Appreciation Density

In the past 11 weeks, I’ve lost an average of 1.15 pounds per week, mainly just by logging what I eat. This simple practice has helped me tweak and adjust my meal choices even though I’m still eating the same foods as I was previously. I’m eating less food in terms of calories, but my current diet is actually more satisfying than before. Since there’s no sense of restriction or deprivation, it’s frictionless to maintain this approach.

Let’s say that the appreciation density of a meal is your overall physical and emotional satisfaction with it, divided by its calories:

Appreciation Density = Satisfaction / Calories

I don’t exactly know how to calculate physical and emotional satisfaction though. Maybe we could rate the satisfaction of meals on a 1-10 scale, but fortunately that isn’t necessary. We can just compare based on equivalent calories by asking whether one meal is more or less satisfying than another. We can also do this at the level of individual ingredients.

Through food logging and a little reflection, I saw that some meals (and some ingredients) are more satisfying than others for the same number of calories.

I’ve learned that roasted eggplant is really satisfying relative to its calories. Peaches and strawberries are super satisfying as well. Steamed broccoli and zucchini with some hummus is a delightful meal – very satisfying for so few calories.

Some foods have diminishing returns if I include too much of them. For instance, 10g of olive oil on a salad may be pretty satisfying relative to the 90 calories it adds. But would 20g of olive oil be twice as satisfying? No, definitely not. Doubling the olive oil might only increase the satisfaction by an extra 20%, so it’s probably not worth it.

Adding 1/3 of an avocado to a salad can be really nice. But if I use a whole avocado, is it 3x as satisfying? Nope. I find that the sweet spot is to use about 1/4 to 1/2 of an avocado on a salad to get the maximum satisfaction relative to the calories.

Through lots of experimentation, I’m gradually figuring out better balancing points where I eat quantities of foods that raise the satisfaction level of a meal but where consuming more would lead to diminishing returns. So when I compose meals, I require each ingredient to pull its weight by meaningfully contributing to the overall satisfaction.

Note that satisfaction is mainly an emotional assessment. It’s based on how I feel during and after eating. How satisfied I’ll feel isn’t perfectly consistent. One day I may find 100g of some item optimal while I might prefer more or less of that item on a different day. By paying attention to my logs and connecting them to my inner sensations, I’m getting better at predicting what kinds of meals to make based on how I feel.

I don’t try to hold back from eating. I eat when I’m hungry. I just put a little more thought and care into making meals very satisfying relative to their calories.

Suppose you eat a 500-calorie lunch today. Have you ever considered how you might compose a 400-calorie lunch that’s actually more satisfying? If you could figure that out, you could shave off 100 calories per day while actually enjoying your lunch more. Now scale this up for every meal and snack, and come up with more solutions and variations. You could enjoy your food more while actually eating less.

I already eat an all vegan, mostly whole foods diet that typically includes 10+ servings of fruits and veggies per day, so take that into consideration. Making this diet highly nutritious isn’t an issue. But I don’t think I’d feel as emotionally satisfied if I tried to adapt this approach to a junk food diet. Whole foods leave me feeling better emotionally and physically.

I’ve been including some small indulgences, but I use them where they really add to the satisfaction. For instance, if I slice up two peaches (100 calories), and I add 50 calories worth of coconut whipped cream, that treat has a high appreciation density for its 150 calories, more than eating three peaches without the topping.

Another nice dessert is one date plus four pecan halves (80 cal). Split the date in two, and push two pecan pieces into each half – it’s like eating raw pecan pie. For this small addition of calories, it’s super satisfying as a little snack.

I don’t worry about empty calories in terms of low nutrition. I frame empty calories as too little satisfaction per calorie, which could include adding too much of an ingredient beyond a certain sweet spot of satisfaction.

By focusing on enjoying and appreciating my meals relative to their calories, I’m getting more appreciation per calorie today than I was when I started. I really enjoy the foods I eat. It feels like I’m doing the opposite of dieting, but I’m losing weight by eating this way.

This useful frame can be extended to other areas of life by generalizing the definition of appreciation density, like this:

Appreciation Density = Satisfaction / Cost

Cost could be your investment of time, energy, money, or some other factor.

So you could use this frame to select work projects, choose which friends to engage with, or decide how much time to spend on social media each day. Which investments satisfy you best? When does the satisfaction start to diminish?

Imagine what you could discover by combining this frame with time logging. Is 30 minutes of social media twice as satisfying as 15 minutes? How much journaling or meditation time is optimal for you? Would you feel more satisfied with an extra hour in the morning or the evening?

If you’re feel unsatisfied in some area of life, look at your appreciation density. Are you deriving enough satisfaction from your investments? If not, where’s the waste? Where are the empty calories? Where are you investing time, energy, money, or other resources and not getting much satisfaction in return? Obviously that waste needs to be cut if you want to increase your appreciation density.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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