Lowering Your Diet’s Caloric Density: Eat More + Weigh Less

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The ideal weight loss program satisfies hunger, reduces calories below what is needed and meets nutritional needs. What if you could eat the same or more, lose weight and not be hungry? If you choose the right foods you can eat more for the same or fewer calories.

Foods that are high-calorie-dense (also called energy-dense) have a high concentration of calories per bite.  In low-calorie-dense food, the calories are diluted by water and often fiber, so there are fewer calories in the same size bite. This is very helpful if you are trying to lose or maintain weight. Vegetables and fruits tend to be low in calorie density, so filling your plate with these foods can help you lose weight while minimizing feelings of hunger.

Several observational studies suggest that there is a relationship between eating a calorically dense diet and obesity. For example, one study found that normal weight individuals consumed diets that were lower in calorie density than obese individuals.

Experimental studies concentrating on the foods people typically eat have found that calorie density is related to calorie intake and the amount of food consumed. A study by Ledikwe and colleagues found that people who reported eating a lower-calorie-dense diet ate fewer calories yet consumed more food by weight than people who ate a higher calorie-dense diet. The outcomes from these studies show that a diet low in calorie density lets people decrease their calorie intake without decreasing the amount of food they consume.

Studies have also shown that calorie intake can be reduced without increasing feelings of hunger. In one of these studies by Rolls et al., participants were given a standard lunch on different occasions preceded each time with either a first-course salad of either low or high calorie density or by no salad. Participants ate fewer calories when the meal began with the lower-calorie-dense salad and they stated feeling just as full as those who had no first-course salad or had a salad that was higher in energy density.

In yet another study by Rolls, researchers found that consumption of a low-calorie-dense soup as a first course in a meal maintained satiety while reducing calorie intake. Eating the soup significantly increased the feeling of fullness and reduced the participants’ hunger and calorie intake at the subsequent meal.

Studies have shown that most people eat the same weight of food at meals; if that amount is lower in calories, you’ll still feel full. Let’s say you usually take 30 bites of food before feeling full. If you choose caloric-dense foods, those 30 bites will deliver a large amount of calories before you feel satisfied.  If you choose low-calorie-dense foods, the same 40 bites will deliver fewer calories but the same sense of satisfaction. This lowers the calorie intake without reducing the weight of food you eat.

So, if you learn how to lower the overall caloric density of the foods you eat, you will feel full and satisfied. Lowering your diet’s overall caloric density, as part of an integrated program of exercise and behavioral management, can result in significant weight loss that is sustained over time.

Refer to the photo at the top depicting caloric density of various food groups. The lowest are: Vegetables, Fruits, Unprocessed starches, i.e., grains, Legumes. If you focus your food choices around those you will naturally be eating a lower caloric density diet than if you focus your food choices around animal meat, whole processed starches. i.e., whole grain crackers, tortillas, etc., sugars, processed junk food, large volume oil nuts and oils.

Foods vary in calorie density. For the same calories, you can eat 20 times as much tomato by weight as pretzels. One and a half fresh oranges has about 100 calories, and three pretzel rods also have 100 calories. The oranges weigh 200 grams and the pretzels weigh 25 grams, so the oranges have a lower calorie density than the pretzels. You get more food by eating the oranges, and more nutrition too.

You can calculate the calorie density of foods by dividing the calories by the grams

Calories/Grams = Calorie Density

A calorie provides energy that fuels your body and a gram is a measure of weight and about the weight of half a dime.

Cabbage provides 64 calories per pound and Oil provides 4000 calories per pound.

An example of food with high calorie density is ice cream. It’s calories come from the caloric-dense sugar and the high-fat calorie-rich cream. A one-half cup or 101 grams of the product contains 260 calories. The calorie density of the ice cream may be quantified as 260 calories/101 grams or 2.6 calories per gram).

In contrast to the high calorie dense ice cream, spinach has low energy density of .23 calories per gram. There’s only a few calories in a whole plateful of raw spinach leaves.

Another way to look at it, is in volume. One cup of butter has 1628 calories but one cup of spinach has 7 calories.


Left: 2 cups cooked pasta=400 calories Right: 2 cups spiralized cooked zucchini=60 calories


1 cup cooked pasta and 1 cup cooked zucchini = 260 calories. Same volume as 400 calories of cooked pasta.

Take a look at the picture. One measuring cup contains 2 cups of cooked pasta that has 400 calories. The other cup contains 2 cups of cooked “noodles” made of spiralized zucchini. This cup of zucchini has 60 calories. You can eat the whole 2 cup serving of either or what if you really wanted some pasta but want to reduce the caloric-density of your meals so you can eat more and feel full? Mix the two together as I did in the second photo. I mixed 1 cup of pasta with 1 cup of zucchini for a 260 calorie lunch instead of a 400 calorie lunch of all pasta. I also increased the nutrient content of my lunch. And it truly tasted delicious. And I have some leftovers for dinner that I plan on serving with a piece of salmon.

See what I mean? Vegetables and fruits tend to be low in energy density, so filling your plate with these foods can help you lose weight while minimizing feelings of hunger.

This is the spiralizer tool I use to make my vegetable “noodles”. I’ve tried them all and this one is a winner and an Amazon Choice!

Foods like ice cream that are high in fat, typically are calorie-dense because fat has twice as many calories as either carbohydrates or fat. A high-fat diet promotes weight gain because it’s high in calorie density. A gram of fat has 9 calories and a gram of fat or protein provides 4 calories.

Portion size matters: 1 cup “regular” ice cream 360 calories and 20 grams fat 1/2 cup 180 calories and 10 grams

You can decrease your portion size or you can decrease the AMOUNT of calorie-dense fat food and INCREASE the low-caloric dense foods. If the half-cup portion of ice cream seems small, add some fresh raspberries. Another option would be to switch to reduced fat ice cream (Dryer’s Churned) or do what I do, have a half cup portion of Dryer’s Churned AND add the raspberries.

Decreasing the amount of calorie-dense fat will decrease the overall calories of your meal too. Limit the high-fat, calorically-dense condiments and foods that you eat and this will lower the overall calories that you eat. Instead of butter and sour cream on your potato, choose only one, or use low-fat sour cream or salsa. Instead of a cream sauce, order a tomato sauce based one. If you still want to enjoy butter on your bread once in a while, try using less. Switch from 2% milk to skim and you’ll save 40 calories from the fat alone. Same volume of milk, fewer calories. And, yes, you will get used to the taste especially when you start enjoying your new thinner body.


The granola has 453 calories versus the Kashi Cinnamon Harvest which has 185. The granola is more calorically dense in part because it has more fat, 12.5 grams versus 1 gram in the Cinnamon Harvest.

To lower the calorie density of your diet, eat more foods that are high in water and/or fiber, including cooked grains, fruits, vegetables, and broth based soups. The water and fiber in vegetables, fruits and whole grains plays a crucial role in controlling hunger.

I also recommend seafood, fish, chicken breast, lean meats, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products are also on the menu. Because of its protein content, milk, even nonfat, helps people feel full and thus eat less. And choose whole-grain pasta, breads, and cereals; their fiber makes them more filling.

Fruits and vegetables are a good choice because not only do they have a low-caloric density, they are also nutrient-dense, which means they have a lot of nutrients per serving.

A nutrient-dense food provides a relatively high amount of healthy nutrients and a rather low amount of calories per gram. For example, one-half cup of strawberries weighs 152 grams and provides 49 calories. The strawberries provide only 0.3 calories per gram (49 calories/152 grams) of food, not to mention, 149% of the recommended daily value of vitamin-C and 3 grams of fiber!

When choosing fruits, opt for those that are fresh or frozen instead of fruit juices or dried fruit, which are higher in sugar and thus higher in calories per gram. Snack on grapes instead of raisins. A 100-calorie serving of raisins is only one-quarter cup; but a 100-calorie serving of grapes is nearly two cups. It’s obvious which is going to make you feel fuller.

Calorie dense foods: High fat red meat, processed meats, fatty dairy products, and processed foods high in fat and sugar. Processed snack foods, candy, packaged snack foods, cakes, cookies and candies.  Traditional fast foods such as cheeseburgers, fried chicken, and French fries and bakery items. 

High-calorie density food examples:  Prime rib has about 3.9 calories per gram. Salami 4.3 calories per gram. Cheesecake 3.2 calories per gram Butter 7.2 calories per gram. Cheddar cheese 4.1 calories per gram. 

Nutrient-low-calorie-dense foods: Most fruits, non-starchy vegetables, air-popped popcorn, broth-based soups, fat-free dairy products, chicken, pork tenderloin, seafood, fish and beans. High fiber foods nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, lettuce and carrots, are lower in energy density than starchy vegetables, like potatoes, peas and corn. Whole grains like oatmeal, air-popped popcorn, whole wheat and brown rice, and foods with lots of added water, such as soups. Lower fat foods, including pasta, noodles, breakfast cereals and yogurt, also tend to have a lower energy density.

Low-calorie density food examples: Peaches have .36 calories per gram. Apples .49 calories per gram. Carrots .11 calories per gram, Air-popped Popcorn 3.8 calories per gram (but you get a lot of food volume for the weight)

Energy and nutrient-dense foods: Dried fruits, fatty-fish, nuts, seeds, and nut butters. Starchy vegetables and fruits such as peas, corn, and avocados. Olive oil-based salad dressings. Whole wheat bread and other whole grains.

Energy and nutrient-dense foods examples: Dates have 2.8 calories per gram, Avocados 1.6 calories per gram, Vinaigrette Salad Dressing 2.95 calories per gram, Corn 3.6 calories per gram.

You don’t have to change your entire diet. By eating more meals and snacks that are lower in calorie density, you can still enjoy reasonable portions of your favorite calorie-dense foods whole controlling calories. If you continue to eat the typical volume of food you eat, yet lower the calories in each portion, you’ll consume fewer calories and feel just as full. If you choose the right foods you can eat more for the same calories.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables to help you minimize your portions of foods higher in calorie density while still getting enough to eat so you feel full.

Add more vegetables to soups, stews, omelets, lasagna, chili and other main dishes to lower the energy density of the whole dish. Try using spiralized or shredded zucchini, spinach, diced green pepper, broccoli, chopped onion, diced carrots, diced mushrooms, tomatoes, and dark leafy greens.

ice cream

SAME VOLUME OF FOOD Left: 1/2 cup low-fat ice cream and 1/2 cup berries = 164 calories Right: 1 cup regular ice cream = 400 calories

Instead of having 1 cup of ice cream for dessert, have ½ cup of reduced-fat ice cream topped with ½ cup of fruit. Click link to see more.

Use lower fat meat and cheese or use less of the higher fat ingredients.

Exchange crackers, pretzels, and chips with carrot sticks and bell pepper strips to serve with your favorite salsa, hummus or other dip.

Try having a big portion of a low-calorie salad, soup or fruit at the beginning of the meal.

Making a cheese appetizer tray? Instead of salami use grapes.

Take fruit and vegetables with you for snacks. This will help you avoid the temptation of turning to the vending machine for processed foods when you get hungry.

Choose lower fat protein. For instance, instead of a rib eye (2.9 calories per gram) choose cod (.82). Instead of bacon (5.4 calories per gram) choose ham (2.0).


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