Energy Density: Why Some “Healthy” Foods Aren’t Good Dieting Foods


What makes you feel like you’ve eaten enough at a meal? Is it the Calories? Unless you have a magical stomach, then it’s probably not that. If we felt full after a certain amount of Calories, then we wouldn’t struggle as much with our weight! Well what is it then? One of the answers to this question is simply the amount or volume of the food we eat. Think of it as the space the food takes up in our stomach. You are probably thinking “Well duh David” we eat until we are full. But maybe you haven’t thought about this: we can eat the same amount or even more food (by volume), but lose weight by paying attention to the energy density of the foods that we eat! You may have had a time in the past when you ate healthy foods, but still don’t lose weight. It may have been because the healthy foods that you were eating were energy dense foods.

Energy density is the amount of Calories per weight (mass) of food. This would be written as ____ Calories per oz of food. Knowing the concept of energy density can help you choose foods that will fill you up and prevent hunger while staying in your Calorie goal to lose weight. If you choose foods that are very energy dense, then it will be difficult to lose weight because you won’t be able to eat very much food or feel full before reaching your Calorie goal. If you don’t know already, eating fewer Calories than we burn is what causes us to lose weight. See my article How Many Calories Do You Need? to find out how many Calories you need to lose weight.

What Foods Are Energy Dense?

Foods that are high in fat usually have the highest energy density because fat has 9 Calories per gram, while protein and carbohydrates have about 4 Calories per gram. However, the water content of the food is an important factor in energy density too. For example, fruits and vegetables have a high water content which increases the weight of the food, but not the Calories. Another example is whole milk, which is typically thought of as having a lot of fat and Calories. It should be really energy dense then right? Actually, whole milk is six times less energy dense than most cereals. Because water content affects energy density substantially, processed foods that are dried and/or packed with a lot of flour or sugar can be extremely energy dense too. Even dried whole grain foods can be very energy dense. Dried fruit, whole grain dry cereal, and whole grain crackers are perfectly healthy foods, but they are energy dense when compared to fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low fat dairy, and grains cooked in water (oatmeal, rice, ect.).

The difference in energy density between foods can be absolutely huge. For example, 3 oz of broccoli has about ~25 Calories, 3 oz apple* has 43 Calories, 3 oz of Light Yogurt* has ~40-50 Calories, 3 oz lean chicken has ~120 Calories, 3 oz of whole wheat bread* has ~240 Calories, 3 oz of nuts* have ~490-560 Calories, and 3 oz oil* has 700+ Calories. You would have to eat 60 oz of broccoli (almost 4 lbs!) to get as many Calories as you get from eating 3 oz of nuts. Imagine how much food 4 pounds of broccoli is and how much space it would take up in your stomach! This is why eating your fruits and vegetables is so important when trying to lose weight – they provide a lot of volume and few Calories (and they have fiber, potassium, and tons of vitamins and minerals).

Interested in how energy dense different foods are? Here is a complete table comparing the Calories in 3 oz of these foods:

Food Calories per 3 oz of this food
Non-Starchy Vegetables (Broccoli, Green Beans, Tomato, Onion, Pumpkin, Squash, Carrot, Snow Peas, Peppers, Collard Greens, Spinach, Romaine Lettuce) 25-35 Calories
Starchy Vegetables (Corn, Potatoes, Peas, Sweet Potatoes, Lima Beans) 60-75 Calories
Fruits (Apples, Oranges, Apricots, Peaches, Nectarines, Pears, Mango, Pineapple, Plums, Strawberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Grapes) 40-60 CaloriesExceptions: Banana ~75 CaloriesAvocado ~135 CaloriesDry Fruit~240-360 Calories
Whole Wheat Bread, White Bread, Other Varieties of Bread 210-250 Calories**Exception: Low Calories Bread ~135 Calories
Dry Cereals, Granola Bars, Granola, and Crackers 300-380 Calories (Higher fat, higher sugar products will be higher end of this range)
Hot Cooked Cereals (Oatmeal, Oat Bran, Cream of Wheat) (already cooked) 45-60 Calories plain, no sugar or fat added70-100 Calories for sugar-sweetened
Other Cooked Grains (Rice, Quinoa, Noodles, Spaghetti) (already cooked) 80-130 Calories*
Lean Meats (already cooked) (Chicken Breast, Chicken Tenderloin, Deli Turkey or Lean Ham, Pork Tenderloin, Tuna, Lean Fish, egg whites, Ground Turkey/Beef that is 95% lean/5% fat or better) 90-140 Calories
High Fat Meats (Sausage, Bacon, Bologna, Salami, Pepperoni, Fried Chicken with the Skin, Ground Turkey/Beef that is 80% lean/20% fat or more) 230-280 Calories400-450 Calories for Bacon
Legumes (All beans, lentils) ~70 Calories for beans~100 Calories for Lentils
Nuts and Seeds (Peanuts, Walnuts, Cashews, Pistachios, Almonds, Pecans, Sunflower Seeds, Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds, Nut Butters) 490-560 Calories
Oils (Vegetable, Sunflower, Soybean, Safflower, Canola, Olive, Flax, Fish, Coconut, Shortening, ect) 700+ Calories
Low Fat, No-Sugar Added Dairy** (skim and 1% milk, fat-free sugar free plain yogurt, fat-free sugar free plain Greek Yogurt, fat free yogurts sweetened with artificial sweetener, 1% or skim cottage cheese Fat-Free Cheese) 30-60 Calories120 Calories for Fat Free Cheese
Higher Fat and/or Sugar Added Dairy*** (whole and 2% milk, Chocolate Milk, Yogurts and Greek Yogurts made with higher fat milk and/or added sugars, high fat cottage Cheese, All other cheeses) 45-55 Calories for 2%/Whole Milk60-80 Calories for Chocolate Milk60-80 Calories Yogurts~90 Calories Cottage Cheese~280 Calories Full Fat Cheeses
Sweets (Cake, Brownies, Cookies, Pies, Chocolate Bars, Candy ect) ~280-450 Calories

*3 oz is not the serving size for some of these foods, but comparing equal weights of foods better illustrates the differences in energy density.

**Very little Calorie difference for White vs Whole Wheat

***Dairy foods, except for cheese, have a high water content, which makes them less energy dense.

Conclusion

As you can see from the chart above, the least energy dense foods are vegetables, fruits, low fat dairy, cooked whole grains (in water), beans, and lean meats. Also, you may have noticed that some foods that have healthy nutrients can also be very energy dense like dry fruit, whole grain breads, whole grain dry cereals, whole grain granola bars,  nuts, seeds, and olive oil. These foods are perfectly healthy, but if you are dieting you should choose less energy dense healthy foods instead. Replacing these foods with other healthy foods that are less energy dense may prevent you from overeating and help you stay full. On the occasions that you do eat energy denser foods, always measure them because a measurement error can result in a large amount of Calories.

Energy Dense Healthy Food Less Energy Dense Substitution
Dry Fruit Whole fruits
Whole Grain Bread/Dry Cereals/Granola Bars Cooked Grains and Cereals (Oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, Oat Bran, Brown Rice, Quinoa, Whole Grain Noodles or Spaghetti) – Measure your portions
Nuts/Seeds Beans, Lean Meats, Low-fat Dairy
Oils (Olive or Canola) Replace with Applesauce when Baking, Use Cooking Spray Instead or Measure Out Very Small Portions

What Matters in this Blog Post:

1. We usually eat the same volume of food at each meal regardless of the foods that we eat. Because of this, the energy density of the foods we eat is important for weight loss.

2. You may have had a time in the past when you ate healthy foods, but still don’t lose weight. It may have been because the healthy foods that you were eating were energy dense foods.

3. Foods that are high in fat, sugar, and/or carbohydrates with a low water content are the most energy dense foods.

4. The least energy dense foods are vegetables, fruits, low fat dairy, cooked whole grains (in water), beans, and lean meats.

5. Some foods that have healthy nutrients can also be very energy dense like dry fruit, whole grain breads, whole grain dry cereals, whole grain granola bars,  nuts, seeds, and olive oil. These foods are perfectly healthy, but if you are dieting you should choose other healthy foods (listed in #4 above) instead to help prevent overeating.

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8 thoughts on “Energy Density: Why Some “Healthy” Foods Aren’t Good Dieting Foods

    • Hi singledrive, thank you so much for the feedback and the reblog! I really appreciate it and I’m glad it helped 🙂 You may find the rest of my blog useful to learn more about weight loss, so maybe you could check back sometime!

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    • You’re welcome! Thanks for the feedback. You may find more of my articles useful – there is a lot of misinformation out there but I always take a scientific approach and try to leave you with some ideas on how to apply it. Follow me back if you want to see more!

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  1. Pingback: Energy Density: Why Some “Healthy” Foods Aren’t Good Dieting Foods | thinnerwithin

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