Energy Density and the Foods You Eat

High-energy-density foods are high in calories.
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Energy density is the amount of energy, as represented by the number of calories, in a specific weight of food. Energy-dense foods have a large number of calories per serving. An example of food with high energy density is ice cream because it has lots of calories from the sugar and fat that fit a small serving size. Spinach has low energy density because there are only a few calories in a whole plateful of raw spinach leaves.

Energy density is determined by the proportion of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), fiber and water. Fiber and water have zero calories, so foods that contain larger amounts of fiber or water have lower energy density. Fat has about nine calories per gram, so typically food that's high in fat is also energy-dense.

Low Energy Density Foods

Foods with low energy density include high-fiber green and colorful vegetables. Watery foods like whole fruits tend to be less energy-dense, as well. Low-calorie diet foods are also often have a low energy density, but not always, so it's important to read nutrition facts labels so you know how many calories you getting every day.

The nice thing about foods with low energy density is that they often are nutrient-dense, which means they have a lot of nutrients per serving size. Many types of fruits, berries and vegetables are low in calories, high in fiber and contain lots of vitamins and minerals.

High Energy Density Foods

Energy-dense foods include sweets, deep-fried foods, French fries, pasta, starchy vegetables, thick sauces, cheese, nuts and seeds. Not all energy-dense foods are bad for you, but you need to watch your portion size when you eat them.

Some foods, like soups and beverages, can have high or low energy density.

Broth-based soups with vegetables typically have low energy density while creamed soups are energy-dense. Non-fat milk is less energy-dense than regular milk, and diet soda is less energy-dense than a sugary soft drink.

Energy Density and Weight Management

Weight management is ultimately about watching how many calories you take in versus how many calories you burn. When you fill up on foods with low energy density, you'll feel satisfied while you take in fewer calories. Plan all your meals so they include foods with low-energy density that are also high in nutrients.

Of course, the opposite is true too. If you eat mostly energy-dense foods, you'll need a larger volume of food to fill you up, and as a result, you'll take in more calories. That's not good if you want to lose weight, but it may be helpful if you're trying to gain weight. If that's your situation, be sure to choose energy-dense foods that are nutritious like avocados, nuts, and seeds rather than high-calorie nutrient-poor junk foods.

Tips for Watching Your Weight

Start a meal with a simple garden salad or a bowl of clear soup. This will fill your tummy before you dig into something more energy-dense like pasta, pizza or another high-calorie entree.

Leave off the heavy salad dressings and avoid creamed soups that are higher in calories.

Choose fresh berries for dessert. Berries and sweet and delicious so there's no reason to end a meal with a high-calorie dessert. But, if you really want some ice cream or cheesecake, carefully measure out and eat just one serving (look at the serving size on the package) to keep your calorie intake in check. 

Load your plate with more vegetables. At least half of your plate should be covered with low-calorie fruits and vegetables. Leave a quarter of your plate for your protein source, and the remaining quarter can hold a serving of starchy foods like pasta, potatoes, or rice.

Drink plenty of water. Water has zero calories and may help tide you over until your next meal, or at least until you can find a low energy density snack.

Serve more fruits and vegetables to your kids. Children who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to eat fewer highly energy-dense foods. If you have a child who's a picky eater, keep serving the veggies -- sooner or later, they'll find something they like.

Source:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Low-Energy-Dense Foods and Weight Management: Cutting Calories While Controlling Hunger." 

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