The energy density approach

If you struggle with the idea of cutting down on the amount of food you eat and feeling hungry or unsatisfied when you think about managing your weight, the energy density approach may be helpful to you.

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The energy density approach

We know that sticking to a healthy eating plan is important in weight management – and it’s important to find a plan that works for you!

If you struggle with the idea of cutting down on the amount of food you eat and feeling hungry or unsatisfied when you think about managing your weight, the energy density approach may be helpful to you.

 

What is energy density?

Energy density is the amount of energy (or calories, kcal) per gram of food.

Lower energy density foods provide less energy per gram of food – this means that you can have larger, more satisfying portions of these foods for fewer calories. Research suggests that people get full by the amount of food they eat, not the number of calories they take in. This is important as the being able to greater amount of food will help you keep full, and you can eat plenty of low energy foods for relatively few calories.

Look at the example below

Strawberries and cream (140g)

Strawberries and cream (140g)

Berries, low-fat yogurt and a sprinkle of lower sugar granola (300g)

Berries, low-fat yogurt and a sprinkle of lower sugar granola (300g)

They are very different in size but actually both contain about the same number of calories! The difference is that the one on the left has a low energy density, while the one on the right has a high energy density. Basically, by choosing the lower energy density option, you get to eat a lot more food for the same number of calories! And fruit, low-fat yogurt and wholegrains, as well as many other low energy density foods, are recommended in healthy eating guidelines.

 

Which foods are lower in energy density?

Foods that have a lot of water or fibre are typically low in energy density, such as:

  • foods that are naturally high in water, such as fruit and vegetables
  • foods like pasta, rice and potatoes with skins that absorb water during cooking
  • vegetable-based dishes with added water such as soups and stews

Water in foods can add volume to the meal, helping you to feel fuller, without adding to the calories.

Foods with a higher energy density tend to include foods that are high in fat or sugars and have a low water content, for example biscuits, fried chips, fried chicken, fatty meats, sweet and savoury pastries, pies and cakes.

 

How can I reduce the energy density of my diet?

Cut the energy density of your diet by choosing:

Foods with high water content
Lower energy density foods include foods that are naturally high in water, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, foods like pasta, rice and pulses that absorb water during cooking and dishes with added water such as soups and stews.

Foods containing fibre
Our body cannot fully digest dietary fibre and so dietary fibre provides fewer calories per gram (only 2 kcal per gram) compared to carbohydrate, protein and fat. Choosing fibre-rich foods can help us feel fuller too. These are also great to include in your diet because eating plenty of fibre is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.

High-protein foods
High protein foods (such as lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pulses) may help decrease hunger and keep us fuller. For sustainability and health, it’s recommended not to eat too much red and processed meat.

Foods that are lower in fat
Reducing the amount of fat you add to dishes when cooking can also lower their energy density. Generally, if you lower the fat content of a recipe you can get a bigger portion for the same number of calories.

An important note - healthy foods with a higher energy density
Whilst it’s beneficial for weight control to see where you can make lower energy density food choices, there are some higher energy density foods that are a useful part of a balanced diet. It’s good to include some of these. These foods are rich in healthy fats:

  • Nuts, nut butters and seeds – unsalted, unsweetened nuts, seeds and nut butters can be a healthy snack or addition to curries and stir fries. As well as unsaturated (healthy) fats they contain fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
  • Oils for cooking and salads and spreads for bread – some unsaturated oils (like olive and rapeseed) should be included in a healthy, balanced diet but do measure out the amount you need carefully or use spray oils. You can also opt for reduced fat, unsaturated spreads rather than full-fat spreads.
  • Avocados – these have a high unsaturated (healthy) fat content compared to other fruit and vegetables. You can include avocados as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Aim for overall variety in your diet and include choices like nuts, seeds, avocado and oils like olive and rapeseed oil as they provide important nutrients. As these foods are more energy dense, being mindful of portion sizes  and frequency when choosing these foods means you can enjoy them while managing your weight.

 

The energy density approach

This approach focuses on what you can eat rather than what you can’t eat, encouraging low energy density foods like fruit, vegetables and pulses, as well as other foods important for a healthy, balanced diet such as wholegrains, good sources of protein and lower fat dairy, and you can still have a little indulgence, in moderation!

The energy density approach may help you make food choices that can help you feel full and satisfied, without counting calories.

When we eat a mindful approach may also help, avoiding distractions eating more slowly and enjoying your food.

Don’t forget there are other important healthy lifestyle to think about as well such as making sure we are not drinking too much alcohol, being active, getting good quality sleep.

Download the guide below to find out more

Eat more lose weight leaflet

Find out more about the energy density approach

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