, but also it often ignores the nutrients that promote feelings of fullness (a.k.a. satiety), an important factor in sticking with an eating plan. Building meals with foods that include fiber, fat, and protein will fill you up and keep you energized until your next meal.
So, what does that look like? Fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Plant-based protein can be found in beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil are all great sources of plant-based fat. Balancing your plate with a mix of these foods can help you eat less overall and avoid big energy spikes and crashes.
Don’t Forget: Calories Give Us Energy
Some diet and weight loss programs tell us to eat as few calories as possible, but that’s not always the best advice. Calories provide the energy we need to stay mentally sharp and to perform all of our daily activities. Undereating calories can lead to fatigue, a slower metabolism, poor sleep, digestive distress, and even episodes of overeating due to extreme hunger. Instead of focusing on cutting calories, choose nutrient-dense foods and tune into your body’s signals of hunger and fullness to tell you how much and when to eat.
A Plan for Long-Term Success
Research continues to show the key to weight management is to eat a quality diet filled with a variety of nutrients that will keep you satisfied. While low-calorie diets may lead to quick, short-term weight loss, they actually have been shown to result in weight regain over time. To get the most out of your plant-based meals, focus on nutrient-dense foods like those found in Purple Carrot meals. These foods will promote long-term health and help you feel your best.
Are You Ready to Start your Plant-Based Journey?
Purple Carrot is a great place to start because they do the hard part for you by developing delicious recipes that are guaranteed to be full of nutritious ingredients. Purple Carrot meals are full of whole foods and always provide a balance of the nutrients you need to feel great—delivered straight to your kitchen. Learn more about Purple Carrot meals and plans here.
Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN is a Boston-based registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and nutrition communication specialist helping active people fuel their busy lives so they can feel their best.
Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Marketing from The George Washington University and a Master of Science in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She completed her Dietetic Internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital in Boston, MA.
When not in the kitchen, you can find Sarah seeking out the latest restaurant opening, teaching indoor cycling, running, training for triathlons, or hiking or skiing with her husband and golden retriever pup.