We really like to eat. We choose restaurants based on portion size. We work out just to increase our capacity for guilt-free gluttony. And even when we don’t actually like it, we still want it because the food industry employs experts in brain hedonic processing to engineer food products your brain literally cannot stop craving. As Louis CK put it, we don’t stop eating when we’re full, we stop eating when we hate ourselves.
I’m not immune. In college, they called me Arnold, after the pig from Green Acres, because I could (and did) out-eat anyone. Linebackers 1.5x my size were no match. I love food, but I’m not interested in cramming as much food as I can get away with. Not anymore.
I’ve mentioned the concept of the minimum effective dose before, or the smallest dose that provides the desired outcome or effect. This applies to exercise, to sunlight, to carb intake, and to calories in general.
It is this caloric efficiency that describes my goal for the last dozen years: How little can I eat and retain or build mass, have optimal energy, never get sick and still NOT GO HUNGRY?
There are some obvious reasons to strive for caloric efficiency.
It’s expensive, especially if you eat high-quality food like pastured animals and organic produce.
It’s wasteful. We can eat 4000 calories a day, but should we? It won’t last forever, especially if it’s the quality food described in the previous point.
It’s unnecessary. While I could eat 1000 more calories and probably stay as lean as I am (and perhaps even gain more muscle), I can’t come up with a good justification for doing it. I’m happy, fit, and productive already.
But maybe the biggest reason to achieve caloric efficiency is that caloric restriction has the most support in the longevity research literature, with even a 10% calorie reduction having a powerful effect on mortality. Only the way most people do it—by limiting protein so much that you waste away and fail to complete a single pushup, restricting everything delicious, leading an ascetic existence, losing your sex drive, obsessing over everything that enters your mouth—doesn’t appeal to me.
If I can eat less food and feel satiated, not feel restricted, stay active, maintain and even improve my fitness, look good naked, remain productive, and quite possibly live a little longer—why wouldn’t I give it a shot?
Sounds pretty good to me. Okay, so how can we make it happen?
1. Become a fat-burning beast
When you’re able to tap into your own stored adipose tissue for energy between meals, you don’t need to snack. You’re not hangry because it’s 2 PM and the break room donut box is empty. You just coast along until your nutrient-dense dinner, smoothly evading high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food.
2. Get your sleep
The sleep deprivation epidemic is one of the primary causes of our junk food addiction. If that sounds ridiculous, get a load of the research showing that the brains of sleep deprived humans are more susceptible to high-reward junk food.
Don’t choose highly refined avocado oil, choose virgin avocado oil. Pass on the pale olive oil and spring for the murky green stuff. Get red palm oil instead of refined palm oil and yellow grass-fed butter instead of butter the color of chalk. If you want to thicken a sauce, stew, or curry, toss and stir in a couple egg yolks after turning off the heat.
This stuff matters. Avocado oil has a slew of benefits, EVOO has reams of literature support, red palm oil is the single best source of vitamin E (and the CoQ10 doesn’t hurt, either), and grass-fed milkfat has superior metabolic effects to corn-fed milkfat. I don’t have to list the virtues of egg yolks, do I?
4. Avoid refined sugar
If you need to add sweetness, choose a sweetener that gives back. Honey? Provides a broad spectrum of low dose micronutrients. Blackstrap molasses? Full of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Maple syrup? Loaded with manganese. Date paste? Rich in polyphenols and fermentable fiber. Even the completely processed sugar substitute xylitol offers protection against cavities that regular sugar doesn’t.
Any infusion of sucrose, glucose, and fructose has its downsides, but it’s better if it comes packaged with phytonutrients, pollen remnants, and discarded bee limbs.
5. Choose better carbs
Say you want to eat some “carbs.” Maybe you’re refiling glycogen or something. What’s the better choice? Which provides tons of other nutrients you need in addition to the carbohydrate?
A bag of gluten-free pasta made of rice flour that cost you $8, or a serving of sprouted wild rice cooked in real bone broth?
A scoop of waxy maize in the shake or a half cup of (dare I say it?) black beans?
It all boils down to playing with the margins. Getting little wins where you can.
6. Eat your plants
Most fibrous, green, leafy, and/or brightly-colored fruits and vegetables are basically non-caloric. The carbohydrates are negligible (you probably use more glucose digesting non-starchy vegetables than they contain) and they’re inherently self-limiting; you can’t stuff yourself on greens. No one is carbing up with a salad bowl full of a couple pounds of steamed kale before a race, unless it’s a race to the nearest toilet. The higher sugar fruits can add up, but even those are hard to overdo unless you’re slamming peach after peach.
A cheat day or meal is a release valve. By setting aside a day every week or two to eat whatever you want, as much as you want, it’s easier to eat more sensibly and efficiently during the rest of the week.
8. Focus on eating enough protein-rich foods first
Adequate protein protects against diet-induced muscle loss. This is particularly relevant for CRONers, who tend to waste away on their journey to immortality.
Protein-rich foods are the most nutrient-dense. Think of liver, eggs, wild salmon, sardines, oysters, mussels, and steak and you’re thinking of some of the best sources for iron, zinc, vitamin A, B-vitamins, omega-3s, copper, choline, manganese, and plenty of others. Even the most protein-dense plant foods—legumes—are extremely rich in micronutrients. Just make sure you focus on protein-rich foods rather than protein. Protein powder is certainly an effective tool, but it should never be the basis of your diet.
9. Set up an account with a food tracking app or website, track your 30-odd most common foods, and determine their caloric efficiency
Everyone’s ideal “caloric efficiency” diet is unique. Figuring out the caloric efficiency of the foods you already eat will help you structure your diet better than I could. Aim to fill those RDAs.
10. Survey the list of supplemental Primal foods and aim to eat them regularly
A couple years ago, I wrote a list of the most important “supplemental foods” that any Primal eater should be including:
Small whole fish
Red palm oil
Purple or blue foods like berries, purple sweet potatoes, and vegetables
Because they’re so nutrient-dense, you don’t need to eat them in huge amounts. In the case of certain ones like Brazil nuts, liver, and turmeric, you probably shouldn’t eat them all the time because you risk overdoing certain critical nutrients (selenium, vitamin A, and hormetic polyphenols, respectively).
What do you think about caloric efficiency? How do you strive to make your diet more efficient?
Thanks for reading.
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.