Navigating weight management: the significance of energy density 

Energy density refers to the amount of energy, or calories in a particular weight of food, usually per gram. Certain foods have a high energy density, whereas others—typically those high in water and fibre—have a lower energy content per gram. Foods with a lower energy density, such fruits, vegetables, and soups made with broth, typically contain a lot of water, a lot of fibre, and not a lot of fat. Water adds weight but not energy to food, hence its energy density, at 0 kcal/g, reduces the energy density of food. Moreover, fibre has an energy density of only 1.5–2.5 kcal/g. On the other hand, fat has the highest energy density of any macronutrient (9 kcal/g), giving over twice as many calories as either protein or carbs (4 kcal/g). 

Therefore, consuming foods lower in energy density will allow for a greater volume of food compared to foods dense in calories. This is quite straight forward when looking at a meal visually, if we include lots of vegetables, lean protein and a lower amount of fat, it will be larger than a meal higher in fat, with less high water/fibre foods such as vegetables. Stubbs et al. (1995) showed that when individuals consumed a diet that contained either 20%, 40% or 60% fat and could eat ad-libitum (as much as desired), the weight of each meal was similar but the total calories consumed were vastly different, with the higher fat content group consuming many more calories than the other groups, resulting in weight gain. 

It has also been shown there is a relationship between consuming diets high in energy density and obesity (Ledikwe et al., 2006). Along with this, interventions to lose weight often include increasing the amount of low energy dense foods in a person’s diet, such as lean protein, fruits, vegetables and fibrous carbohydrates. So, with this information, how can we manipulate energy density in our diet without completing changing the ingredients or taste of our foods? Small, subtle changes can be made without altering the taste too much. For example, when looking at energy dense foods such as pizzas, pasta dishes or pies, decreasing fat content through substitution of full fat cheese with reduced fat cheese may be used, or if adding in other ingredients to still maintain the creaminess of the dish e.g. substituting cheese for a smaller amount of cream cheese and some milk. When using meat as part of a meal, using a leaner cut will also decrease the energy density as less fat will be consumed e.g. choosing 5% lean beef mince over 20% beef mince – the weight and protein content will be similar, but calorie content is vastly different. Modifying our food choices in this way can lead to healthier eating patterns to be more in line with dietary guidelines for health.

To conclude, to navigate weight management, it is important to be mindful of the energy density of foods. Increasing the intake of high water foods, vegetables, fruits, soups and whole grains will provide a lower amount of calories while helping to satisfy our appetite and keep us fuller for longer. Limiting the intake of energy dense foods such as alcohol, high fat foods and foods with low moisture content will also allow us to manage our calorie intake in order to not excessively overconsume calories, which over time will result in fat gain and thus will not be conducive to our health in most circumstances.

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Stubbs, R. J., Habron, C. G., Murgatroyd, P. R., & Prentice, A. M. (1995). Covert manipulation of dietary fat and energy density: effect on substrate flux and food intake in men eating ad libitum. Am J Clin Nutr, 62, 316-329

Ledikwe, J.H., Blanck, H.M., Kettel Khan, L., Serdula, M.K., Seymour, J.D., Tohill, B.C. and Rolls, B.J. (2006) Dietary energy density is associated with energy intake and weight status in US adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition83(6), pp.1362-1368.

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