Nutrient Density vs Caloric Content: What is the Difference?

Nutrient Density vs Caloric Content: What is the Difference?

1. The science behind your food choices: introduction

Nutrient density vs caloric content: what is the difference? In this article, we will deep dive into one of the main questions that people ask when talking about food choices.

Today I ate the most delicious eclairs in the world! And don't get me wrong, I didn't just eat, I ate a whole portion, nicely topped with black coffee and nice company. My portion of eclairs contained fewer calories than I had for breakfast, but it was still much higher in calories. Do you know how calories are converted in our body?

Do you think 500 calories from avocado equals 500 calories from chocolate?

We've all heard of calorie counting and we can't help but because the fitness industry is constantly talking about the need to monitor our calorie intake. If we reduce our calorie intake, we will lose weight, and if we increase it, we will gain weight. 

This is an indisputable fact! But there is something that is not talked about at all, namely, what is the difference between calories and calorific value? Or between calorie-dense food and nutrient-dense food? 

I'll start with the first question so that we can continue to talk about the topic on some ground, and get a good understanding when it comes to nutrient density vs caloric content.

Calorie or Kilocalories are a unit of measurement for the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. 

The caloric unit is used only to indicate the energy value of food! From a physics point of view, calories as a unit of energy do not change, but let's see what happens to calories. 

What is caloric content? Caloric or energy value is the energy received after the absorption of calories in the digestive tract. Depending on its structure and content, the method of preparation, who takes it and how the digestion itself takes place, the caloric content changes. 

Caloric content is the amount of calories that can be extracted from food during the digestive process, as opposed to the total number of calories contained in it. How do we digest food and how do we change its caloric content?

2. How is nutrient density related to calories?

Chemistry, physics and mathematics - this can best determine what the food is when it is ingested. Getting into our body, even the tastiest food turns into a combination of nutrients generally called macronutrients and micronutrients. 

The chemical structure of each of these nutrients is different and includes different chains of molecules. The more complex the composition of a food, the more calories the body spends to break it down to the last molecule. 

Passing through the metabolic pathway, food is broken down, as the body absorbs as much as it needs, and the rest accumulates as a surplus.

Each macronutrient contains a different amount of calories. For example, one gram of protein contains four calories. A large part of them are metabolised passing through the digestive tract. 

Because proteins have complex chains of molecules, the body uses a lot of energy in the form of heat to digest and digest them. One gram of carbohydrates also contains four calories, and fat has significantly more - nine calories.

Measurement of the calorific value or the so-called energy value of each food is done with a calorimeter. This is a complex measurement where food is burned in the unit to determine the heat it releases into the surrounding water environment. This caloric content can change depending on the processing of the food, which is important when discussing nutrient density vs caloric content.

2.1. What is calorie dense food?

Initially, the definition of caloric food is a food product that has an energy value, i.e. contains calories. This means that every food and drink except water is a caloric food. That's because cucumber, chocolate, and chicken leg all have different nutrient compositions, but they all contain calories. 

We can divide caloric food into two categories - low-calorie and high-calorie. You can often hear someone define or call a high-calorie food simply a high-calorie food, but you already know that every food is like that.

But the term nowadays has another, much more popular meaning, which is that a food or drink is called caloric when it has a high energy value but no high nutritional value. What does this mean? Exactly what is the difference between nutrient density vs caloric content?

This means that it is poor in nutrients like iron, copper, manganese, vitamins, protein, fibre etc. that the body needs and rich in sugars, fats and enhancers that the body uses little or no amount of , and this means that the rest of the calories are stored in the body in the form of fat.

On the one hand, during the process of breaking down food in our body, a minimal amount of energy is used to divide the substances, and finally a large amount of calories reaches the large intestine, and on the other hand, the composition of the substances does not include substances important for the maintenance of the life cycle, for the body to absorb through the metabolic pathway, from which the calories from the ingested food decrease. 

All semi-finished products, ultra-processed foods and sweets are called caloric foods considering that they do not have high nutritional value, lead to obesity and have an adverse effect on the body. But the same amount of calories is contained in a tablespoon of honey or in a beef steak, and yet we do not accept these foods as "caloric" and eat them with pleasure. 

So, here's the exact difference between nutrient density vs caloric content:

2.2. What is nutrient dense food?

Nutrient-rich foods are those that contain a variety of macronutrients and micronutrients that the body uses for its various functions. Proteins, carbohydrates and lipids are the three groups of macronutrients in food and are the main energy providers for the body. 

The micronutrient group includes electrolytes such as calcium, magnesium and sodium, which are responsible for nerve impulses in the body, brain activity and muscle contraction. Nutrients also include vitamins, fibre, pigments, minerals and water. Vegetables and animal products such as milk and eggs are the richest in nutrients.

Enrichment of food with minerals and vitamins starts from the soil. The richer it is in minerals and vitamins and untreated with pesticides, the more it saturates the plants with nutrients. Air, quantity and quality of sunlight and other factors can affect the nutritional value of plants. It follows that the nutritional value of eggs, milk and meat depends on the quality and nutritional value of plants.

Although some of these substances are lost during processing, they remain with the body's natural source of energy and source of health. We are what we eat! I would add that we are also what we choose. Wheat, eggs, milk, cheese, spinach, meat, nuts and seeds - the wealth we have at our disposal and which we can gladly bring to our table.

Unfortunately, in the modern world, the nutritional value of products differs significantly from that of the same products thirty years ago. Nutritional deficiencies are increasingly common even among people with a high standard of living. 

Nutrient-rich foods are becoming nutrient-poor, and processed and enhanced "calorie" foods are increasingly entering the market. Which is also something to keep in mind when discussing  nutrient density vs caloric content.

3. Are nutrient dense foods always high in calories?

The nutritional value of foods refers to calories, but is not necessarily an indicator of the amount of calories in a given food. Depending on the composition of the food, it may have a higher or lower caloric value. Foods rich in macronutrients have a higher caloric value because, as we saw a little above, one gram of protein contains four calories, but the same amount of fat contains twice as many calories. 

The same is true of much lower calorie (energy value) nutrients such as certain vitamins, minerals and fibre. For example, protein- and fat-rich meats and nuts have a higher caloric value than other rich and healthy products such as okra, tomatoes or eggs, because they contain substances that give less energy but have nutritional value for the body .

The water content of any product also has a bearing on its caloric value, especially when talking about the final absorption of nutrients from raw or processed foods. 

Summer fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber, celery and zucchini contain a lot of water and nutrients, but are known for their low calories, which makes them very popular with people who are struggling with weight.

4. Nutrient density vs caloric content: examples

4.1. Examples of nutrient dense foods

This is the case with foods that do not contain cellulose. 100 grams of raw chicken breast contains 114 calories, but after baking it becomes 165. 

If we take a 400 calorie beef steak that is very lightly cooked for 4-6 minutes and take the same steak, grind it, stew it and put it in a dish with potatoes, bake the dish in the oven for about an hour, then have dinner and put the rest in the fridge, and the next night put it back in the oven to warm up for about an hour. 

The difference between six minutes and several hours of cooking will dramatically increase the calorie content of the meat, which means that our body will absorb many more calories than a single piece of beef. 

In addition to heat treatment, which is related to calories, the amount of energy needed to break down the individual macronutrients – proteins, carbohydrates and fats – must also be taken into account. 

After entering the intestines, the process of breaking down the components begins. It takes the most energy and time to digest protein, with almost 30% of the calories consumed from protein being used to break it down into amino acids. 

This means that if you eat 100 calories of meat protein or egg white, you will only absorb 70 of them. But as we already know, the way the meat is processed and prepared affects this value. In the case of carbohydrates, the amount of energy used is from 5 to 10% of the calories taken in, and in the case of fats, it is 3%.

4.2. Examples of calorie dense foods

The simplest example we can give is sugar. The commercially available white crystalline form is sucrose. It consists of one molecule of fructose and one molecule of glucose bound together. Therefore, sucrose is a disaccharide. If we eat 100 calories of sugar, the digestive process only has to break it down into its constituent elements and we will extract over 95 calories. 

Another example is consuming 100 calories of sweet corn. After passing through the digestive tract, we have absorbed only a fraction of a hundred calories. The reason for this is due to the large amount of cellulose contained in it (fibres that the human body cannot break down). 

But what happens if we take the same amount of corn, dry it, grind it into cornmeal, mix it with water, and bake corn tortillas? We absorb much more than a hundred calories from it. This is due to the fact that cellulose decomposes during heat treatment, as a result of which the amount of available energy can increase up to four times (as happens with celery after heat treatment). 

This principle also applies to many other vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, broccoli, green beans, etc. But when we buy the appropriate amount from a store, the nutritional information on each of the three packages will be 100 calories. This is the case with foods that do not contain cellulose.

5. So, which is better - nutrient density vs caloric content?

The balance between nutrient density vs caloric content is very important, but it is difficult to determine whether nutrient-dense or calorie-dense foods without high nutrient content are better. Like everyone else, we will enjoy the delicious milk chocolate as well as the vitamin-rich salad in the same way.

The actual measurement of calories consumed in everyday life is not so simple. We must take into account several main components affecting the calories we absorb, such as heat treatment, time and frequency of intake, main components and most importantly and impossible without special laboratory observations and research - how the digestive process in our body, what is the amount of water contained in it, what is the acid balance of gastric juices, etc .

But, if you still decide to keep track of the calories you eat, remember that counting them doesn't make much sense if you don't take calories into account.

If we eat a large amount of low-calorie food it will not be healthy and if we eat a small amount of high-calorie food it will not harm us. Every extreme is bad! Consume with pleasure and moderation and do not forget that balance is the basis of everything!