How Calorie Dense Foods Help With Weight Loss

Calorie density, also known as calories per pound, is how much energy, i.e. calories, is provided per unit measure of food. In comparison, calorie-dense foods, such as fat and refined sugars, provide many calories in a small amount of food. Foods with low-calorie density—fruits, vegetables—provide fewer total calories and greater nutrition in a larger volume of food. Here's how to find the best mix of both to stay healthy, lose weight, and help balance your caloric intake.

Close up of plates full of greens and tomatoes and people sitting around a table
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Low-Calorie Density Foods

Many consider low-calorie density foods as foods that have more bite. Literally. When it comes to the low caloric intake per bite, low-calorie density foods allow you to eat them longer and enjoy more bites when compared to high-calorie dense foods. For example, fresh tomatoes have just 90 calories per pound, while bagels have 1,200 calories per pound. If you were to sit down and eat a pound of tomatoes, you'd have 13 times more bites eating tomatoes than you would eating bagels.

So, with low-calorie dense foods, you get more bite for your calorie. As mentioned above fruits and vegetables make up most of the low-calorie dense foods, which contain more water and fiber than their high-calorie dense cousins. There are five categories of low-calorie dense foods. In order of calorie density, they include (from least to most): vegetables, fresh fruits, potatoes and grains, legumes including peas and beans, and non-fat dairy foods.

High-Calorie Density Foods

As you move up the chart of calorie density, you'll find seafood and meats, muffins and bread, and things at the top are foods like chocolate, donuts, and butter have high-calorie densities, but there are also healthy foods with high-calorie densities, such as avocado, olive oil, and other healthy fats.

While you may think avoiding all high-calorie dense foods is best, the truth is you have to incorporate some of these foods for nutritional value and satiety. While low-calorie dense foods have lots of vitamins and minerals, natural foods with a high-calorie density have heart-healthy omega-3s and unsaturated fats as well as protein and antioxidants.

Striking a Balance Using Calorie Density

While it may be easy to strategize to only eat low-calorie dense foods, in reality, you have to consider both low and high-calorie density foods if you are going to make your diet balanced. By mixing healthier options of high-calorie dense foods, while filling up on low-calorie dense foods, you will do better sustaining your eating habits over a long period of time and meeting your calorie and nutrition needs.

The "Staying Full" Issue With Calorie Density

The focus on burning more calories than you eat is a simple way many people talk about weight loss, however, studies have shown that diets based on low-calorie density foods tend to be more healthy and effective for weight management than the simple calories in vs. calories out approach. The other issue of weight loss and caloric intake is the issue of getting and staying full.

As mentioned earlier, low-calorie density foods offer more bites per calorie. To get and stay full you must incorporate foods that support your body's need to feel full. Low-calorie dense foods, with small amounts of high-calorie density foods, do the best job at creating that satisfying full feeling.

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2 Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central, 2019

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Low-Energy-Dense Foods and Weight Management: Cutting Calories While Controlling Hunger.