When embarking on a weight management journey, one of the most beneficial things to have with you is an understanding of what the terms “energy density” and “nutrient density” mean in relation to food. An energy-dense food is one that provides a relatively high amount of calories per gram of food. Consider ice cream as an example. From reading the label of an ice cream product, I find that a serving size is one-half cup or 101 grams of the product, and it contains 260 calories. The energy density of that ice cream may be quantified as 260 calories/101 grams or 2.6 calories per gram (a gram is equal to about one-half of a dime). In contrast, a nutrient-dense food provides a relatively high amount of nutrients (protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, etc.) and a relatively low amount of calories per gram. For example, one-half cup of sliced strawberries weighs 152 grams and provides 49 calories. The strawberries provide only 0.3 calories per gram (49 calories/152 grams) of food, not to mention, 149% of the recommended daily value of vitamin-C and 3 grams of fiber! This example of ice cream versus strawberries is not to show off or to bore you with my math skills, but to concretely demonstrate how to choose the foods which will give you more bang for your bite!
When trying to make it through the day on a tight calorie budget, choosing energy-dense foods less frequently allows us to consume a greater volume of foods throughout the day, leaving our hunger more satisfied. Meanwhile, opting for nutrient-dense foods allows us to maintain optimal nutritional status while limiting our energy intake. What will keep you fuller longer: 2 cups of juicy red grapes, or 10 light-as-air cheese puffs? Hunger is your worst enemy when it comes to weight management, so figuring out how to harness it is a deal-breaker. Now, I know you probably don’t want to do math during your whole grocery shopping trip, so I have provided you with quick reference lists below for energy dense and nutrient dense foods. Notice I have also included an energy-nutrient-dense category. These foods are high in calories, but may be consumed more frequently than solely energy-dense foods, because they deliver a nutrient load that can help to curb your appetite and/or healthy, essential fats. At the end of the day, it is all about how you allot your calories. Eat wisely and make choices based on what will give you both the nutrients you need and a satisfied stomach within your calorie budget.
- Energy-dense foods: Cookies, cakes, and other baked goods. Fried foods and baked potato products. Most candies and chocolate treats. Cheese and other high-fat dairy products. Red meats. Juices and sodas.
- Energy-nutrient-dense foods: Dried fruits, fatty-fish, nuts, seeds, and nut butters. Starchy vegetables and fruits such as peas, corn, and avocados. Olive oil-based salad dressings. Whole wheat bread and other whole grains.
- Nutrient-dense foods: Most fruits, non-starchy vegetables, air-popped popcorn, broth-based soups, fat-free dairy products, chicken, pork tenderloin, and most beans.