Energy Density and the Foods You Eat

Various sorts of nuts
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Energy density is the amount of energy, as represented by the number of calories, in a specific weight of food. Energy-dense foods have a large number of calories per serving.

An example of a food with high energy density is ice cream because it has lots of calories from the sugar and fat that fit a small serving size. Spinach has low energy density because there are only a few calories in a whole plateful of raw spinach leaves.

Energy density is determined by the proportion of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), fiber, and water. Foods that contain large amounts of fiber and water have a lower energy density. Foods that are high in fat have a higher energy density.

Energy Dense Foods

Energy-dense foods are those that contain a high number of calories (energy) per gram. They are usually higher in fat and lower in water. Some examples of energy dense foods include starchy vegetables, thick sauces, cheese, nuts, and seeds, nut butter, butter, full fat dairy and fatty cuts of meat; and less nutrient dense foods like sweets, deep-fried foods, French fries, pasta, crackers, chips.

Some foods, like soups and beverages, can have either high or low energy density. Broth-based soups with vegetables typically have low energy density while creamed soups are energy-dense. Non-fat milk is less energy-dense than regular milk, and diet soda is less energy-dense than a sugary soft drink.

Low Energy Dense Foods

Foods with low energy density include high-fiber green and colorful vegetables. Watery foods like citrus fruits and melons tend to be less energy-dense, as well. Low-calorie foods often have a low energy density, but not always, so it's important to read Nutrition Facts labels so you know how many calories you getting every day.

The nice thing about foods with low energy density is that they often are nutrient-dense, which means they have a lot of nutrients per serving size. Many types of fruits, berries, and vegetables are low in calories, high in fiber, and contain lots of vitamins and minerals.

Weight Management

Weight management is ultimately about watching how many calories you take in versus how many calories you burn. When you fill-up on foods with low energy density, you'll feel satisfied while you take in fewer calories. Plan all your meals so they include foods with a low energy density that are also high in nutrients. Of course, the opposite is true, too.

If you eat mostly low energy-dense foods, you'll need a larger volume of food to fill you up, and as a result, you'll take in more calories. That's not ideal if you want to lose weight, but it may be helpful if you're trying to gain weight. If that's your situation, be sure to choose high energy-dense foods that are nutritious like avocados, nuts, and seeds rather than high-calorie nutrient-poor junk foods.

Healthy Eating Tips

  • Choose fresh berries for dessert: Berries are sweet and delicious so there's no reason to end a meal with a high-calorie dessert. But, if you really want some ice cream or cheesecake, carefully measure out and eat just one serving (look at the serving size on the package) to keep your calorie intake in check.
  • Load your plate with more vegetables: At least half of your plate should be covered with low-calorie fruits and vegetables. Leave a quarter of your plate for your protein source, and the remaining quarter can hold a serving of starchy foods like pasta, potatoes, or rice.
  • Serve more fruits and vegetables to your kids: Children who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to eat fewer highly energy-dense foods. If you have a child who's a ​picky eater, keep serving the veggies; sooner or later, they'll discover something they like.
  • Start with a simple garden salad or a bowl of clear soup: These dishes will fill you up before you dig into something more energy-dense like pasta, pizza, or another high-calorie entree. Leave off the heavy salad dressings and avoid creamed soups that are higher in calories.

Drink Plenty of Water

Water has zero calories and may help tide you over until your next meal, or at least until you can find a low energy density snack.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Low-Energy-Dense Foods and Weight Management: Cutting Calories While Controlling Hunger.

  2. Hill JO, Wyatt HR, Peters JC. Energy Balance and Obesity. Circulation. 2012;126(1):126-132. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.111.087213

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. ChooseMyPlate. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020

  4. Kowal-Connelly S. American Academy of Pediatrics. How Children Develop Unhealthy Food Preferences.

  5. Daniels MC, Popkin BM. Impact of water intake on energy intake and weight status: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(9):505-521. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00311.x

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.