Last week I recorded an interview with Jennifer Ludington for her upcoming women’s weight loss seminar, The Freedom Body Project. In that interview I shared one of the most valuable techniques I’ve ever devised for losing weight: the food line-up exercise.
You see, people tend to think about dieting in terms of giving up foods they already eat, and adopting new foods that they aren’t currently eating. The point of this exercise is to show you that some of the foods you’re already eating are much, much healthier than others.
Well, kind of. For the sake of this exercise, we’ll only be looking at caloric density– how many calories per gram each food has. That’s only one of several factors that determines how healthy a given food is, but it’s a very important one, especially as it pertains to weight loss.
Here’s how to use a food line-up to assess your diet in just 30 minutes
Clear a long space on a table or countertop. You’ll need to be able to line up a bunch of foods left to right, so this space should be at least three feet long. The more well-stocked your pantry is, the more space you’ll need.
Start a new note or word processor document on your phone or laptop. Name it “food line-up,” “food calorie density,” or something like that.
Pull out some coffee, tea, and/or diet soda and set it on the far left end of the space you’ve cleared. In your note file, write “coffee/tea/diet soda- 0 calories/gram.”
Pull a bottle of oil and/or pack of butter out of the pantry and set it at the far right end of the space you’ve cleared. Then write in your note file, below the last entry “butter- 9 calories/gram.”
Now pull out other foods, beverages, sauces, or other consumables one by one. For each one, look at the nutritional information and calculate how many calories per gram that food contains. Write that down in the note file somewhere in between your coffee and your oil- keep all of the entries ordered by calories per gram.
After recording the food in your note file, place it in the line-up in that same order– further to the left for low-calorie items, further to the right for high-calorie items.
Once you’re done– once you’ve done this for every food item you have– take a photo of the whole thing.
To recap: at the end of all this, you have a photo of all your food lined up, and a note file saying what order they’re in, and how many calories per gram are in each one.
I just did this exercise today– let’s take a look at what I ended up with, and see what lessons we can glean from the exercise. First, here’s my photo– the same one from the top of this article.
I know the exact order looks a little imprecise because I ran out of room. Here’s the list of everything in the photo:
Food – Calories/Gram
Coffee, tea and diet soda- 0
Green beans- .2
Greek yogurt (light)- .5
Cauliflower rice stir fry- .48
Frozen mixed vegetables- .75
Rice (when cooked)- 1.35
Eggs (not pictured)- 1.52
Pork and shrimp siu mai- 2.18
Fish sticks- 2.2
Leftover supreme pizza- 2.28 (not pictured because I forgot I had it until after I took the photos)
Orange chicken- 2.3
Cream cheese (light)- 2.35
Creamer (liquid)- 2.6
Beef jerky, homemade- 3.4
Pub cheese- 3.49
Hot chocolate mix- 3.6
Popcorn (buttered)- 4.8
Creamer (dry)- 5
Oil and butter- 9
First, a few notes
All oils and butter have nine calories per gram. Basically, anything that’s pure fat. Sugar would have 4 calories/gram, I just don’t have any.
I did leave out a few items. I have two kinds of rice, and four kinds of oil in my house, but I didn’t see the need to set them all out if they’re nutritionally identical. I also left out two or three items that have been sitting around forever that I never use anyway, since I want this to be representative of my actual diet.
The “not pictured” items either I forgot I had lying around, or I didn’t have any of on hand, but added into the notes because I normally eat them a lot.
A few of these items don’t have weights listed because they’re measured by volume, but you can Google the nutritional information.
For something like homemade jerky, Google recipes and make your best guess. Jerky is always imprecise because it depends on how dry you made it– the dryer, the less water is left, the more calories per gram it has. That’s also why it seems so calorically dense compared to other meats. My estimate might be a bit high, but I don’t think it’s too far off.
For something like an apple where you don’t actually eat the whole thing, try to estimate calories per gram based on only the part that you eat. I looked up the nutritional info for apple slices rather than whole apples for that reason.
Similarly, if the size or nutritional content of something changes significantly when cooked, use the cooked values, not the raw values. I did this for rice.
I did not do it for ramen however, since the amount of water you use is pretty variable, and I couldn’t find out how much water the noodles themselves absorb. So ramen isn’t quite as bad as it looks here, though it isn’t great.
You can see that foods fall into five distinct tiers of caloric density.
0-1 calories per gram: Ultra-light foods. Eat these as much as possible, especially if you’re losing weight. Most people will have no need to restrict quantities with these foods.
1-2 calories per gram: Light foods. Make these the staples of your diet unless you’re trying to gain weight. You may or may not need to restrict quantities with these foods, depending on how easily you overeat. As you can see, I could benefit from stocking a couple more of these.
2-3.5 calories per gram: Average to somewhat above average caloric density. Some of these foods are healthy, some less so, but all need to be consumed in moderation. This group as a whole should be limited to once or twice a day and not consumed with every meal.
3.5-5 calories per gram: Very fattening foods. Limit these to cheat meals once or twice a week.
5+ calories per gram: This is a special case because at this level, the items in question are no longer “foods,” but really oils or sauces. You can see how easy it would be to over-consume them. Limit these to one teaspoon a meal if you’re losing weight, or if you’re maintaining but find it easy to gain weight. Two teaspoons if you’re maintaining but don’t gain weight easily, three if you’re bulking and find it hard to eat enough.
Now, looking back at that list, a few things might surprise you.
First off, there are a couple of sets of seemingly similar items that ended up falling fairly far apart.
Light cream cheese came out significantly better than pub cheese, even though both are spreadable cheeses in a little plastic container.
Fat-free liquid creamer is significantly better than hot chocolate mix, and way better than powdered creamer.
Look for “similar” items in your own lineup that ended up being not so similar.
Second, you can see that fruits and vegetables were king here, and vegetables didn’t actually come out any better than fruit. Granted, that’s because I only have low-calorie fruits on hand. Some fruits, like bananas or pomegranates, would have more calories than vegetables. But fruit as a whole is quite filling for how many calories it has, at least compared to grain-based foods like rice and bread.
There are also a few heuristics many of us follows that turn out to not be true, or at least not be consistently true.
First, there’s the “if it’s sweet it must be bad for you” heuristic. As you can see, this heuristic is great when you’re talking about candy and baked goods, but falls flat on it’s face when you try to apply it to fruit.
Next up, there’s the “classy foods are better than cheap foods” heuristic. As you can see, ramen doesn’t come out looking good, though as I mentioned I didn’t exactly measure it fairly since I went with the uncooked weight with no broth. If I had included water weight, it would have at least beaten out pub cheese.
But notice how fish sticks edged out prosciutto– I have to say, I never saw that coming.
I guess the lesson here is, just because I used to eat something in college doesn’t mean it’s bad for me.
Finally, for those of us who have come to think poorly of the standard American diet, there may be an “American foods are worse than foreign foods” heuristic. This one is also hard to judge, but if we consider pizza and beef jerky as American foods, and prosciutto and orange chicken as foreign foods, then this heuristic doesn’t hold up.
Really, Americans just eat too much. There are a lot of healthy American foods.
When you do this exercise, you’ll probably have the urge to cut back on, or cut out, a few of the foods you currently eat. That’s expected. But an unexpected benefit of doing a food line-up is finding out that some of the foods you currently eat aren’t as bad as you thought.
I was surprised that pizza and fish sticks ended up being mediocre but not terrible. Also that my new liquid creamer– while not “healthy” by any means– is at least low enough in calories that a splash of it in my coffee won’t hurt me.
I have a client right now who is worried that he keeps overeating blueberries. But since a pound of blueberries is only 255 calories, this exercise would probably show him that he doesn’t need to worry so much.
Perhaps the best use of this exercise is to identify big wins– opportunities to eat more of some of your favorite foods by cutting down on a few of the worst offenders.
In my case, you can see that I would benefit (actually have benefitted, as I already did this) from cutting out ranch dressing, and popcorn, and replacing the hot chocolate and dry creamer with a splash of liquid creamer in my coffee. I usually consume crackers, prosciutto and pub cheese together; you can see that I would also benefit from eating fewer crackers and putting a bigger slice of prosciutto on each one.
Doing that allows me to eat all the fruit, eggs and rice I want. I also can let myself eat prosciutto and dim sum pretty much all I want– while I could overeat them, it’s actually fairly hard to do that in practice, at least for someone with as much muscle as I have.
Also, ramen– which again should probably be rated somewhere in the 2-3 range like other bread items– becomes a lot healthier once you start adding eggs and vegetables to it. You could potentially even break the block of noddles in half and throw half out, and use ramen as the base for a very cheap and healthy weight loss soup.
You can easily lose 5 pounds a month just by doing this. Add a tiny bit of exercise, drink more water, and, uh…do this one other weird trick…and you’re up to ten pounds a month.
If there’s one big takeaway from this exercise, it’s this: you can cut out a lot of calories while eating foods you already know and love. Just cut out a few high-calorie foods you don’t even like that much, eat more low-calorie foods you already like, watch the portions on a few items, and modify a few other foods by mixing them with lower-calorie ingredients. Your “terrible” diet may not actually need all that much modification to become healthy and low-calorie.
And by the way, this is just one of several weight loss secrets I shared in my interview with Jennifer Ludington. To hear the rest, register for The Freedom Body Project before the November 18th deadline.