Calorie Dense Foods

What are low calorie dense foods?

As you can see by the graph below, the caloric density of a food is influenced by the amount of water, fiber, carbohydrates, protein, alcohol, and fat it contains. Low calorie dense foods tend to be plant-based foods that contain carbohydrates (carb = sugar; hydrate = water) and fiber. Foods that contain relatively high amounts of water (zero calories per gram) and complex carbohydrates containing fiber (2 calories per gram) contribute substantial weight to food while not providing an overall increase in calories; these foods also provide substantial bulk and satiety. These foods leave you feeling fuller longer.  Dietary fiber naturally occurs in plant foods and consists of non-digestible carbohydrates found only in intact, non-processed, plant foods (Institute of Medicine, 2003, p. 339). Fiber in plant foods according to Anderson et al. (2009) has been shown to lower the risk of “Coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and certain gastrointestinal diseases. Increasing the intake of high fiber foods improves serum lipoproteins values, lowers blood pressure, improves blood glucose control for diabetic individuals, aids weight loss, and improves regularity” (p. 200).


Chopped endive and arugula lettuce with onions and walnuts with a lemon balsamic vinegar

Multiple studies have shown that eating low calorie dense foods, high in water and fiber, which provide bulk but little to no calories, means an individual can eat more food while consuming fewer calories (Ledikwe et al., 2006; Cuco, Arija, Marti-Henneberg, & Fernandez-Ballart, 2001; Stookey, 2001; Drenowski, Almiron-Roig, Marmonier, & Lluch, 2004; de Castro, 2004). What these researchers found was that the benefit to this type of eating is that individuals can feel fuller longer on fewer calories which can lead to weight loss over time.

Macronutrients Calories per gram
Water 0
Complex Carbohydrates (with fiber) 2 (fiber)
Carbohydrate (table sugar/refined carbohydrates) 4
Protein 4
Alcohol 7
Fat 9


McDougall’s Moments: Maximum Weight Loss Diet

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What are high calorie dense foods?

Calorie dense foods are those foods which contain concentrated sources of fat and simple sugar. These products generally contain very little, if any, water, fiber, and complex carbohydrates (the exceptions being nuts, seeds, and avocados which contain a little fiber, and a relatively small amount of water. Drewnowski, Almiron-Roig, Marmonier, & Lluch (2004) state that “although it is commonly believed that energy-dense foods are those high in added sugars and fat, this is not necessarily the case; the most energy dense foods are those that are dry” (p. 403). Calorically dense foods generally consist of avocado, refined carbohydrates, bread, sugars, dairy products (ice cream, cheese, and butter), meats, nuts, seeds, chocolate, and oils, which as stated tend not to contain water, but fat. Drewnowski et al. (2004) recognized that the “energy density of foods is strongly associated with their fat content” (p. 403). The consumption of these foods, with their relatively high fat content and lack of water, fiber, and complex carbohydrates make a food energy dense. However, Drewnoswski et al. (2004) makes the argument that calorically dense foods can also be processed foods that are nearly devoid of water thus containing large amounts of fat and sugar or both (p. 403-404).

A great example of this would be the consumption of raisins versus grapes. Raisins are dehydrated grapes. 1 cup of raisins contains approximately 493 calories, while 1 cup of seedless grapes contains approximately 104 calories. That means 5 cups of grapes equals the same number of calories in 1 cup of raisins. Removing water from food through the drying process is just one way companies process food. This is a great example of the effect food processing has on the caloric density of fruits and vegetables. The number of calories in 1 cup of grapes or raisins, fresh vs. dried, is completely different. This does not mean raisins are bad, they can be used in oatmeal, bread, or as a snack. But be careful because they are calorically dense and a small amount can increase the total number of calories in your diet. Removing water from fruits and vegetables increases the sugar content driving up the calories while leaving the portion size relatively small.


High calorie dense foods tend to be those foods which generally contain large quantities of fat and sugar, like chips, candies, desserts, snack foods, avocado, nuts and seeds, oil, along with meat and dairy products. Generally high fat food products do not contain fiber, except for avocado, nuts, and seeds. High fat plant-based oils like coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, and olive oil are 100% fat, they contain no fiber, but contain large amounts of saturated fat. Other high fat, or calorie dense products like meat and dairy contain no, natural source of, fiber, little to no water, and relatively large amounts of cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat. Saturated fats and trans fats are predominantly found in meat and dairy as well as refined oils (Estadella et al., 2013, P. 1). According to Estadella, et al., (2013) “the ingestion of excessive amounts of saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids is considered to be a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and obesity” (P. 1). In fact the Institute of Medicine, ([IOM], 2003) doesn’t even “set maximum levels for saturated fat, cholesterol, or trans fatty acids, as increased risk exists at levels above zero, however the recommendation is to eat as little as possible while consuming a diet adequate in important other essential nutrients” (para.8). Based upon these statements the consumption of meat, dairy, and tropical oils may not only be calorie dense but overconsumption may lead to negative health outcomes. The IOM (2003) states “weight gain on high fat diets can be detrimental to individuals already susceptible to obesity and will worsen the metabolic consequences of obesity, particularly risk of CHD” (p. 15).

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