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Losing Weight: Is Calorie Density the Answer?

The Take-Home

Calorie Density Basics

  • Calorie density is defined as the amount of energy per unit weight of foods or diets.
  • Ounce for ounce or gram for gram, foods high in calorie density have more calories than foods low in calorie density.
  • Foods high in calorie density include oils, fats, potato chips, crackers and most cookies. Foods low in calorie density include vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains and broth-based soups.
  • Diets low in calorie density provide filling amounts of food that make it possible to limit calorie consumption without being hungry.

Creating Diets Low in Calorie Density

  • Foods high in water and fiber and low in fat, such as vegetables and fruits, reduce the total calorie density of the diet.
  • Avoid adding significant amounts of fat or sugar to vegetables and fruits, either of which increases their calorie density.
  • Replace high calorie-dense foods with low calorie-dense foods to reduce overall calories, rather than simply adding low calorie-dense foods to the diet.
  • Choose lower-fat versions of high-fat foods and limit added fat.
  • With adequate vegetables and fruits, there is room for small servings of foods high in calorie density, such as healthy oils, nuts and seeds, within an overall low calorie-dense diet.

Calorie Density and Weight Management

  • A diet low in calorie density can play an important role in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight as part of an overall approach to lower calorie consumption.
  • For successful weight loss, dietary changes should include lower calorie density and lower calorie intake.
  • Effective weight management also should address portion size, beverage selection, hunger and non-hunger cues to eat, and physical activity.

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Calorie Density FAQs

How does calorie density affect my efforts to reach and maintain a healthy weight?

  • For weight control, it’s the balance between how many calories you consume and how many you burn that counts.
  • You can limit calories more easily and not be as hungry by choosing foods low in calorie density.
  • Low calorie-dense foods are less concentrated in calories; they are usually high in water and fiber and low in fat. Examples include vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and broth-based soups.
  • Foods high in calorie density are so concentrated in calories that it’s easier to eat more than you can burn. This will lead to weight gain.

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What do I need to do to keep my diet low in calorie density?

A Few Tips for Your Low Calorie-Dense Diet

  1. Experiment with increasing the amount of veggies in soups, stews, stir-fries and sandwiches. Your dishes will have more color, texture and flavor.
  2. Most vegetables are easy to serve raw or lightly steamed. Try roasting and grilling as a way to enhance their sweetness and as a great way to get more veggies on your plate.
  3. There is room for small servings of foods high in fat and high in calorie density, such as healthy oils, nuts and seeds, as long as the overall diet is low in calorie density.
    • Oils in salad dressings help with absorption of some nutrients in salads.
    • Nuts and seeds make tasty garnishes for many vegetables.
  4. Include plenty of vegetables and fruits
    • Replace high calorie-dense foods with fruits and veggies, rather than simply adding them to your diet. Otherwise you may just increase calories.
    • Add to meals as a side dish or to mixed dishes and reduce meats and/or refined starches.
    • Limit 100 percent juices to 3/4 cup (6 oz.) or less per day. Solid fruits and veggies fill you up and help reduce calories more.
    • Minimize use of high-fat (e.g., fried or made with cream sauces) and high-sugar (e.g., apple pie) versions of vegetables and fruits or they become high calorie-dense foods.
  5. Choose lower-fat versions of high-fat foods
    • Low-fat or nonfat milk and cheese, lean meats and low-fat salad dressings are lower calorie-dense choices in those food groups.
    • Avoid replacing high-fat foods with high sugar foods, many of these foods are also high in calorie density.

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Are there other things I can do to help me lose weight?

Calorie density is one important part of an overall approach to weight management. Other steps to address:

  • Limit or avoid calorie-containing beverages such as regular soft drinks and alcohol.
  • Start your meal with a low calorie-dense appetizer. Try a 100-calorie serving of a green salad or a broth based soup.
  • Reduce your usual portions of everything other than vegetables and fruits; go back for more if you’re truly hungry.
  • Other than vegetables, don’t leave serving bowls on the table.
  • If you eat in response to boredom or emotions when you’re not hungry, learn new ways to respond to these cues.
  • Make physical activity a regular part of your daily life.

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Published on April 17, 2011

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