Calorie density describes the number of calories in a given volume or weight of food.
Understanding how it works can help you lose weight and improve your diet.
What’s more, focusing on low-calorie-density foods allows you to eat a large volume of food while still cutting back on calories.
This can have many health benefits, including increased nutrient intake and weight loss.
This article explains everything you need to know about calorie density.
What is calorie density?
Calorie density is a measure of the calorie content of food relative to its weight or volume.
It is also called energy density and is usually measured as calories per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of food.
Choosing foods with a low calorie density can help with weight loss. It makes you automatically eat fewer calories while still eating large and filling portions.
An easier way to make sense of this is to imagine a full plate of food. The fewer calories the plate contains, the lower the calorie density of the meal.
A vegetable with 30 calories per 100 grams has a low calorie density, while chocolate that has 550 calories per 100 grams has a very high calorie density.
Although calorie density may be less well known than other weight management concepts like calorie counting, choosing foods based on this measure may be simpler and more effective.
For example, basing your diet on low-calorie-density foods tends to limit you to predominantly healthy and nutrient-rich whole foods.
It can quickly clean up your diet, eliminating most calorie-dense, processed foods that are generally unhealthy and easy to overeat.
How does calorie density affect weight?
Eating too many calories is a key factor in weight gain.
Several studies have shown that individuals who consume low-calorie-density diets also eat fewer total calories per day. This is linked to a lower body weight, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference.
Accordingly, studies reveal that those whose diets comprise mostly high-calorie-density foods have an increased risk of weight gain and obesity.
Calorie density also affects hunger.
Low-calorie-density foods tend to provide less fat and more water and fiber. This is great for making you feel full and reducing your daily calorie intake.
In contrast, many calorie-dense foods are highly processed and extremely palatable, making them easy to overeat.
Research indicates that whole foods tell your brain to stop eating, while this effect is delayed when you eat highly processed foods.
In one study, participants ate 56% more calories when provided a high-energy-density meal, compared with a low-energy-density one.
Another study compared calorie intake for high- and low-calorie-density meals that were matched for palatability and macronutrients.
People ate an average of 425 more calories when given the calorie-dense meal than when given the low-calorie-density one.
A low-calorie-density diet helps you lose weight
It focuses on whole foods and limits your intake of processed foods, naturally increasing your intake of protein, vegetables, and fruit.
All of these foods have been shown to aid weight loss by reducing total calorie intake per meal or per day.
A low-calorie-density diet can lessen hunger since your stomach senses the volume of food you have consumed in a meal.
A low-calorie-density meal also fills your plate. This helps your meal last longer and forces you to chew more, further increasing your feelings of fullness.
In one study, participants lost an average of 17 pounds (7.7 kg) after they switched their high-calorie-density fats to low-calorie-density fruits and vegetables for 1 year.
Finally, results from an observational study found that adults who consumed lower-calorie-dense diets had significantly lower measurements of waist circumference and BMI after five years.
A low-calorie-density diet may improve health
A low-calorie-density diet forces you to overhaul your eating pattern and make many positive changes.
All of these changes benefit your long-term health, including:
- Less processed food. Your intake of processed, unhealthy food is reduced.
- More healthy food. You will eat more low-calorie, highly nutritious foods.
- More lean proteins. Quality protein may aid weight loss and has several other benefits.
- More nutrients. A low-calorie-density diet encourages you to consume more micronutrient- and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.
- Reduced calorie intake. Reducing your calorie intake and losing weight is one of the best ways to improve your health if you’re overweight.
- A well-balanced, sustainable diet. This way of eating teaches you to focus on healthier, low-calorie foods while not forcing you to totally eliminate other foods or occasional treats.
Foods that have a low calorie density
Most natural foods have a very low calorie density. These include:
- Vegetables. Most green vegetables have the lowest calorie density of all foods because they’re primarily made up of water, fiber, and a very small number of carbs.
- Meat and fish. Lean proteins like chicken, white fish, and turkey have a low calorie density, yet fattier meats and fish have a moderate to high density.
- Fruits. These have a low calorie density because of their high fiber and water content. Berries and other watery fruits tend to have the lowest density.
- Milk and yogurt. Reduced-fat milk and yogurts with no added sugar also have a low calorie density and provide a good source of protein.
- Eggs. Whole eggs are a protein-packed superfood with a moderate calorie density, especially when combined with vegetables.
- Starchy carbs. Some natural starchy carbs like potatoes, legumes, and other root vegetables have a low to moderate calorie density. This is especially true once they’re cooked, as they fill with water.
- Sugar-free drinks. These beverages, such as water, coffee, and tea, have a low calorie density and can help keep you full.
There is no reason to eliminate high-fat foods completely. Just keep your intake moderate. Many healthy high-fat foods, such as nuts, avocados, and olive oil, may contribute to weight gain if you eat too many of them.
High-calorie-density foods to limit
If you want to try this approach and base your food selection on calorie density, you will need to limit your intake of foods with high calorie density, including:
- Candy and chips. Candy and chips tend to be high in sugar and fat, making them very calorie-dense and easy to overeat.
- Pastries and cakes. Like candy, pastries and cakes are very calorie-dense and easy to overeat.
- Fast foods. These are some of the most calorie-dense foods available. Studies show that an average fast food meal packs around twice the calories of a normal, healthy meal.
- Oils. While certain oils, such as coconut and olive oil, are healthy, they still have a very high calorie density. Consume healthy oils in moderation.
- High-fat dairy. Foods like butter, cream, and cheese have very high calorie densities. Consume them in moderation.
- Fatty meats. Some fatty meats have a very high calorie density. These include bacon, sausages, lamb, and fatty beef cuts.
- Nuts. Like other healthy fat sources, nuts are very calorie-dense. While they do have many health benefits, they’re easy to overeat. Try measuring out your portions before you eat them.
- High-fat condiments. Some sauces and condiments, such as mayonnaise, pesto, and ranch dressing, are very high in calories and should mostly be avoided.
- Sugary drinks. Some smoothies and full-fat milkshakes are high in calories and should be avoided as much as possible.
The bottom line
Out of the many diets around, an eating plan based on foods with a low calorie density is probably one of the most sensible and effective. It’s also easy to understand and implement.
Unlike diets that focus on excluding food groups, a low-calorie-density diet allows all foods while simply shifting your focus toward healthy, whole foods.
Plus, you’ll also experience less hunger and be able to eat your fill.
By basing 90% of your intake on food with a low calorie density, you can easily reduce calorie intake and lose weight with little effort.