Calorie Density

The Secret to weight loss: Calorie Density – Energy Density Why it matters when trying to lose, maintain, and/or potentially gain weight.

What is energy density/calorie density?

For the sake of argument the term calorie density will be used in place of energy density. This is due to the fact that food labels list the calories contained within food, not the energy contained within food. Therefore, the term calorie density will be used. These terms are interchangeable and mean the same thing. According to Perez-Escamilla, et al. (2012):

Energy density is defined as the amount of energy per unit weight of a food or beverage (kilocalories per gram or kilojoules per gram). Water accounts for much of the variability in energy density because it provides a significant amount of weight without adding energy. Dietary fiber also contributes weight but little energy. Thus, foods high in water and/or fiber are generally lower in energy density. On the other hand, because dietary fat provides the greatest amount of energy per gram, foods high in fat are generally high in energy density. (p. 671)

Calorie density is the measure of the amount of calories contained within the weight of a given amount of food. Generally calculations are based upon a pound of food. Low calorie dense foods have a small amount of calories per pound, while high calorie dense foods contain a larger amount of calories per pound. Calorie density is greatly impacted by the type and amount of calories contained within a given food.

Video: The pleasure Trap

Calorie Density: How to Eat More, Weight Less and Live Longer

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What is a calorie?

A calorie, according to Medline plus (2015), is “a unit of energy in food. Carbohydrates, fats, protein, and alcohol in the foods and drinks we eat provide food energy or ‘calories’”.

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How many calories are in a gram of Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Protein, and alcohol?

According to the Institute of Medicine ([IOM], 2002), a gram of carbohydrate or refined grain (table sugar) contains 4 calories. A gram of fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate and contains 0 calories. Protein contains 4 calories per gram. A gram of fat contains 9 calories and a gram of alcohol contains 7 calories (p.109). Weiner & Weiner (2010) recognize that water contains 0 calories while complex carbohydrates contain 2 calories per gram due to the body’s inability to digest fiber (p.279). The amount of calories within a serving of any food are dependent among these factors. As your serving size increases so does the caloric content of the food consumed. The same thing happens if you decrease the serving size, the caloric content will go down. The calories contained within macronutrients are listed in ascending order based upon their caloric concentration.

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

As seen in the chart above, a gram of fat contains 9 calories, yet, some food labels state that they do not contain calories or are even “fat free” even though they contain 100% fat. To learn more about this, watch this video clip by dietitian Jeff Novick.

When “fat free” really means 100% fat

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Calorie density – putting it all together

If you are trying to lose weight, calorie density is extremely important. By changing the type of food you consume, low calorie dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables can help you lose weight, be careful not to eat too many fruits and vegetables as this may increase hunger. Be sure to consume starch-based foods like brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat breads, potatoes, corn. If you are trying to gain weight, increase the amount of calorie dense foods you consume, such as avocado, dried fruits, and nuts and seeds. Filling up on low calorie dense foods can decrease, or eliminate, the chances of gaining weight. Below are a few tips to help make small but meaningful changes to help improve weight loss. By changing the types of food individuals consume, or the calorie density of the foods consumed, individuals can drastically alter the amount of calories consumed in a given day. Over the course of a years’ time substantial weight loss could occur.

Cut back on salt. Read labels, purchase low sodium products, many now say reduced sodium or no salt added. Spice things up with a variety of spices, herbs, and seasoning. There are now a variety of herbs and spices that do not contain sodium and are bursting with flavor.

Replace oils on salads with vinegars, there are plenty of flavored vinegars on the market that contain zero or relatively low calories versus oil. Use sugar free applesauce in place of oils in baked goods. You may need to experiment a little to get the recipe correct, but skipping the fat and oil will help reduce the amount of calories consumed.

The olive tap in Long Grove, IL., has a variety of delicious balsamic vinegars.

Avoid added sugar in foods. Replace sugar containing foods with foods containing natural sugars like sweet fruits and vegetables. A few examples of fruit include: apples, bananas, dates, kiwis, oranges. Incorporate sweeter vegetables into the diet such as: carrots, sweet potatoes, sweet bell peppers, pea pods, and snow pea pods.

Chef Ramses Bravo: Cooking Tips and the SOS Free Diet

Think of alternatives to replace saturated fat laden products like butter, lard, and eggs in baking. Unsweetened applesauce, blended avocado, mashed banana, blended beans, ground flax seed, and pumpkin puree can all work as replacements. Some experimentation may be needed to get the recipe to work the way you want.

Make soups and stews without oil, move away from cream based soups or experiment with plant based milks in place of cream and try to leave out the meat and cheese, making them meatless cuts down on the overall caloric density. Meatless chili, vegetable barley, or vegetable soup are just some examples.

Sauté vegetables in water, low sodium vegetable stock, vinegar, cooking sherry, or cooking wine. The vegetables will sauté nicely and you won’t be adding any unnecessary calories to your meals.

Purchase fruits and vegetables for your home and have them available at all times. If you purchase canned fruits and vegetables be sure to buy them with no sugar added or no salt added. Try to avoid products with artificial sweeteners or names you cannot pronounce within the ingredients list.

Limit the consumption of high fat plant foods like nuts, seeds, avocados and nut butters. These products are calorically dense even though they are nutritious. 2 tbls of nut butter generally contain close to 200 calories.

Jeff Novick, RD, MS – Foods That Make You Thin

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Real World examples of how to decrease caloric intake.

Below is an example of what this means and it puts this idea into context. Changing the caloric density of the foods eaten on a daily basis can drastically alter the total calories consumed, which can lead to either weight gain, or weight loss. Below are examples with calorically dense foods and potential alternatives for those calorically dense foods.

High calorie dense foods Low calorie dense foods
Food Calories Food Calories
Potato 1 red 110 Potato 1 red 110
Butter 1oz 100 Salsa 2tbls 50
Cheese 1oz 110
Total Calories 320 Total calories 160
High calorie dense foods Low calorie dense foods
Food Calories Food Calories
Romaine Lettuce 1 cup 8 Romaine Lettuce 1 cup 8
Cheese 1oz 110 Shredded carrots 1oz 11
Olive oil 1 tbls 120 Balsamic vinegar 2 tbls 0
Total Calories 238 Total Calories 19
High calorie dense foods Low calorie dense foods
Food Calories Food Calories
2 slices Toast 160 2 slicesToast 160
Peanut butter       2 tbls 180 Jelly 2 tbls 50
Total calories 340 Total calories 210
Total calories 898 Total calories 389

Adding a variety of different condiments to meals is one way in which we add calories to our meals. These condiments to our meals are a fantastic addition however, they can lead to weight gain and sometimes poor health. As you can see by this example, small amounts of calorically dense foods increase the total number of calories. For example, 1oz of cheese has 11 times as many calories as 1oz of shredded carrots. Making a switch from cheese to carrots can drastically reduce the amount of calories consumed in your diet. And over the course of 1 year you could save 40,150 calories.


Here is a sample meal of a low calorie meal: steamed asparagus, and purple cabbage, carrots, mushrooms and potatoes with a garden salad with Lemon balsamic vinegar.

Losing weight can be a struggle and a plant-based diet can provide individuals with the results they are looking for. Limiting the amount of refined grains, processed foods and fat within the diet can be extremely advantageous for weight loss. A diet containing little to no animal products and less than 15% of total calories coming from fat has been shown to provide benefits for weight loss, but also in preventing and reversing cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. Most plant-based diets contain less than 15% of total calories coming from fat. If you are having trouble losing weight, lower your fat intake and eliminate animal-based foods from your diet. Our daily dietary habits have the greatest impact when trying to lose weight.

Moving forward try to keep your daily total calories from fat under 15%. Nutrition plays a large role in weight loss. Knowing what foods to avoid and knowing what foods contribute to weight gain and obesity as well as the development of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease allows you to make more informed decisions about what foods you should choose to eat to avoid developing these diseases and weight gain. For those looking to add  on weight, if you are already following a whole-foods, plant-based diet, consuming more nuts and seeds will help maintain or gain weight.

Foods to avoid: all animal-based foods, tropical oils, and processed oils within processed foods and highly processed foods containing excessive amounts of sugar.

Foods to consume: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, limited amounts of nuts and seeds.

The power to control your weight loss is within your control. Knowing that you have control over weight loss and knowing how the disease progresses is such a valuable lesson that many are unaware of. Good health is something everyone has the ability to attain. Being more conscious of how our daily habits impact our overall health and that starts be by changing what is on the end of our fork and spoon.

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