Don't Be Dense About Your Food Density

Have you ever decided to cut back on calories, but couldn’t deal with the hunger? I feel your pain! (Literally!) I do not like being hungry, and I would bet that most of you don’t either. The good news is that there is a way to eat less calories while still feeling full! It all comes down to energy-dense versus nutrient-dense foods.


An energy-dense food is a food that contains lots of calories but very few vitamins and minerals. On the other hand, a nutrient-dense food contains lots of vitamins and minerals with much fewer calories.1 The CDC expands this definition by describing energy density as the amount of calories in a given that weight of food.2


Unfortunately there isn’t a clear cut-off for which foods are nutrient dense and which foods are energy dense. It is more like a sliding scale. If you think of a basic food, like corn, you can have plain steamed corn; corn on the cob with butter, salt, and pepper; or creamed corn. Each of these involves the same basic food group, but the steamed corn would be higher on the nutrient dense side of the scale and the creamed corn would be closer to the energy dense side of the scale. In the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, nutrient-dense foods are described as “all vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared without adding solid fats or sugars.3”


Because energy density is how many calories/weight unit are available in a food, people consuming the same weight of low energy-dense food as someone consuming a high energy-dense food would be taking in fewer calories. Studies have found that people will eat the same weight of food, regardless of the energy density. So eating lower energy-dense foods will allow you to decrease your total energy (calorie) intake while still getting the portion size you like.4


Beyond cutting back on calories by eating less energy-dense foods, eating more nutrient-dense foods is also very important to keep in mind while planning meals. Recent studies and reports have found that many people are overweight or obese but are actually undernourished!1 How could this be possible? Many foods that are in the typical “American diet” have a high energy density but very few nutrients. These same foods, while filling for a little while, do not satiate a person for long. This causes more frequent eating of high caloric foods, without getting adequate nutrition.


One study that looked at hunger ratings of individuals before and after starting a nutrient dense diet found that while eating a nutrient dense diet, individuals experienced hunger less often and when they were hungry, it wasn’t unpleasant. With adequate nutrients in their diets, individuals could go longer without feeling the desire to eat or experiencing uncomfortable hunger.5


So if you’re someone who wants to cut back on calories, but hates going hungry, simply up the nutrient density of your food while decreasing the energy density and you’ll feel full longer while eating less calories. And if you make sure to eat nutrient dense foods from each of the food groups, you can be confidant you’re getting the nutrients you need to keep your body healthy.3

It might take some adjusting, but by eating foods higher in nutrient density and lower in energy density, you’ll feel better and stay happier along your path to a healthier you.



1. Pennington, J., Kandiah, J., Nicklas, T., Pitman, S., & Stitzel, K. (2007). Practice paper of the American dietetic association: nutrient density: meeting nutrient goals within calorie needs.Journal of the American Dietetic Association,107(5), 860.



4. Pérez-Escamilla, R., Obbagy, J. E., Altman, J. M., Essery, E. V., McGrane, M. M., Wong, Y. P., ... & Williams, C. L. (2012). Dietary energy density and body weight in adults and children: a systematic review.Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,112(5), 671-684.

5. Fuhrman, J., Sarter, B., Glaser, D., & Acocella, S. (2010). Changing perceptions of hunger on a high nutrient density diet.Nutrition journal,9(1), 1.