Are you struggling to lose those last five pounds of body fat or maintain a healthy weight without religiously tracking every bite you take of your food?
While tracking and monitoring food is key for many people to achieve the exceptional transformations at UP, the average person who is trying to make a lifestyle change over the long term may need to take a more sustainable approach, simply by monitoring the energy density of foods.
‘Energy density’ (or calorie density) describes the amount of energy provided per portion of food.
Within this article, we provide you with an overview of what energy density is and why it’s so key for weight loss and long-term maintenance, along with some impressive science, supporting its use.
By understanding energy density, you may have a ‘lightbulb’ moment and learn why you are struggling to lose weight or are currently constantly hungry, even though you are eating what you believe to be healthy ‘diet-friendly’ foods.
When you truly understand this you can start getting results like these…
What is Energy Density?
Energy density and calorie density are used interchangeably, with the scientific name being ‘energy density’.
The terms refer to the amount of calories present in any given serving of food, normally measured per portion size or per 100g.
High-energy-dense foods are foods include things like peanut butter, butter, eggs, avocados, ice cream, cheese and bacon.
While some of these foods are healthy and provide key nutrients, they are also very easy to over-eat on due to their high calorie density; as a result, they may be disrupting your weight loss efforts.
This isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions and that all high-energy-dense foods are the enemy; however, most should be avoided or eaten in moderation.
Understanding energy density helps you remain conscious and aware of how many calories you are consuming in one sitting, even if you can’t or don’t want to weigh each individual food item.
Once you understand energy density you can use this as a tool for your fitness goals instead of viewing it as a dietary vice.
In fact, one of the simplest methods to lose weight or stay healthy is to simply consume low-energy-dense foods which have been proven to contain lots of key nutrients, reduce hunger and aid in weight loss (1).
As we all know, consuming excess calories is one of the primary reasons why we gain weight (2).
However, what you may not know is how the energy density of your food plays a role in how much food you need to eat to become full or satiated.
If you’ve eaten a large ‘cheat meal’ then come to realise it was 2,000 or even 3,000 calories, that’s because the food had a high energy density. Just look at a pot of ice cream – two tubs is over 3,000 calories and yet it doesn’t actually constitute much “real” food.
Now compare this to 3,000 calories of chicken, potatoes and veg. It would be around 6-8 full stacked plates, almost impossible to eat in one sitting.
Because you will naturally eat significantly more calories from high-energy-dense foods, switching 1-2 meals per day to low-energy-dense foods can often equate to quick and easy weight loss as you’re consuming considerable less calories.
These lower-energy-dense meals not only reduce total calorie intake but they also help to keep you feeling fuller and provide more essential nutrients such as protein, healthy fats, fibre, and vitamins and minerals. (3, 4, 5)
Research on high-energy-dense foods shows the opposite; they are typically low in fibre, provide few or no nutrients (there are exceptions, of course) and very high in calories.
As a result, you always need to consume large amounts until your stomach signals your brain that you are full.
For these reasons, it’s no surprise that there is a clear correlation between high-energy-dense food intake and risk of disease, weight gain and obesity (6).
Researchers even tested this, comparing two different weight loss strategies over the course of one year.
One group was simply advised to reduce their fat intake, while the other group was advised to reduce their fat intake but simultaneously to also increase their consumption of low-energy-dense foods (fruits and vegetables).
Perhaps the most interesting and relevant aspect of this study, and what makes its findings so practical, is that the individuals were not given a strict amount of calories to hit – instead, they were just advised to eat until they felt full.
After one year, both groups lost a significant amount of weight. However, the group consuming more low-calorie-dense foods lost 17.38lbs compared to 14.08lbs in the reduced fat group (7).
Another study tested acute calorie intake at one meal. They provided participants with unlimited low-energy-dense foods and, on another day, unlimited high energy dense foods.
Being instructed to eat until satiated and happy, participants naturally consumed 56% fewer calories on the low energy dense sitting (8).
Three Energy Dense Foods that Could Be Wrecking your Fat Loss
Now that we have a better understanding of energy density, let’s take a look at three common energy dense foods and lower calorie options.
1. Peanut Butter vs Powdered Peanut Butter
Peanut Butter is number one on the list for good reason: everyone loves peanut butter and it is super healthy! Peanut butter goes great on bananas, in protein shakes, or even by itself.
However, just because it’s got lots of health benefits, it doesn’t mean you should consume large amounts, especially when dieting. Sadly, peanut butter is one of the most energy dense foods out there.
One small serving of peanut butter contains almost 200 calories. It takes actually weighing out peanut butter to see how small one serving really is – give it a go now.
If you are a peanut butter addict, you can try powdered peanut butter as an alternative when dieting.
Let’s take a quick look and see how this one small change can make a big impact over time!
If you have two servings of peanut butter every day, in a given week you’re consuming 2,660 calories a week just from peanut butter!
Now if you swap that out with a powdered peanut butter, in a given week you’re only consuming 630 calories!
That one change saves you an extra 2,030 calories per week!
2. Ben & Jerry’s vs Coconut Protein Ice Cream
Ben & Jerry’s is a popular ice cream that many people use as a ‘treat’ or ‘cheat meal’.
While balance and the occasional treat is certainly important for the long-term sustainability of a diet, there may be lower calorie options, especially if you tend to over-eat and find it impossible not to finish the whole tub!
Just two servings puts you at 610 calories, but who eats only two servings? An average tub has 4-5 servings, which is around 1200-1500 calories.
For this reason, it would be a great idea to try our Coconut Ice Cream recipe – a great low-calorie alternative.
If you are one of those people who will eat an entire tub of ice cream (five servings) on a Saturday night as a ‘cheat’, this could save you 2,440 calories over the course of a month.
3.) Takeaway Pizza vs Pizza Omelette
One last example we’ll go through is a popular Friday night treat – store-bought pizza from companies such as Pizza Hut or Dominoes.
Again, while balance is certainly important, you could still enjoy a homemade pizza, a healthy version from the store or the even healthier substitute that we detail below.
Now here is an example of a homemade or healthier store-bought version. Compare the macro profile of our Pizza Omelette recipe.
As you can see, just by eating a healthier version you can save yourself a whole bunch of calories which over the course of a week or month could add up to a lot of potential fat loss.
These three examples are by no means exclusive, but they do help you see how simple changes throughout your week can reduce total daily calorie intake or make it easier to maintain your weight over the long term.
Example High-Energy-Dense Food List
- Nuts and nut butters (not to say they aren’t healthy, just monitor portion size)
- Sauces such as mayonnaise
- Fast food
- Ice cream
- Juices, fizzy drink, etc.
- Battered or fried food
- Chocolate milk or full-fat milk
Example Low-Energy-Dense Food List
- Grilled chicken
- White fish
- Most fruits, especially berries (blueberries, strawberries etc.)
- Greek yoghurt
Wrapping it All Up
Hopefully, you can now see the power of energy density and why you may be overeating or gaining weight even though you feel hungry all the time.
By consuming low-energy-dense foods, you can quickly lower your daily calorie intake, improve health and lose weight without yo-yo dieting or needing to be forever obsessively counting calories (unless, of course, you enjoy tracking by that method).
Switch some of your meals and main foods to low-energy-dense, healthy whole foods and see the dramatic improvements they provide!
1.) Karl, J. P., & Roberts, S. B. (2014). Energy density, energy intake, and body weight regulation in adults. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 5(6), 835-850.
2.) Cutler, D. M., Glaeser, E. L., & Shapiro, J. M. (2003). Why have Americans become more obese?. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(3), 93-118
3.) Ledikwe, J. H., Blanck, H. M., Khan, L. K., Serdula, M. K., Seymour, J. D., Tohill, B. C., & Rolls, B. J. (2006). Dietary energy density is associated with energy intake and weight status in US adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 83(6), 1362-1368.
4.) Slavin, J. L. (2005). Dietary fibre and body weight. Nutrition, 21(3), 411-418.
5.) Duncan, K. H., Bacon, J. A., & Weinsier, R. L. (1983). The effects of high and low energy density diets on satiety, energy intake, and eating time of obese and nonobese subjects. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 37(5), 763-767.
6.) Mendoza, J. A., Drewnowski, A., & Christakis, D. A. (2007). Dietary energy density is associated with obesity and the metabolic syndrome in US adults. Diabetes care, 30(4), 974-979.
7.) Ello-Martin, J. A., Roe, L. S., Ledikwe, J. H., Beach, A. M., & Rolls, B. J. (2007). Dietary energy density in the treatment of obesity: a year-long trial comparing 2 weight-loss diets. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 85(6), 1465-1477.
8.) Bell, E. A., Castellanos, V. H., Pelkman, C. L., Thorwart, M. L., & Rolls, B. J. (1998). Energy density of foods affects energy intake in normal-weight women. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 67(3), 412-420.