What's the most calorie-dense nutritionally complete diet?
June 11, 2019 4:53 PM   Subscribe

Purely theoretical question that is probably totally basic for dietitians: how few calories would it take to take care of one's daily nutritional requirements and leave maximum room for cake?

This is totally theoretical - I have no interest in dieting, although I have great interest in cake - but I'm wondering what the most nutritionally dense calories are that one could consume. In other words, how few calories could I consume while satisfying basic nutritional requirements (e.g., protein, vitamins, potassium, etc.) - thereby leaving a maximum number of unused calories in my 2000 a day that I could then devote to dessert?

I did go down a What does The Rock Eat? rabbit hole years ago, and I seem to recall cod and spinach featuring heavily. Is that the trick? Surely that doesn't, though, stave off, like, scurvy.
posted by catesbie to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If you eat enough spinach you won’t get scurvy - it does contain a decent amount of vit c.

I imagine that if you had a protein powder, a fiber supplement, and some multivitamins you could pretty easily cut down to well under 400 calories a day to get your basic nutrition in - you’d get sufficient fat and carbohydrates from the cake. You probably wouldn’t be very healthy, but you would be able to avoid vitamin deficiency and actual malnutrition.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:06 PM on June 11

I don’t believe micronutrients effectively have any calories, so I think you could take vitamins and still have more or less 2000 calories for cake.
posted by ftm at 5:41 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Your daily multivitamin should take care of most micronutrient needs for you.

If you don't feel like you need to have nice shits, you can forgo fiber. But Metamucil's only 45 calories for about 6 grams of fiber (you're supposed to aim for 20 grams, but very few Americans actually reach that number.)

Protein wise, I'm going by your past posts and using your height of 5'1" and guessing around 130-140 pounds. That puts your protein needs around 48-60 grams a day, so basically 2 to 2.5 scoops of protein powder. That'd translate to about 240 calories of protein.

So roughly 285 calories to make sure you don't die of scurvy, wither away too much, and have some form of tolerable bowel movement.

As a cake-obsessed person training to be a dietitian, I totally love this question.
posted by astapasta24 at 6:03 PM on June 11 [23 favorites]

posted by sallybrown at 6:07 PM on June 11

It's not quite your question, but it greatly affects your answer: cake is food too. Looking at some random nutritional labels, protein ranges from 0 to 7 grams per slice, and fiber from 0 to 51% of RDA. The recipe on the high end for both is an angel food cake mix. Just two slices and you've got all your fiber and 30% of your protein needs!

Cake is a form of bread, and the traditional combinations of bread + beans/nuts, or bread + cheese, should give your complete amino acids. You could incorporate those into the cake too! You'll still want some source of vitamins though.
posted by zompist at 6:36 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

traditional combinations of bread + beans/nuts, or bread + cheese, should give your complete amino acids. You could incorporate those into the cake too!

Hmm...you could get some beans into your cake by adding a vegan chocolate mousse made from chickpea water. I'm not sure how much protein remains in the water.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:46 PM on June 11

A nutritionally complete diet needs some fiber, make it an apple cake, or one with apricots or prunes. Cake will have eggs for protein and oil or butter, so there's fat, and, of course, masses of simple carbs. The cake may have milk, too. Add nuts for extra protein and a good source of minerals (magnesium, potassium).
posted by theora55 at 6:48 PM on June 11

Inuit people have survived for millennia on a traditional diet made up almost entirely of animal meat and fat and some fish — a few berries and grasses in the short summer are the only plants they consumed. They are uniquely adapted to this diet. The diet is uniquely suited to survival in Arctic conditions. But as a factual answer to your question, I believe that is the answer globally.

They also like cake. But they process calories so efficiently that western sugar and carbohydrate rich foods are literally toxic to them.
posted by spitbull at 7:06 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

MyFitnessPal forums suggest that 1200 calories is the minimum for a short, sedentary woman to meet nutritional needs and 1500 for a man. I think this is based on US dietary research and I don’t think it takes into account nutrition gained from supplements.
posted by EatMyHat at 7:18 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

The BBC’s list of 100 nutrient-dense foods

TL;dr, lots of seafood and intensely coloured fruit and veg would be what you’d be eating. Probably lots of sardines in particular to meet the RDA of calcium

I don’t know what the calorie ceiling would be to allow for a big slice of cake on that exact diet.

I do know that in ten years of logging food (mostly on, sometimes off), eating a moderate-carb, high-nutrition diet including meat, nuts, beans, and dairy (all of which are higher cal than the stuff on that list, but in my personal opinion, are more satisfying thanks to the higher fat and protein/calories), I’ve actually hit *close* to 100% of the RDA in a single day once, and that definitely would not have happened under 1800 (because I can’t deal with less), probably closer to 2000.

I think it’s very difficult to hit 100% of the RDA every day through food alone - just do the best you can. Vary your diet and you’ll get close over a few days. For guidance see this (link to USDA database inside). Chron-o-meter is a food logging app that measures micronutrients. Searching with “nutrient per calorie” will give you some ideas, too.

I just think you don’t necessarily have to hit that target every day. Not sustainable long-term. Eat cake or what have you 10-20% of the time no matter what diet you’re on. You want to maximize life/health quantity and quality, but regardless, it’s pretty short.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:45 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]

In the summer, you could have cake with berries, and that would probably enable you to eat more cake AND help with the pooping.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:39 PM on June 11

This is a somewhat different approach to the problem, but the more exercise you get during the day, the more calories you will need to eat, meaning more opportunities to have the cake of your dreams. Since strength athletes need more protein and endurance athletes need more carbs, consider becoming a marathoner or cyclist. As a bonus, everything tastes even more delicious after exercise.
posted by danceswithlight at 9:58 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure the most caloric food is pure fat, and the most nutritionally-complete version would be eating the fat of a well-nourished omnivore, plus a bunch of vegetables.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:06 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Interesting ideas, all! It seems like oily fish + veg + vitamin supplement is around the right mark? I legit find it really interesting how little consensus there is on the calorie issue.

(If only I had a penguin...: Yeah, sorry, should have mentioned that I went down that road already. 20 questions and not one addressed the low-calorie POV!)

This isn't about me (or cake!) specifically, much as I appreciate all the investigation into my personal stats + exercise regimen. Interested in how your standard human would approach the problem.

BTW, this thought experiment is definitely not interested in making cake more nutritious. Shudder. Just trying to carve out maximum room for decadence.
posted by catesbie at 4:27 AM on June 12

I think really all you have to worry about is protein. Lots of vegetables are low-calorie enough that there’s no difficulty getting all the vitamins/fiber/whatever for a negligible amount of calories. You’d be eating a large volume of leaves, but using up very little of your calorie allotment. That is, I think the diet you’re looking for is lean chicken/fish until you hit the amount of protein you’re looking for, giant (complicated, not just iceberg lettuce. And probably undressed if you’re really maximizing dessert) salads until you’re well-nourished on everything but carbs and fat, and then fill out your calorie allotment with patisserie.

This is a little indeterminate on “what exactly does well-nourished mean”, but something along those lines would prevent any deficiency diseases. To make it really work, though, I think you’d want to be eating ridiculous quantities of leaves. Mixing bowls of kale. I suppose leafy vegetables do get smaller cooked.
posted by LizardBreath at 5:31 AM on June 12

(I misunderstood the question and thought you wanted food rather than supplements. Protein powder, Metamucil, and multivitamins would probably work too, although I think it’d be less pleasant.)
posted by LizardBreath at 5:34 AM on June 12

LizardBreath: you didn't misunderstand! I do mean food, although I feel like a multivitamin is OK in this scenario for whatever reason. I realize we could take this to an extreme and hospitals could put something in an IV that would take care of one's needs, too, but the spirit of the question was more like what could an average human do in a normal daily scenario - not a techy dudebro soylent situation.
posted by catesbie at 5:57 AM on June 12

This is almost the same problem as the Stigler diet, which was a linear programming problem proposed by an economist in the thirties, trying to get a nutritionally complete diet for the lowest possible cost (it comes out to basically flour, evaporated milk, beans, and spinach). You're trying to get a diet that's nutritionally complete other than caloric content for the lowest calorie count (planning to make up the difference with eclairs), with cost no object, but it's fundamentally the same type of problem.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:07 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

What you can do is start with the foods you know from research are nutritionally dense and calorically efficient, plug them into the USDA database, and tweak (try substitutions and play with portions) until you hit the RDA targets for the least amount of calories. Your floor would be 1200 for women and 1500 for men, this is the minimum if you’re not under medical supervision. FYI that is very hard to live with.

You’d be cutting a lot of the more starchy carbs (and those are great for energy), so you might be tired.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:26 AM on June 12

Cotton dress sock -- I think you misunderstood. The point is to fill up on cake for calories once the rest of the dieter's nutritional needs are satisfied, so there's no need to worry about how low-cal the non-cake portion of the diet is (I think it'll probably be well under a thousand calories), and no need to worry about insufficient sugar/starch for energy.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:32 AM on June 12

My point is that OP should get the nutritional targets met for the least amount of calories - leaving the remainder for cake (however much fits into what’s left). So if OP can hit the RDA targets in 1500 calories, there are 500 calories left for cake.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:38 AM on June 12

Sure, but there's no need to worry about a floor on calories or low energy. By the power of stipulation and of cake, the diet has plenty of calories and carbs.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:54 AM on June 12

I do want to point out one complication to this question which is being gestured at but not pointed out explicitly as far as I see. And that depends on what you define is nutritionally complete. One thing that's happening with "wellness" and increasing research into the impact of nutrition on health is that the bar for nutrition has been in some ways rising.

So, If you're just trying to avoid rickets and scurvy, vitamins should cover you. If you're trying to also avoid heart disease and diabetes, dietary fiber and reducing sugars (sorry!) seems like it's probably important for that, and there's also evidence that eating plants directly delivers nutrients not yet understood and therefore not yet synthesized into multivitamins (you'll often see these called phytonutrients).

With the current incomplete state of the science around nutrition, there is a literally infinite amount of optimization you could be doing to try and perfect your health. The question there becomes more individual in terms of where you draw that line.
posted by Lady Li at 12:48 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]

« Older Can my cats eat it?   |   What's a song or poem like this one, but with... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments