Calorie density or energy density is a vital factor in weight loss success; however, it has not quite hit the mainstream media or dieting world just yet.
The density concept describes the amount of calories contained in a certain ingredient, in relation to its volume. In essence, if 1 ounce of an ingredient has 100 calories and another has 300, the second one would be more calorically dense.
Another way to look at it is to envisage a plate full of food: it could be the same amount of food in terms of quantity, but one plate could be 400 calories and another 1000 calories. For example, chicken, rice and vegetables vs a plate of Chinese food or a pizza.
Of course, the 1000 calorie plate is more calorie dense or has a ‘high calorie density’ whereas the chicken and rice is fairly low in calories compared to the amount of food you can eat.
Making food decisions based on calorie density plays an important role in the ability to lose weight, reduce hunger and binge eating and to keep the weight off.
This is largely because choosing foods high volume and low amounts of calories often means consuming healthier and more beneficial foods, which not only help you shred body fat but also aid in health, provide key nutrients and aid in satiety / reducing hunger (1,2).
In this article I’ll describe why calorie density plays a large role in your ability to lose weight, your long-term weight management success and why you should start paying more attention to it.
Calorie Density is King – Weight Loss Simplified
Before you can realize what a major role calorie density, (or energy density), plays in weight loss, you first need to understand the theory of energy balance and how it affects your body weight and composition.
In terms of reducing body weight, the number one factor in determining weight loss, weight gain or maintenance is energy balance (3).
Energy balance in its simplest terms states that, in order for you to reduce body weight, you’ll need to consume less energy (i.e. calories) than you expend. In order to gain weight, you’ll need to consume more energy than you expend.
Lastly, in order to maintain weight, you’ll need to consume an equal amount of calories, compared to the number of calories that your body expends, through metabolism and daily activities.
Once you determine what energy balance means for you, you can begin to reduce calories if your primary goal is weight loss. Further, you can begin to manipulate your macronutrient ratios to better suit your body composition goals.
This is because each macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate and fat) contains calories, which make up your total calorie intake.
Why Calorie Density Matters
As mentioned, calorie density or energy density is a term which describes the amount of calories, relative to the volume of food.
For instance, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter is very calorically dense (250 calories), whereas 1 tablespoon of milk is not (15 calories)
Calorie density plays a large role not only in the amount of calories that a food provides, but also how much impact that food will have on other aspects of a weight loss diet’s success, such as feelings of satisfaction and hunger.
Unfortunately, the most calorically dense foods are often the most enjoyable (funny how that works, right?), but they provide little benefit other than empty calories and adding unwanted body fat to keep you warm in winter.
Additionally, this often means a high amount of fat which, (unless you are on a ketogenic diet), can cause issues with accidental overconsumption of calories and lack of feelings of satisfaction from meals.
Ultimately, calorie control and focusing on low calorie, high volume foods is absolutely vital for long-term weight loss success.
More often than not, when accidental overconsumption of calories occurs, it will cause you to plateau or gain weight. This can even happen when eating ‘healthy’ foods that are high in calories and very calorie dense.
Choosing Low-Calorie Dense Foods Is A No-Brainer For Weight Loss
The number one reason that low calorie-dense foods can help you drop pounds is the fact that you can consume a large amount, with little impact on your calorie intake.
For instance, vegetables often provide a large amount of physical food with very few calories.
As an example, 2 cups of chopped broccoli provides just 62 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrate.
However, 2 cups of almonds, which are often considered “healthy”, will set you back roughly 1360 calories and 120 grams of fat!
While that may seem like a ridiculous comparison, let’s be honest, some of us have eaten a whole bag or bowl of nuts, right? It also helps paint a picture of how different foods have a different caloric density, even if both are considered as healthy.
This is one of the reasons why I often say “healthy and weight loss-friendly” aren’t ALWAYS the same thing. Although 80% of the time they may be, there are always a few exceptions such as healthy foods like nuts, nut butter, olive oil or healthy oils, cheese, high fat meats, dark chocolate, avocados, etc.
In addition to the large volume of food that low-calorie dense foods provide, they often provide satiating fiber and protein, both of which help to slow down digestion and provide feelings of fullness and satisfaction (4, 5, 6, 7).
By choosing low-calorie dense foods, you can eat large volumes of food while ensuring that you’re consuming the correct amount of calories and feeling satisfied.
Foods That Are Considered Low-Calorie Density
When considering a weight loss diet, it’s no wonder why many of the healthy foods which people are recommended to eat, are suggested: it is largely because they have a low amount of calories compared to the actual amount of food you get to eat. This results in less calories consumed, yet more feelings of satisfaction.
Luckily, here are some of the most popular choices that you’ll actually enjoy eating:
- Vegetables: For the most part, vegetables often provide a very large volume with very little impact on calories. Additionally, they can provide large amounts of fiber, helping you to feel fuller for longer.
- Lean Meats: Lean cuts of meat such as sirloin, chicken breast and lean pork often have very few calories relative to their volume and also provide large amounts of satiating protein.
- Fish: Following suit with lean meats, fish is another great alternative for a protein packed, low calorie meal.
- Dairy: Most dairy products including milk and yogurt are often quite low in calories but provide other benefits such as protein. However, keep in mind that cheese products, while healthy, are often very calorically dense.
- Berries: In addition to being delicious, mixed berries not only provide fiber, but also are typically very low in calories. For example, 1 cup of strawberries will only set you back roughly 50 calories!
- Eggs: While technically eggs are fairly dense, their benefits far outweigh any risk since they provide a high amount of protein and healthy fats. Just keep in mind that their calories can quickly stack up.
- Popcorn: Surprisingly, popcorn provides very few calories, and a large amount of fiber per cup. If you’re looking for a low calorie snack or dessert that can keep you satisfied, this is it (without the butter or syrup, of course).
Foods To Avoid When Focusing On Calorie Density
While these foods don’t necessarily need to be 100% avoided forever, it’s strongly suggested that you reduce or eliminate the amount of these key foods you consume in order to avoid potentially over consuming calories:
- Butter: While having a healthy amount of fat is good for you, consuming large amounts of butter is a sure fire way to accidentally consume far too many calories.
- Nut butters: Nut butters such as peanut and almond, while very tasty, provide an enormous amount of calories for a small volume. Unfortunately, these foods are very easy to over consume. I suggest steering clear of nut butters.
- High Fat Meat: While cuts like sirloin often have a large amount of protein with little fat, cuts such as rib eye, though delicious, typically provide more fat than protein, making it a poor choice for weight loss.
- Cheese: Cheese can certainly provide protein, but it also often provides a large amount of fat per serving.
- All junk/processed food: Foods such as cookies, chips and pastries all often provide very little nutritional benefit but tons of calories. Avoid these foods whenever possible, especially when attempting to lose pounds and focus on calorie density (although the odd treat can be ok, of course).
Why Calorie Density is King
While energy balance is the primary determinant of weight loss, choosing your foods based on calorie density is a super simple and effective way to lose weight with less hunger and cravings.
It will ensure that you not only get what you need from a nutritional standpoint and actually lose weight, but it simplifies the whole complexity of calorie counting etc.
For the majority of the time focus on low calorie and high volume, protein- and fiber-packed foods, while avoiding high fat, calorically dense options. When you do eat high calorie dense foods, remember they are calorie dense so do not binge on them (or you will end up putting 4000 calories back).
I hope this was a breakthrough “light bulb-moment”, as this topic usually is for many people, when first introduced to the concept of calorie density.
Calorie density is king and a super effective dieting method that will help you lose weight and also reduce hunger, improving long-term success!
- Romaguera, D., Ängquist, L., Du, H., Jakobsen, M. U., Forouhi, N. G., Halkjær, J., … & Wareham, N. J. (2010). Dietary determinants of changes in waist circumference adjusted for body mass index–a proxy measure of visceral adiposity. PLoS One, 5(7), e11588.
- Ledikwe, J. H., Blanck, H. M., Khan, L. K., Serdula, M. K., Seymour, J. D., Tohill, B. C., & Rolls, B. J. (2006). Dietary energy density is associated with energy intake and weight status in US adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 83(6), 1362-1368.
- Spiegelman, B. M., & Flier, J. S. (2001). Obesity and the regulation of energy balance. Cell, 104(4), 531-543.
- Westerterp, K. R. (2004). Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutrition & metabolism, 1(1), 5.
- Luscombe, N. D., Clifton, P. M., Noakes, M., Farnsworth, E., & Wittert, G. (2003). Effect of a high-protein, energy-restricted diet on weight loss and energy expenditure after weight stabilization in hyperinsulinemic subjects. International journal of obesity, 27(5), 582-590.
- Cho, S. S., Case, I. L., & Nishi, S. (2009). Fiber and Satiety. Weight Control and Slimming Ingredients in Food Technology, 227.
- Lefranc-Millot, C., Macioce, V., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Lee, A. W., & Cho, S. S. (2012). Fiber and Satiety. Dietary Fiber and Health, 83.