Nutrient Dense Or Energy Dense Foods: Do You Know the Difference and How Important It Is to Your Overall Health?

— Written By Lethia Lee and last updated by Patricia Burch
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Energy density and nutrient density are important terms to understand when making food choices. Foods that are energy-dense contain a higher number of calories per serving, while foods that are nutrient-dense contain a higher level of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients with little or no added sugars or fats that raise calories. Think of the difference between potato chips and plain baked potato, or sweetened yogurt and plain yogurt, or creamed spinach and steamed spinach. Adding fat or sugar to foods increases the calorie content, making these foods more energy-dense.

Choosing nutrient-dense foods more often allow us to consume a higher number of essential vitamins and minerals that promote good health, while avoiding consuming too many calories that can lead to overweight or obesity. Daily calorie levels between 1,200 and 1,800, which is 10% of the total calories needed. By the time you eat all the fruit, vegetables, whole grains and protein foods your body needs for optimum health, there are only 120-180 calories left over each day for sugars and fat for people who need 1,200 to 1,800 calories per day. If we choose energy-dense versions of these foods, for example eating sweetened canned fruit, vegetables with extra butter or cheese, processed grains like French fries instead of potatoes, and higher-fat protein foods like sausage or deli meats, then we will consume far more calories than we need –120-180 calories don’t go very far, 12 ounces of regular soda contains 150 calories all from sugar, while 1 ounce of potato chips contains 155 calories primarily from fat. Most nutrient-dense foods, on the other hand, are low in calories.

A recent meta-analysis of 13 experimental and observational studies that looks at over 3600 people age 28 to 66 by years showed a significant association between low- energy

density – foods and body weight. In other words, people who ate more nutrient-dense foods that are naturally low in calories — foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fat-free dairy products and lean sources of protein weighed less than people who consumed more foods that are higher in calories and lower in nutrients.

Another benefit of nutrient-dense foods is that they are often high in water and fiber, which increases their volume without increasing calories. For example, compare the volume of 100 calories and a raw apple to 100 calories of apple juice. About 2 cups of sliced raw apples contains 100 calories, while 1 cup of unsweetened apple juice 113 calories. You’ll feel more satisfied by eating the apples instead of drinking the juice because the total volume of food that we consume is the primary reason for satiety. We can eat a larger volume of low- energy, nutrient-dense foods and lose weight feeling satisfied.

Tips to reduce energy density and increase the nutrient of your food choices:

  1. Start lunch or dinner meals with a fresh vegetable salad to help start to feel Use the least amount of salad dressing as possible.
  2. Eat a piece of fruit before a meal and you’ll consume fewer calories overall during the meal.
  3. Choose a broth-based vegetable soup as part of your meal because the extra liquid in the broth, combined with the fiber in the vegetable increases satiety with very few calories.
  4. When you want something sweet, reach for fresh fruit like a handful of grapes or small oranges. Fruit contains both water and fiber and is low-energy-density, high- nutrient- density food that contain a variety of healthful nutrients including fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that promote health with 60- 80 calories per serving.
  5. Choose less processed foods like brown rice instead of white rice, whole grain bread instead of white bread, whole-grain breakfast cereal instead of processed cereal.
  6. Instead of purchasing yogurt that contains more sugar and calories, choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit.

If you have any questions concerning Nutrient Dense Or Energy Dense Foods contact Lethia Lee at  910-592-7161 or