We talk a lot about calories in food to lose weight. Whilst yes it is true, the only way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories than you burn. Wouldnt it be more helpful in finding ways to make such a thing easier. This is where energy dense food, comes to into play.
If it was simply as easy as eat fewer calories than you burn, we porbably wouldnt have an obesity issue in the world. When you eat fewer calories, you are likely to be more hungry. Your body is try to keep you alove and eating less, means the body is assuming starvation. Therefore its going to try and make you hungrier. With allthe delcioous foods available youre likely to cave in.
What are energy dense foods?
Picture a small cup of oil and a massive bowl full of cucumber. Both could have 100 calories of energy, however, the cucumber occupies a lot more space than the oil.
This is what energy density is. It’s the amount of calories, which occupies a certain space. So, for instance with the oil and cucumber. The oil and cucumber may have the same number of calories, but it occupied a lot less space. Therefore it’s a more energy dense food.
Foods that are energy dense, tend to be foods, high in fat, sometimes sugar and low in water. Such as oil, chocolate and nuts.
Low energy dense foods, are foods, which are low in sugar, low in fat and high in water. Potatoes and green vegetables spring to mind.
Why is fat and water important.
Fat has 9 calories per gram. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories, per gram. And water obviously has 0 calories per gram. This means the same weight of fat has pver double the calories of carbpohydrate and protein. Therefore, foods higher in fat, which weigh the same will have more caloires. And foods high in water, which weigh the same will have feer calories.
Another example is dry druit. 200g of dry apricot, will have more calories than 200g of fresh apricot. Why would that be? The dried apricot has all the water extracted. Therefore there will technically be more apricot to make up for the lack of water. This is why dried fruit has more sugar and calories, than the fresh version. It’s a condensed version.
A final example, is boiled potatoes. When cooked in a substance with 0 calories, the calorie value will remain low. However once deep-fried in oil, you end up with chips (fries), due to the oil, they have more calories. Therefore chips are more energy dense.
Why focus on energy dense foods
By focusing on energy density, you can lower your calories, without counting.
A greater indicator of how much a person eats per day is not so much the number of calories they eat per day. But the total weight of the food they eat per day.
Therefore foods low in energy density and high in volume can help with weight loss. The average person eats 2-3kg of food per day. Instead of eating 3000 calories of 2-3kg of food. That could easily be changed to 2000 calories instead. So you would be eating fewer calories, but the same amount if not more food.
Fullness is determined by stretch receptors in your stomach. When you eat, these stretch receptors get stimulated. This then signals to your brain that you’re full. Hormones such as leptin are then stimulated to signal you’re full, therefore you’re no longer hungry.
The number of calories or nutrients in your meal is not relevant to trigger this process. This is dependent on the volume of food you’ve eaten. So eating meals rich in vegetables, fruits, high fibre carbohydrates and lean meats, will trigger this process for a few fewer calories, compared to foods such as chips, pizzas and chocolate etc. Which may weigh the same but have far more calories.
How can I eat less energy dense foods?
You want to base your diet around foods which are high in volume but low in calories. These include foods such as:
- Boiled potatoes
- Vegetable-based soups
- Low-fat yoghurt
- Baked beans
- Fat-free milk
- Egg whites
- Diet fizzy drinks
- Lean fat-free meat
All these foods are rich in volume. But what makes them special is that they contain very few calories. So by making these foods the bulk of your diet. You can enjoy large meals, feel full and consume fewer calories than normal.
Energy dense substitutions
So above Ive listed foods, which I recommend you base your meals around. But how can you relate that to what you currently eat? Thats why i listed below ways you can take what you eat now and make your meals less energy dense, whilst still consuming siilar volumes of food.
- Cut fat off meat
- Use leaner cuts of meat (5% fat mince instead of 20%) or Skinless chicken breast instead of thighs
- Replace chips (fries) with boiled potaoes
- Use light mayonaise instead of regular
- Replace half the starch on your plate with vegetables
- Replace any full fat dairy with lower fat dairy
- Use oil spray instead of oil
- Bake instead of fry
- Instead of icecream, have low calories icecream and some fruit
- If ordering pizza, blot it with napkin
- Have lots of frozen and canned fruits and veg available
- Drink water, low-fat milk, tea, coffee and diet sodas
- Choose whole fruits over fruit juices
- Be mindful of nuts, avocados and nut butter. Though these foods are healthy. They are very calorie-dense and can easily be overeaten
By making changes like these, you can eliminate hundreds of calories, you didn’t realise you were consuming every day, without having to count them.
How to eat more vegetables?
I know what you’re thinking. Vegetables taste like misery. What can I do to eat more of these pesky things. There are a few creative things you can do to make them more convenient and palatable.
Pureeing vegetables is one such method. In fact this is somethign my mum used to do with me and my dad, as we wouldnt eat them otherwise. This can be done by adding to foods such as pasta sauces, curries, mash potatoes, even porridge oats.
One study showed when people ate the same weight of food. But one group had pureed veegtables. They ate more vegetables but ate fewer calories than the non-vegetable group. This was without counting calories. Most importantly the vegetable group who are fewer calories didn’t feel any difference in hunger. (9)
Large amounts of puréed vegetables can be incorporated into various foods to decrease the energy density. This strategy can lead to substantial reductions in energy intakes and increases in vegetable intakes.(Blatt et al, 2011)
Its been shown that serving vegetables as a starter is a good way to also increase veg intake. When you go to a restaurant and are waiting, it’s easy to sit there and nibble on bread or crisps. I suppose this is similar. If there is nothing else but veg to eat, you’ll probably sit there and eat it. What I’d recommend is to prepare vegetables like carrots, cucumbers and bell peppers. Have them washed and laid out nicely. (10)
Increasing the portion size of a vegetable served as a first course can be an effective strategy for increasing vegetable consumption in preschool children.(Spill et al, 2010)
When it comes to lowering calorie intake, looking at decreasing energy dense food, is an easy low hanging fruit.
Does this mean every single meal, needs to stacked full of fruits and vegetables? Does it mean you have to replace your spaghetti with courgetti spaghetti? Of course not no.
But if you’re regularly consuming a fried chicken sand-which with mayo. Changing that to a grilled chicken sandwich, with a large salad and light mayo, will make a huge difference over time.
I won’t lie and say these foods taste just as good as their more calorie-dense counterparts. But they still taste good, have fewer calories and are packed with more nutrients. These foods will serve you well in being the base of a healthy diet.
Most meals we consume are not always big but are ladened with needless calories. If we can make smarter choices, we can slash those calories, without the added hunger effect.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.