Choosing foods that are less calorie dense — meaning you get a larger portion size with a fewer number of calories — can help you lose weight and control your hunger.By Mayo Clinic Staff
Feel full on fewer calories? It might sound like another gimmick for weight loss, but it's not. The concept of energy density really can help with weight loss.
In fact, well-planned weight-loss diets, such as the Mayo Clinic Diet, use the concept of energy density to help you lose weight and keep it off long term.
Simply put, energy density 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 small amount of food. Low energy density means there are few calories in a large amount of food.
When you're striving for weight loss, one strategy is to eat low-energy-dense foods. That is, you want to eat a greater amount of food that contains less calories. This helps you feel fuller on fewer calories.
Here's a quick example with raisins and grapes. Raisins have a high energy density — 1 cup of raisins has about 480 calories. Grapes have a low energy density — 1 cup of grapes has about 104 calories.
Three main factors play a role in what makes food high or low in 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% water. Half a grapefruit has just 64 calories. Raw, fresh carrots are about 88% 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 various meats, or foods with added fats are higher in calories than are their leaner or lower fat counterparts.
Changing lifestyle habits is never easy. And creating an eating plan using the energy-density concept is no exception. The first step is knowing which foods are better options when it comes to energy density.
Here's a look at energy density by the categories in the Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight Pyramid.
Most vegetables are very low in calories but high in volume or weight. Most vegetables contain water and fiber, which provides weight without calories. Examples include:
- Salad greens
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.
Nearly all types of fruit fit into a healthy diet. But some fruits are lower calorie choices than others are. Whole fresh, frozen and canned fruits without syrup are good options. 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. Or toss some mandarin orange and peach slices into a salad. Keep whole fruit in a bowl within easy sight or in the fridge and eat it anytime you like.
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-grain options instead of refined grains, including foods made with sugar or white flour. For example, choose:
- Whole-wheat bread
- Whole-wheat pasta
- Brown rice
- Whole-grain cereal
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:
- Beans, peas and lentils, which are also good sources of fiber
- Lean meat and poultry
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese
- 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. Limit saturated fat and trans fat, such as butter or shortening.
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 small amount of dark chocolate.
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.
When you stick to the concept of energy density, you don't have to feel hungry or deprived. By including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains in your diet, you can feel full on fewer calories. You may even have room in your diet for a sweet on occasion.
March 22, 2022
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