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More Food, Fewer Calories?

Energy density is the key to healthy, high-volume eating
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

How would you like to eat more food and feel fuller, yet take in fewer calories?

Here's the secret: Choose foods that are low in energy density.

It may sound like weird science, but "energy density" is nothing more than the calories in a portion of food. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and cooked grains are examples of low-energy-density foods that give you plenty of water and fiber for very few calories.

(High-density foods are the other side of the coin. These high-calorie foods tend to have less water and more fat -- which has twice as many calories as either carbohydrates or protein.)

Choosing foods that are high in water and fiber and low in density allows dieters to enjoy larger, more satisfying portions, and to lose weight without feeling hungry. For example, consider grapes vs. raisins: 100 calories of grapes is about two cups, but for the same number of calories, you only get 1/4 cup of raisins. It makes sense that two cups of grapes would be more satisfying than a few tablespoons of raisins.

How It Works

Barbara Rolls, PhD, author of Volumetrics Weight Control and professor at Pennsylvania State University, has done many studies on the concept of energy density. In a study published in the November issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Rolls and colleagues found that study participants who ate a large (3-cup), low-density salad before a meal felt more satisfied and ate less total food during the meal. Those who ate a small, high-density salad with high-fat ingredients actually ate 8% more at the same meal.

Rolls suggests that having a large portion of low-energy-dense foods, like soup or salad, before meals is an effective strategy for weight control. A vegetable-based soup or salad as a first course increases fullness for very few calories, and thus can reduce your calorie intake for the entire meal.

Pump Up the Volume

You can lose weight simply by replacing high-density foods with high-volume, low-density foods like fruits and vegetables, according to a study Rolls presented last week at a meeting of the North American Society for the Study of Obesity in Las Vegas.

In the study, young women who replaced high-calorie foods with low-energy-density foods ate 800 fewer calories a day and never missed them, even with a 25% reduction in overall portion size.

We are all creatures of habit, and most of us tend to eat roughly the same volume of food each day. Here are a few easy ways to keep the volume in your diet while lowering the density (and calories):

  • Choose whole-grain breads.
  • Add veggies to soups, stews, egg dishes, and pizza.
  • Mix fruit into salads.

Not only will eating more of these kinds of foods allow you to feel full on fewer calories, they also happen to be supernutritious!

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