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18 Jun Tuesdays with Jeff: Insights Into Your Health: The Calorie Paradox

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The Calorie Paradox: Is Your Plant Based Diet A Vegetable Based, Nut Based or Starch Based Diet?

Jeff Novick, MS, RD

Over the years, I have worked with many people who have told me their diet was vegetable based. However, on closer examination, it was anything but. Most often, they were getting most of their calories from either nuts, fruits, or starches (starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans).

Here is why.

The basis of a diet is what comprises most of it. In the world of nutrition, the deciding factor in dietary intake is calories and not the weight, or volume or servings of food consumed. Hence, the food or food group or type of food that contributes the largest percentage of calories to the total calorie intake will form the basis of that diet. This is the accepted standard in the world of nutrition.

These days we hear a lot about plant based diets. What this refers to is that most of the calories in the diet, comes from plants.

In the plant based diet world, we also hear terms like “starch” based, “nut” based, “fruit” based and “vegetable” based. A starch based diet is one where the majority of the calories will come from starches (whole grains, starchy vegetables and legumes).  As such, if someone is on a nut based diet, then the majority of their calories will come from nuts.

In addition, if someone was on a “vegetable” based diet, the majority of the calories will come from vegetables. However, because the calorie density of vegetables is so low, many who think they are following a vegetable based diet aren’t and are actually following something completely different. Most often, they are actually following a fruit based, nut based or even a starch based diet, without even realizing it.

Let’s look at the actual numbers and for this example, and to highlight the above point, I will use nuts and vegetables as the examples.  In addition, for this example, when we refer to vegetables, we will be referring to non-starchy vegetables (NSV) unless otherwise noted as this is what most people mean when they say they are on a “vegetable’ based diet and because there is a significant difference between the calorie density of non-starchy vegetables and starchy vegetables.

A pound of non starchy-vegetables (NSV) averages about 100 calories per pound

An ounce of nuts/seeds averages 180 calories per ounce.

If someone was to consume 1 pound of NSV a day, that is about 100 calories from vegetables. If someone was to consume 2 pounds of NSV a day, that would be approximately 200 calories from NSV.

As an FYI, 2 lbs of NSV is a large amount of NSV and an amount that may be difficult for people to consume let alone any more than this.

If they were to consume 3 lbs of NSV, that is 300 calories and 4 lbs of NSV is 400 calories.

One ounce of nuts is 180 calories, 2 ounces of nuts is 360 calories, 3 ounces of nuts is 540 calories and 4 ounces of nuts is 720 calories

So, let’s see how they numbers play out.

If someone was to consume 1 ounce of nuts per day, that would be 180 calories from nuts. They would need to be consuming at least 2 lbs of NSV per day to be consuming more NSV than nuts.

However, even so, this would not automatically make it a NSV based diet as this would only be 380 calories total with only 200 calories from the NSV.   The odds are, unless they are eating several more pounds of NSV per day, they will be getting most of their calories for the day from somewhere else (starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruits, beans, animal foods)

If someone was to consume 1.5 ounces of nuts per day, that would be 270 calories from nuts. They would need to be consuming almost 3 lbs of NSV per day to be consuming more NSV than nuts.

However, even so, this would not automatically make it a NSV based diet as this would only be 570 calories total with only 300 calories from the NSV.   The odds are, unless they are eating several more pounds of NSV per day, they will be getting most of their calories for the day from somewhere else (starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruits, beans, animal foods).

If someone were to consume 2 ounces of nuts per day, that would be 360 calories from nuts. They would need to be consuming almost 4 lbs of NSV per day to be consuming more NSV than nuts.

However, even so, this would not automatically make it a NSV based diet as this would only be 760 calories total with only 400 calories from the NSV.   The odds are, unless they are eating several more pounds of NSV per day, they will be getting most of their calories for the day from somewhere else (nuts, starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruits, beans, animal foods).

If someone was to consume 3 ounces of nuts per day, that would be 540 calories from nuts. They would need to be consuming at least 6 lbs of NSV per day to be consuming more NSV than nuts.

However, even so, this would not automatically make it a NSV based diet as this would only be 1140 calories total with 600 calories from the NSV.   While it is now mathematically possible that the 600 calories from from the NSV could be the source of most of their calories, consuming this amount of NSV is fairly difficult for most people.  Therefore, they are most likely not consuming this amount of NSV and they will be really getting most of their calories for the day from somewhere else (nuts, starches, fruits, beans, animal foods).

If someone was to consume 4 ounces of nuts per day, that would be 720 calories from nuts. They would need to be consuming at least 7.5 lbs of veggies per day to be consuming more NSV than nuts.

Again, this would not automatically make it a NSV based diet as this would only be 1470 calories total with 750 calories from the NSV.   While it is again mathematically possible that the 750 calories from from the NSV could be the source of most of their calories, consuming this amount of NSV is fairly difficult for most people.  Therefore, they are most likely not consuming this amount of NSV and they will be really getting most of their calories for the day from somewhere else (nuts, starches, fruits, beans, animal foods)

So, as you can see, if anyone is consuming a fair amounts of nuts, the odds of them being on a true NSV based diet is slim.  Even if they were not consuming a fair amount of nuts, it would still be difficult to consume enough NSV to make them the main contributor of calories to ones diet due to their extremely low calorie density.

For example, if all someone consumed was 1 ounce of nuts per day, they would need to be consuming at least the 2 lbs of NSV per day to be consuming more NSV than nuts. However, again, as this would only be 380 calories total with only 200 calories coming from the NSV and the odds are, they are not getting most of their calories for the day from these NSV but from somewhere else (starches, fruits, beans, animal foods).

Understanding and clarity are important. Knowing where you get the majority of your calories from and the type of diet you are on, is important

Many people think they are on a NSV based diet when in reality, they are not. The problem with this is that if they do not get in enough calories from somewhere, they will most likely get hungry and end up binging, and often binging on foods that are not healthy.

As we can see, if you are not getting the majority of calories from NSV, which is difficult to do, then where are you getting them from? Beans? Fruits? Starchy Vegetables? Whole Grains? Nuts? Animal foods? Junk foods?

Understanding this and discovering the answer may help you to better understand your diet and your health.

What I am recommending here is an exercise in self-awareness. It is not a debate about which diet is best, or who promotes the best diet. It is an exercise for individuals to do themselves so they can have a better understanding of their own diet and their own health and,if necessary, to make any adjustments to bring their diet inline with their own goals and objectives.

In Health

Jeff

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Jeff Novick
Jeff Novick

Jeff Novick, MS, RD, LD, LN is truly a unique dietitian and nutritionist. With over 24 years of experience in nutrition, health, fitness and natural living, he offers expert health advice distilled into powerful, easy-to-understand language on a variety of current topics.Novick’s insightful and humorous approach to nutrition and health has helped thousands worldwide make the transition to healthy living. He holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Indiana State University in nutrition, with a minor in exercise science.Novick serves as Vice President for Executive Health Exams International and lectures at the McDougall Program in Santa Rosa, California and at the Engine 2 Immersion program in Austin, Texas. He is also the Director of Nutrition for the Meals for Health program, which is helping empower low-income families to achieve optimal health.For almost a decade, Novick served as the Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Center in Aventura, Florida, and as Vice President of the Board of the Directors for the National Health Association (NHA). He also served as the Director of Health Education for the NHA and as an Adjunct Professor in the School of Health Sciences for Kaplan University.Novick has taught nutrition classes at Indiana State University, Indiana University Medical School, the University of Miami Medical School and the Florida Academy of Family Physicians. He regularly lectures at medical conferences across the country. While in Indiana, he created and taught the Nutrition Education Initiative, a preventive medicine curriculum for medical doctors, residents and medical students. In recognition of this groundbreaking project, Indiana’s governor awarded Novick the Indiana State Public Health Excellence in Health Science Award and Indiana State University awarded him the Graduate-of-the-Last-Decade Award.He has been interviewed by Newsday, Parade, Men’s Health, Shape, Women’s World and has appeared on Fox News, Discovery Health, the Today Show and other media outlets nationwide. He recently appeared in the documentary Processed People and the movie Fatboy, which won the Best Documentary award at the Fort Lauderdale and Queens Film Festivals.

  • Sandi

    You really know how to help us dissect. I learn from pictures but you painted a wonderful pic for me with your words. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge. I love your DVDs.

  • Laurie

    If I judge my diet by the weight of the foods I eat, my diet would be veg based. But if i judge it by the caloric content of my food, then I’m starch based or maybe even nut/fruit based and I’m totally fine with that since all of the food I eat is plant based and YUMMY! My BMI is 19.1 and I am fit and feel great!

  • Shelby

    Jeff–what is the optimal ratio for calories from fat, protein, and carbohydrates when aiming for a plant based diet? In trying to reach my protein needs I seem to be getting more than half my calories from carbohydrates…

    • Jeff Novick

      There is no “ideal” ratio and getting more than 50% of your calories from carbohydrate from foods is fine as long as they are minimally or unprocessed and low in calorie density and low/no in SOS. Many of the longest lived healthiest populations get over 50% of their calories from carbohydrate rich foods with some getting over 90%. I might say 15% protein, 15% fat and 70% carbohydrate with a 5% lee-way in either direction. In his newest book, “Whole,” Dr Campbell just sais, “aim to get 80 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 10 percent from fat, and 10 percent from protein.” So, close enough :)

  • Rocky

    That sure answered a lot of our issues! Thanks

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