A Better Way to “Cleanse”: What We Eat’s Density Diet

It’s that time of year again. Resolution time. For some, that might mean a vow to limit Instagram, start a gym routine or get more sleep. But for many others, it likely involves a plan to change their diet. After weeks (months?) of indulging, a desire to restore control is natural.

Everywhere you turn—the internet, TV, magazines, friends—you’ll find someone promising you that they have the easiest, quickest way to do it. And it’s probably going to come in the form of a cleanse, detox or elimination diet. I’d like to offer a sane alternative that can be a diet touchstone anytime of the year.

First, let’s get to the two main reasons why I don’t like traditional cleanses, detoxes and/or elimination diets:

  • They are not research-based. The most prominent claim these diets tout is that they remove toxic build-up in your body. News flash: Your kidneys, liver and colon are the most magnificent, incredibly effective detoxing machines. Eliminating particular foods won’t allow these organs to “rest” and eating particular foods won’t make them more effective. (And certainly, no supplements are going to help either. If a diet recommends taking its own branded supplements, be wary.) If you are going to put a large amount of effort into changing the way you eat, then it should deliver on its promises.
  • They are often too severe and/or unrealistic in the long-term. Cleanses, detoxes and eliminations that prescribe a narrow set of foods or beverages typically lack the full spectrum of nutrients your body needs. Why rob your body of what’s essential now in the wake of what was likely a long period of sub-optimal nourishment? You’d just be swapping one bad diet for another. And while, yes, they might lead to short term weight loss because you’re severely restricting calories, the weight loss won’t last. Whatever you do to lose weight, you have to continue in the long-term to keep it off.

But, here’s what I do like about them:

  • They inspire people and provide structure. After the free-for-all holiday eating, having rules to follow feels reassuring.
  • That’s it.

Luckily, there are many research-supported alternative approaches that deliver on a host of the desired outcomes–more energy, normalized digestion, improved skin and maybe even weight loss. Here’s one I’ve come up with. Let’s call it What We Eat’s Density Diet. (I’ll get our PR team working on something catchier.)

WWE’s Density Diet Framework

What We Eat’s Density Diet is about eating for health. Of course, we should also eat for pleasure, culture, tradition, adventure, and a host of other non-health related reasons. That’s balance. But after a prolonged period when health has been secondary, prioritizing it to get back baseline isn’t a bad idea.

The Density Diet is based on nutrient and caloric density, two of the most important concepts in nutrition that I’ve described in detail in the past here.

Nutrient Density = the amount of good stuff (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, etc.) in a specific food per the amount of calories it provides.

  • High nutrient density = lots of good stuff per calorie (aka “superfoods”)
  • Low nutrient density = little good stuff per calorie (aka “empty calories”)

And, Caloric Density = the amount of calories in a specific volume/weight of food.

  • High caloric density = lots of calories for small amount of food (bummer)
  • Low caloric density = few calories for a large amount of food (great!)

So, the goal of the Density Diet is to eat as many foods packed with vitamins, minerals, etc. for the fewest amount of calories and the most satisfying volume. High nutrient density, low caloric density.

As you can see, not every food is categorized in the same way in terms of nutrient and caloric density. I’ve also provided a little more nuance when it comes to caloric density by giving it four categories. But don’t get caught up in the details. Here is how this translates.

WWE’s Density Diet Rules:

  • All foods that appear in green in both categories (high nutrient density, low caloric density) can be eaten without restriction. They should make up a minimum of 50% of what is consumed.

DD Rule 1: Half of what you eat at every meal should be vegetables or fruit.

  • All foods with medium nutrient density and low to medium caloric density can be enjoyed in moderation. They should make up most of the bulk of the remaining 50% of what is consumed. Proteins like eggs, beans, poultry/seafood/lean pork and plain dairy fall into these categories. Because protein is an essential building block and helps us to feel fuller longer, a small serving should be incorporated into every meal.

DD Rule 2: A quarter of what you eat at every meal should be a protein that falls into the medium nutrient density and low/medium caloric density categories: eggs, beans, poultry/seafood/lean pork, plain dairy or soy.

DD Rule 3: A quarter of what you eat at every meal should be made up of other foods in that fall under these categories like whole grains, starchy vegetables and a portion-controlled amount of nuts and seeds (medium in nutrient density but high in caloric density).

  • All foods that fall under both low nutrient density and high caloric density and are not part of DD Rule 5 below will be limited or avoided entirely:

DD Rule 4: Consumption of the following will be limited or avoided entirely:  

  • Red meat and processed meats such
  • Processed or flavored dairy – flavored yogurts, ice cream, etc.
  • Refined grains – crackers, chips, white pasta, etc.
  • Refined sweets – sugar, baked goods, candy, soda
  • Cheese
  • Butter and margarine

DD Rule 5 (Exception): Healthy fat in the form of liquid oils like extra virgin olive oil, while high in caloric density and not as favorable in terms of nutrient density, is an essential part of a balanced diet. They should be used mindfully in cooking or as a finisher, especially with high nutrient density/low energy density vegetables.

This is a research-based, well-rounded way of eating. You’ll reap benefits with no adverse health consequences whether you follow it for days, weeks, months or years.

I’ve laid the groundwork here to get you thinking. In next week’s post, I’ll provide more detail about how to put it into practice and make it work for you. Until then, enjoy the rest of the holiday season. 2018 is just around the corner. It’s going to be a good one!

xo Laura Geraty, MS, RD

2 thoughts on “A Better Way to “Cleanse”: What We Eat’s Density Diet

  1. I am so looking forward to these posts. The supermarket is loaded with an abundance of choices, good or bad, and can be hard to navigate when it comes to making the right choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

    1. So true! Sticking to the perimeter at the supermarket is your best bet. Let us know if you plan to follow some version of this and we can help support you!

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