Energy Density of Food

A key concept in weight loss is energy balance: the intake of food and beverages (EI – energy intake) and the burning of calories (EE – energy expenditure). One component of energy intake, is the energy density of foods. Dr. Scott Cunneen, bariatric surgeon at Cedars Sinai Center for Weight Loss wrote a guest post for us, specifically about how a low-energy dense diet helps lower calorie intake, control hunger and maintain feelings of satiety. Dr. Cunneen writes:

Although it appears to defy conventional wisdom, calorie intake can be reduced while controlling hunger. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the positive impact of eating low-energy-dense foods on calories consumed, satiety, and body weight.

Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight can be challenging.  A person must sustain a careful balance between calories consumed and energy expended in order to maintain his or her desirable body weight and must consume fewer calories than expended in order to lose weight. In order to reverse the current trend toward overweight and obesity, we need to consume fewer calories and be more active. We have used many dietary strategies to consume fewer calories including limiting portion sizes, food groups, or certain macronutrients such as carbohydrates or fats. While these strategies can help moderate calorie intake, particularly during the short-term, they generally fail in the long term. Additionally, these approaches may compromise diet quality or cause feelings of hunger and dissatisfaction.

There’s been research that shows that people eat a fairly consistent amount of food on a day-to-day basis (1-8). This finding holds true whether the amount of food contains many or few calories. Therefore, the number of calories in a particular amount or weight of food (i.e., the food’s energy density) affects the total number of calories a person consumes.

Energy density is the amount of energy or calories in a particular weight of food and is generally presented as the number of calories in a gram (kcal/g). Foods with a lower energy density provide fewer calories per weight than foods with a higher energy density. For the same amount of calories, a person can consume a larger portion of a food lower in energy density than a food higher in energy density. Research studies indicate that consuming a low-energy dense diet helps people lower their calorie intake and as importantly, helps people control their hunger and maintain feelings of satiety, or the feeling of fullness and satisfaction experienced at the end of a meal.

Observational studies focusing on the foods people typically eat have found that energy density is related to calorie intake and the amount of food consumed. A recent study by Ledikwe and colleagues found that among a nationally representative group of U.S. adults, men and women who reported eating a lower-energy-dense diet ate fewer calories yet consumed more food by weight than people who ate a higher energy dense diet (9). Other studies from countries around the world have reported similar findings (10-13).” The results from these studies show that a diet low in energy density allows people to reduce their energy intake without decreasing the amount of food they consume.

Experimental studies in laboratories with dining facilities not only confirm that consuming foods lower in energy density is an effective strategy for reducing short-term calorie intake but also show that calorie intake can be reduced without increasing feelings of hunger.

In these studies, the energy density of the foods served to study participants was carefully manipulated so that all the foods were equally tasty. The researchers then measured the participants’ food intake and ratings of hunger and satiety. Participants consumed fewer calories when the meal started with the lower-energy-dense salad and they reported feeling just as full as participants who had no first-course salad or had a salad that was higher in energy density.

It is becoming scientifically clear that our weight is a product of the combination of our genetics and the environment in which we live.  Marketing and the types of foods that are engineered and promoted by industry can, and have, greatly affected the rates of obesity in our population.  One strategy that is gaining promise is the development of foods that have less calorie density or more simply, bulkier foods with less calories.  Gladly, these types of foods can still have great taste and result in satisfying meals. As a weight loss surgeon I commonly deal with advanced problems with weight.  To truly deal with this epidemic of obesity we need to further preventative and maintenance strategies such as the development and promotion of less calorie dense foods rather than continue  the “super-sized” calorie dense food environment we are in today.  Partnership with industry, and the development of healthier foods must be a key component in our fight against obesity.

Dr. Cunneen also provided extensive resource for individuals interested in reading more about the energy density of food.
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14.Rolls BJ, Roe LS, Meengs JS. Salad and satiety: energy density and portion size of a first course salad affect energy intake at lunch. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2004;104:1570-1576.

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