Eat Low Energy Dense Foods for Weight Loss Success

Extensive research has shown that using energy density is an effective weight loss strategy.  Eating meals that are made up of low energy dense foods allows you to eat regular portion sizes, so that you fill up and feel satisfied on fewer calories.

So what is energy density?  All foods have a certain number of calories within a given amount or volume. Energy density (ED), sometimes called calorie density, is determined by its content of air, fiber, and water.  Some foods that have little fiber or water, such as desserts, candies, and processed foods, are high in ED. This means that a small volume of that food has a large number of calories.  Other foods with more air, fiber, or water – such as vegetables and fruits – have low ED. These foods provide a larger portion size with a fewer number of calories. The fiber and water in low ED foods also provide the additional benefit of helping us feel more full when we eat them.

To Use ED for Weight Management

Zestar® Diet Pilot automatically recommends meals that have low energy density.  It also calculates the ED of your food choices and suggests ways to lower the ED of your meal.

You can also use the Nutrition Facts on food labels to figure out the ED of your food choices.

On the label, locate the weight of the Serving Size in grams and the calories per serving: 

  • If the number of calories is smaller than the number of grams = Low ED, enjoy satisfying portions of that food
  • If the number of calories is equal to or up to twice the number of grams = eat moderately and watch portion size
  • If the number of calories is more than twice the grams= high ED, limit your portion to a small amount.

In the Nutrition Facts panel below for macaroni and cheese, the serving size is 228 grams and the calories per serving is 250 calories. The calories are slightly higher than the weight in grams which indicates to eat moderately and watch your portion size.

A great tip for lowering the ED of a food is to increase the water and fiber (and nutrition!) by using fiber-rich whole grains and adding veggies or fruits. The recipe below is an example of adapting an old favorite to make it delicious, more nutritious, and less energy dense!

Veggie-stuffed Macaroni and Cheese


  • 8 ounces dry, whole wheat elbow macaroni, fusilli, or penne
  • 2 tablespoons whole wheat bread crumbs
  • 1 teaspoon melted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 3/4 cups nonfat milk
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cups shredded, reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup 1 percent fat cottage cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Pinch grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Pinch freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 cups shredded fresh spinach (about 1 pound) or 2 cups chopped fresh broccoli florets
  • 1/2 cups canned diced tomatoes, with liquid


  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
  3. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and set aside.
  4. Mix the breadcrumbs, butter, and paprika in a small bowl and set aside.
  5. Heat 1- 1/2 cups milk in a 4- to 5- quart saucepan over medium-high heat until steaming.
  6. Whisk the remaining 1/4 cup milk and the flour in a small bowl until smooth. Add to the hot milk and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens and simmers, 3 to 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
  7. Add the Cheddar to the white sauce and stir until the cheese is melted. Stir in the cottage cheese, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Stir the pasta into the cheese sauce.
  8. Spread half of the pasta mixture into the baking dish. Spread the spinach or broccoli evenly on top, then the diced tomatoes. Spread the remaining pasta over the tomatoes and sprinkle with the breadcrumb mixture.
  9. Bake until bubbly and golden, 25 to 30 minutes.

6 (1-1/2 cups) servings; each: 330 calories, ED 1.0, Carbohydrates 38 g, Fat 9 g, Protein 25 g, Fiber 5 g.

Adapted from The Volumetrics Eating Plan by Barbara Rolls, Harper Collins, 2005

Sharon Lehrman, MPH, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian with a private practice and corporate wellness business in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can read health-related articles, subscribe to her free monthly nutrition newsletter, or contact her at

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