Eat More Foods With Low Energy Density

Eat the same amount of food but fewer calories

Priority foods have high water content (fruits and vegetables)

Losing weight is often difficult but keeping the weight off over the long term is even more difficult. Researchers at the University of Alabama – Birmingham developed the EatRight Weight Management Program. Its cornerstone is a low energy-density diet. Energy (calorie) density reflects the amount of energy in a food divided by its serving size. A one-year EatRight trial led to significant weight loss for program participants. To what extent would weight loss continue after the program ended? Researchers re-contacted participants two years after their program ended. Those participants classified as weight maintainers two years post-program had significantly lower energy-density diets compared to participants classified as weight gainers after accounting for age, gender, and weight at completion of program. Emphasizing low-energy density foods and reducing portion size of high energy-density foods appear to promote weight-loss maintenance.

Nutritionists commonly advise people with overweight or obesity to eat fewer calories. But there’s more to the story of weight management than eating less. The energy density of foods also matters. Relatively low energy in a serving of food (say, a cup of spinach) means low energy intake. Would diets with higher energy density predict increased likelihood of higher body-mass index (BMI)? Researchers in Hawaii found this to be the case for 191,023 participants in the Hawaii-Los Angeles Multi-Ethnic Cohort. Diets with higher energy density also predicted higher risk of obesity for men and women in all ethnic groups. Eating lower-energy density foods can help you maintain a health body weight.

Limiting food consumption in order to lose weight can lead to hunger and dissatisfaction, especially over the long term. Rather than limiting food intake, would shifting food intake to items with lower energy density be more acceptable and effective? Researchers at Penn State University conducted a trial with two groups of participants. The first group was advised to reduce fat intake. The second group was advised to both reduce fat intake and to eat foods with low energy density. Neither group was asked to limit calories. Both groups received behavior therapy counseling designed to increase self-efficacy for weight loss. Over a year’s time both groups lost significant weight, but the second group lost significantly more weight (7.9 vs. 6.4 kg). Participants in the second group had a lower energy-density diet and reported less hunger than participants in the first group. Interestingly, participants in the second group ate 25 percent more food (by weight, mostly water-rich fruits and vegetables) than participants in group 1. Finally, group 2 participants showed significant healthy improvements in serum insulin, non-HDL-cholesterol, and triglyceride compared to those in group 1. Eat more fruits and vegetables to help maintain a healthy body weight.

Part of the benefit of consuming more fruits and vegetables arises from reducing overall food energy density. Humans appear to gauge appropriate food intake based on the weight or volume of food eaten. Increasing fruit and vegetable intake may increase the overall weight of food consumed but decrease the total number of calories eaten due to the lower food energy density (higher water content) of fruits and vegetables. Alas, many people claim that they don’t like the taste and/or texture of fruits and vegetables, especially the latter.

Another group of researchers at Penn State University tested whether puréed vegetables added secretly to recipes would lead to increased vegetable intake. On three separate days, participants ate three meals plus an evening snack with either 100 percent energy density, or 85 percent energy density (puréed vegetables added), or 75 percent energy density (even more puréed vegetables added). Compared to eating the 100 percent energy density meals, participants who ate the 85 and 75 percent energy density meals ingested 202 and 357 fewer calories, respectively, per day. Vegetable consumption increased in the 75 percent energy-density meals by 207 g per day compared to the 100 percent energy-density meals. This equates to an extra two servings of vegetables per day. Participants rated the 85 and 75 percent meals as acceptable. Thus, incorporating puréed vegetables into recipes can substantially increase vegetable intake and reduce caloric intake.

Lifestyle modifications, especially Keep Moving and Eat Better, can reduce the risks of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Eating a diet with lower energy density can reduce caloric intake without limiting food intake or feeling deprived. Japanese researchers studied a cross-section of 1,615 patients (average age 62 years) with type 2 diabetes to clarify the link between obesity and dietary energy density (DED). The quintiles of DED ranged from 1.23 to 1.86 kcal/gram, with an average of 1.53 kcal/gram, which is higher than that of Western populations. Compared to patients in the lowest quintile of DED, the likelihood of patients in the highest quintile having obesity was 2.99-times higher, after adjusting for confounders. Energy intake, fat, and protein did not show significant links between risk of obesity and DED. Carbohydrate showed a significant but much weaker link. DED had a much stronger link with obesity than the other dietary factors. Confectionaries, bread, and oil and fat were linked to high energy-density diets. Conversely, the top three food groups linked to lower energy density included green and yellow vegetables, fruits, and other vegetables. Want to reduce your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes? Find ways to prepare vegetables such that you’ll enjoy eating lots of them every day. You’ll reduce the energy density of your diet and maintain a healthy body weight.