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. 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 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

When it comes to the low caloric intake per bite, you can eat more low-calorie dense foods compared to high-calorie dense foods to get the same number of calories. For example, fresh tomatoes have 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.

Fruits and vegetables make up most of the low-calorie dense foods, which contain more water and fiber than their high-calorie dense foods. There are five categories of low-calorie dense foods.

In order of calorie density, they include: (from least to most):

  • Vegetables
  • Fresh fruit
  • Potatoes and grains
  • Legumes including peas and beans
  • Non-fat dairy foods

Low-calorie density foods are an important part of weight loss. You can get the satisfaction, flavor, and nutrients you need without consuming too many calories per bite.

High-Calorie Density Foods

While you may think avoiding high-calorie dense foods is best for weight loss, you have to incorporate some of these foods for nutritional value and satiety (feeling full).

As you move up the chart of calorie density, you'll find seafood and meats, muffins, rice, pasta, and bread. Avocado, olive oil, and other healthy fats are also high in calorie density. And foods like chocolate, donuts, and butter have very high-calorie densities.

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

You have to consider both low and high-calorie density foods if you are going to eat a balanced diet. By getting enough healthy options of high-calorie dense foods, while filling up on low-calorie dense foods, you will do better at 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.

If you are trying to lose weight, it's also important to consider whether what you eat will help you feel full and stay feeling full. Eating only low calorie-dense foods can deprive you of important proteins and fats that you need for your body to be healthy. Also, if you are chronically hungry, you can become irritable, tired, and you might crave unhealthy foods—possibly binging on calorie-dense, nutrient-low snacks to stave off hunger.

Incorporating calorie-dense foods in a weight loss diet helps you sustain your eating habits over a long period of time. Eating low-calorie dense foods with small amounts of high-calorie density foods will do the best job at creating that satisfying full feeling.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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.

By Craig O. Weber, MD
Craig O. Weber, MD, is a board-certified occupational specialist who has practiced for over 36 years.