The Secret to Dieting Success: Eating Low Energy Dense Foods

It’s a commonly held belief that in order to lose weight you need to cut calories, which typically means eating smaller portions that leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied. But what if you were able to eat more food with fewer calories and still lose weight? You can! The secret is energy density.

Energy density – also called calorie density – is the number of calories in one gram of food. Lower energy density foods have fewer calories per gram. For example, a cup of fresh grapes weighs 140 g and has 100 calories (or 0.7 calories per gram) whereas a cup of raisins that also weighs 140 g has 430 calories (or 3 calories per gram). By opting for the low energy dense grapes instead of raisins, you’re eating the same amount of food for only a fraction of the calories.

Using energy density as a way to reduce calories is an extensively researched diet strategy. Eating meals with lower energy density foods lets you eat regular portion sizes so you’re not left feeling hungry. By simply modifying a recipe by incorporating lower energy dense ingredients, you can continue to enjoy many of your favorite foods and still lose weight! Scientists believe these are the reasons why people who switch to lower energy density diets achieve successful, sustainable weight loss.

Want to lower the energy density of your diet? Here’s how:

  • Eat water. Water adds bulk not calories. So foods high in water content tend to be low energy dense (like the grapes and raisins example). Most fresh fruits and non-starchy vegetables are very high in water content. Add cucumbers, salad greens, broccoli, cauliflower, summer squash, tomatoes, berries, oranges, etc. to your grocery list to curb hunger while eating fewer calories. Other high water foods to incorporate into your diet are unsweetened low-fat dairy like cottage cheese and nonfat yogurt, both of which are great meal components and can substitute for high fat ingredients in many recipes. When eating out, start your meal with a garden salad and fat-free dressing or broth-based soup to fill up so you’ll eat less when the main entree is served.
  • Trim the fat. At 9 calories per gram, fat is more than twice as energy dense as carbs and protein. Along with eating more fresh fruits and veggies, choosing lower fat dairy, leaner cuts of meat and low-fat or fat-free condiments can significantly cut energy density and total calorie intake.
  • Fill up with fiber. We absorb about 1-2 calories per gram of fiber so foods higher in fiber tend to have fewer calories. The best sources of fiber are fresh fruits and vegetables. Other sources include whole grains and high-fiber cereals, pastas and “light” breads – all of which have less starch, more fiber and fewer calories than their refined starch counterparts.
  • Air it out. Although air doesn’t affect the weight of foods, it does add volume. Foods with more air take up more space which makes portion sizes larger. Popcorn is a perfect example. Air popping turns 1 tablespoon of kernels into 1 cup of popcorn for no additional calories. In other words, for 100 calories, you could eat 3 cups of air popped or “light” microwave popcorn instead of reaching for the ½ cup of pretzels, which many assume is a good dieter’s snack because it’s low-fat. Reduced-fat slow-churned ice cream (vs. premium ice cream), whipped butter, margarine or cream cheese (vs. standard spreads), unsweetened puffed wheat, rice or corn cereals (vs. flakes, nuggets or other) are also foods with more air and lower energy density.
  • Be label savvy. Low fat doesn’t necessarily mean low calorie. Baked goods, peanut butter, breakfast cereals and many other “reduced-fat” foods actually have more sugar, which makes them nearly equal in calories to the original full-fat option. Make sure to read the labels to compare calories per serving size when purchasing packaged foods so you aren’t misguided by the manufacturer’s low-fat claims.

Armed with these guidelines for incorporating low energy dense foods more often into your diet, you will fill up on fewer calories, resist temptations, and better manage portion sizes of higher energy dense foods.

Good luck!


Jeannemarie Beiseigel, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian with a doctorate in human nutrition, foods, and exercise. She’s worked with academia, government and industry and has several published research studies. She recently started her own practice as independent nutrition consultant for businesses and individuals. You can e-mail Jeannemarie at Read Jeannemarie's full bio.



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