We’re all told the way to lose weight is to eat less and take in fewer calories. But what if you could eat more and still take in fewer calories? That’s where the concept of energy density comes in. It sounds like the last thing any dieter should do, but eating more could actually be the key to losing weight. Weight loss plans that incorporate energy-dense foods into their program not only increase weight loss but keep it off long term.
What is energy density?
Simply put, it is the number of calories (energy) in a specific amount of food. High energy density means that there are a lot of calories in a little bit of food. Low energy density means there are few calories in a lot of food. When you’re striving for weight loss, the goal is to eat low-energy-dense foods. That is, you want to eat a greater volume of food that’s lower in calories. This helps you feel fuller on fewer calories and control hunger. For example, raisins have a high energy density – 1 cup of raisins has about 434 calories. Grapes have a low energy density – 1 cup of grapes has about 82 calories.
Researchers say it all has to do with flavonoids- naturally occurring compounds in fruits and vegetables. Increasing your daily intake of both can actually prevent weight gain, even when eating the same amount of calories. To test which flavonoids were most effective, they followed nearly 125,000 people between 27 and 65 years of age, over a time span of 25 years. Their diets, lifestyle habits, and weight were monitored. Figures showed that increasing levels of anthocyanins, flavonoid polymers and flavonols – found mainly in blueberries, strawberries, apples, pears and oranges – had the greatest overall impact. Tea and onions were also beneficial.
Most people consume less than one cup of fruits, and less than two cups of vegetables daily. But every extra portion added to the day brought weight down by a quarter of a pound over four years (100 grams). So sticking to the five-a-day recommended regime could bring a weight loss of 1.2lbs (or half a kilogram) over the same time period. This study suggests that not all calories are the same, and that some foods can actually prevent fat from being deposited in the body.
Three main factors impact energy density
- Water: Fruits and vegetables generally have high water and fiber content, which provide volume and weight, but not calories. That’s why they’re low-energy-dense foods. Grapefruit, for example, is about 90 percent water. Half a grapefruit has just 37 calories. Raw, fresh carrots are about 88 percent water. A medium carrot has only about 25 calories.
- Fiber: High-fiber foods not only provide volume but also take longer to digest, making you feel full longer, on fewer calories. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains all contain fiber. Popcorn is a good example of a high-volume, low-calorie whole grain. One cup of air-popped popcorn has about 30 calories.
- Fat: Fat is high in energy density. One pat of butter, for example, contains almost the same number of calories as 2 cups of raw broccoli. Foods that contain fat naturally, such as dairy products and various meats, or foods with added fats are higher in calories than their leaner or lower fat counterparts.
Types of energy dense foods
Most vegetables are very low in calories but high in volume or weight. Most vegetables contain water, which provides weight without calories. Examples include salad greens, asparagus, green beans, broccoli and zucchini.
To add more vegetables to your diet, top your pasta with sauteed vegetables instead of meat or cheese sauce. Decrease the meat portion on your plate and increase the serving of vegetables. Add vegetables to your sandwiches. Snack on raw vegetables.
Practically all types of fruit fit into a healthy diet. Some fruits are lower calorie choices than others. These include fresh, frozen and canned fruits without syrup. In contrast, fruit juices and dried fruits are concentrated sources of natural sugar and therefore have a high energy density – more calories -and they don’t fill you up as much.
To fit more fruits into your diet, add blueberries to your cereal in the morning. Try mango or peach slices on whole-wheat toast with a little peanut butter and honey. Or toss some mandarin orange and peach slices into a salad. Keep whole fruit in a bowl within easy sight or in the fridge to eat anytime.
Many carbohydrates are either grains or made from grains, such as cereal, rice, bread and pasta. Whole grains are the best option because they’re higher in fiber and other important nutrients.
Emphasize whole grains by simply choosing whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, brown rice and whole-grain cereal instead of refined grains. Because many carbohydrates are higher in energy density, keep an eye on portion sizes.
Protein and dairy
These include food from both plant and animal sources. The healthiest lower energy-dense choices are foods that are high in protein but low in fat and calories, such as legumes (beans, peas and lentils, which are also good sources of fiber), fish, skinless white-meat poultry, fat-free dairy products and egg whites.
While fats are high-energy-dense foods, some fats are healthier than others. Include small amounts of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in your diet. Nuts, seeds and oils, such as olive, flaxseed and safflower oils, contain healthy fats.
Like fats, sweets are typically high in energy density. Good options for sweets include those that are low in added fat and contain healthy ingredients, such as fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Examples include fresh fruit topped with low-fat yogurt, a cookie made with whole-wheat flour or a scoop of low-fat ice cream.
The keys to sweets are to keep the serving size small and the ingredients healthy. Even a small piece of dark chocolate can fit into a weight-loss plan.
Making energy density work for you:
When you stick to low energy density foods, you don’t have to feel hungry or deprived. That’s the concept behind my GRADE diet. By including plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet, you can feel full on fewer calories. You’ll even have room for an occasional sweet.