Top-6 Calorie Dense Foods (And How to Avoid Them)

There is a growing debate in the nutrition community about the cause of obesity; too much sugar or too much fat? While the debate rages online, the research experts are actually in agreement… it’s both! Consuming an excess of calories leads to weight gain, while a caloric deficit leads to weight loss. (There is also the “endocrine theory” for weight loss, but I’ll address that in future post). It sounds straight-forward in theory, however in practice it can be tremendously challenging to implement.

Calorie-Dense & Highly Palatable Foods

In nature, foods are typically rich in fat or rich in sugar… not both. Processed foods, on the other hand, are rich in BOTH sugar and fat (as well as salt) which triggers the reward centers in the brain. Research scientists have known for decades the best diet to fatten up mice is a combination of fat and sugar, and ironically, today’s standard American diet (SAD) frighteningly mimics this combination.

Grocery and convenience store shelves are lined with a record number of processed foods, over 45,000, which obesity expert Dr. Stephan Guyanet PhD has shown contributes strongly to over-eating.(1) He states this is due to their high palatability, as well as convenience. From an evolutionary perspective, if a food is easy to obtain and calorically dense, your brain is hard-wired to crave it. In our hunter-gatherer past these foods were incredibly difficult to obtain, today it’s ubiquitous and all around us.

The top-6 calorie-dense foods, as outlined by the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are as follows;

1)    Desserts (grain-based)

2)    Breads

3)    Processed Chicken Dishes

4)    Soda Pop & Energy Drinks

5)    Alcohol

6)    Pizza

(*If you live in Canada, the UK or Europe the average intake is not too far off.)

Based on this list, it’s not surprising that 66% of the population are now overweight or obese (with obesity rates skyrocketing) and 50% of the population pre-diabetic or diabetic.(2) This is a big problem for healthy ageing – and for the cost of healthcare – as chronically high insulin levels is a reliable predictor of virtually all chronic diseases.(3)

You might notice that fruit, vegetables, nuts, animal protein are nowhere to be found on this list. It’s not too many bananas, carrots, peanuts or steaks contributing to the overwhelming weight gain and obesity epidemic. It’s the over-consumption of calories from processed foods - sugars, fats, salt, etc. - which are incredibly palatable, addictive and convenient. (Yes, there is also an insulin hormone part of the equation, but it includes the calories model. More on this topic in a future post). If you crave a food, and its close by, the research shows most people will eat it.

Reboot Your Brain for Weight Loss

The simplest way to reduce calories and achieve weight loss is to adopt of a low-carb, high-fat diet (LCHF). Ironically, by following a LCHF nutrition approach and completely avoiding “calorie-counting” you can achieve remarkable weight loss results.

A major reason for this effect is you eliminate the top-6 calorie-dense foods, resulting in a caloric deficit… perfect for weight loss. But that’s not the only benefit. By removing these foods, you also remove the greatest triggers of “food reward” to the brain. By shutting down this evolutionary drive to consume highly palatable foods you end up reducing cravings… resulting in less snacking… caloric reduction… and ultimately long-term weight loss.


Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS