low and high energy density foods to fine-tune your nutrition

This article looks at energy density and how you can use it to fine-tune your diet to reach your goals.

What is energy density?

Energy density, a measure of the calories in a given weight of food, is the is the third component of Nutrient Optimiser algorithm that you can use once you have nutrient density and insulin load dialled in,

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It makes sense intuitively that bulky food full of water and fibre will help you to feel full, even though they don’t provide a lot of energy.

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Imagine if all you had to eat were non-starchy, fibrous vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, and celery.  You would struggle to get enough energy.

Your stomach can only hold so much.

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However, we gravitate to higher energy density foods to ensure we get the energy we need.

We get a dopamine hit from energy-dense foods helps to ensure our survival a species.  This drove us to hunt down, dig up or fight with bees to get energy-dense foods.

However today, in a world of engineered foods, full of refined carbs and added fats, lower energy density foods may be helpful to reverse engineer your food environment if you are trying to lose weight.

Who should consider lower energy density foods?

Focusing on lower energy density foods only needs to be a priority once you are eating nutrient dense foods and have stabilised your blood sugars. People who are obese and insulin resistant often don’t do well with only celery, broccoli, mushrooms, grapefruit and lettuce to eat.  Hunger and appetite often win in the long run.

While insulin resistant people often have plenty of stored body fat, their insulin levels are still very high.  They may struggle to access their stored body fat and avoid the cravings driven by the blood sugar rollercoaster.  A nutrient dense low carb diet with ‘fat to satiety’ can help these people stabilise their blood sugars without hunger.

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Focusing on more nutritious foods that stabilise blood sugars is enough to help many people lose some weight.  However, many find that their weight loss stalls after a while when using a ‘fat to satiety’ approach.  Not fearing fat may have helped them start their journey, but ramping up their fat intake to higher and higher levels often doesn’t achieve the desired results.

At this point, lower energy density foods and meals can be useful to help take the next step to lose more body fat once your blood sugars are stable and you are in the habit of eating nutritious food.  An extreme version of this approach is the Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) as detailed in Lyle McDonald’s Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and this article.

In short, the PSMF is often used by bodybuilders or weight loss clinics to provide the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and protein necessary with the minimum amount of calories to prevent loss of muscle mass and prevent cravings in dieting.

Low energy density foods

If you’re interested in trying out a lower energy density approach, the nutrient dense low energy density foods listed below will provide plenty of nutrients without too much energy.

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Focusing on these foods will allow you to get all the nutrients you need without too much energy and be able to sustain a long-term energy deficit without excessive cravings.  This chart shows how these foods stack up in terms of nutrients compared to the average of all foods in the USDA database.

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Higher energy density foods

Alternatively, we can use energy density parameter to identify foods with a higher energy density to fuel your athletic endeavours or endurance event without having to resort to energy gels which will provide fast digesting energy but not a lot of nutrition.

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The list of food will provide you with more energy while still being nutrient dense.  This list contains more nuts, seeds, dairy and fattier cuts of meat.

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As shown in this chart, these high energy density foods are not as nutrient dense as the lower energy density foods, however, they are still an improvement compared to the average of all of the food in the USDA database.

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Energy density and satiety

Satiety is complex and involves more than just eating foods that are bulkier.   Ensuring your diet contains enough protein (the most satiating macronutrient) and micronutrients (to avoid cravings), along with stabilising swings in your blood sugar (with a lower insulin load diet) are all pieces of the satiety puzzle.

One of the most interesting pieces of research into satiety is a 1995 paper by Susanne Holt and colleagues, A satiety index of common foods.[3]  This study fed participants 1000 kJ (239 calories) of various foods and looked at how much people ate at a subsequent meal.  The study found that how much our stomach stretches is a significant factor in determining how satiating a particular food is.

The chart below shows SELFNutritionData.com‘s analysis of the data from the 1995 paper which they used to develop their Fullness Factor[4].  This regression analysis shows that satiety per calorie tends to be positively correlated with:

  1. lower energy density (i.e. calories per 100g of food),
  2. higher protein content,
  3. higher fibre, and
  4. lower fat.

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The most energy dense foods

The table below shows the energy density (i.e. calories per 100 g) of a range of foods and their weight per 500 calories.

food calories / 100g weight / 500 calories (g)
mushrooms 15 3333
celery 16 3125
broccoli 31 1613
oranges 47 1064
apples 65 769
fish 168 298
steak 250 200
Mars Bar 451 111
cookies 476 105
chips 1242 40
oil 1879 27

You might be able to eat more at dinner if you had a 40 g of chips for lunch compared to three kilograms of mushrooms or celery even though they both contain the same amount of energy.

Show me the data!

For those who like to see the numbers, the table below shows the energy density, nutrient density, macros and % insulinogenic of a range of food lists that we can quantify.  The list is sorted from the lowest energy density to the highest energy density.

  • The energy density of real food can range from 30 to 450 calories per 100 grams.
  • The lowest and highest energy density foods are not necessarily the most nutrient dense, however, nutrient dense food tends to have a lower energy density.
  • The foods that contain very high levels of fat will be energy dense and not necessarily as nutritious on a calorie for calorie basis.
  • The weight loss approaches have a lower energy density.  However, if you are trying to maintain weight or are very active you can still get a fairly nutritious outcome with higher energy approach.
approach nutrient density score density (cals/100g) protein (%) fat (%) net carbs(%) insulinogenic (%)
lowest energy density 61 30 20 10 52 63
weight loss (insulin sensitive) 93 83 42 17 26 50
weight loss (insulin resistant) 92 104 41 25 19 42
highest fibre foods 64 105 20 9 42 53
the most nutritious foods 93 107 43 18 24 49
highest protein foods 57 131 77 21 2 45
maintenance 90 240 40 25 26 48
energy dense foods for athletes 87 351 34 36 21 40
lowest fibre foods 41 404 20 76 3 14
well formulated ketogenic 47 426 16 73 4 13
most ketogenic foods 30 467 15 80 3 11

When do we use energy density?

The table below shows when Nutrient Optimiser uses energy density diet based on your blood glucose levels and waist to height ratio.

approach average blood sugar HbA1c (%) waist : height ratio energy density
(mg/dL) (mmol/L)
weight loss (insulin resistant) 100 – 108 5.4 – 6.0 5.0 – 5.4% > 0.5 lower
weight loss (insulin sensitive) < 97 < 5.4 < 5.0% > 0.5 lower
Bodybuilder (bulking) < 97 < 5.4 < 5.0% < 0.5 higher
endurance athlete < 97 < 5.4 < 5.0% < 0.5 higher

If you haven’t yet, make sure you head over to the Nutrient Optimiser get your free report complete which includes a list of foods and meals tailored to your goals.

 

Refereences

[1] https://betterdoctor.com/health/the-ironman-who-runs-on-fat-not-sugar/

[2] https://www.fxmedicine.com.au/content/counteracting-insulin-resistance-low-carb-high-fat-diet-prof-tim-noakes

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104

[4] http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/fullness-factor

  • Bill Robinson says:

    Marty:

    I cannot parse this sentence:

    While food with more energy from help us stabilise our blood sugars (which is beneficial for satiety), higher fat foods do tend be less satiating per calorie.

  • Bill Robinson says:

    food calories / 100g weight / 500 calories (g)
    mushrooms 15 3333
    celery 16 3125
    broccoli 31 1613
    oranges 47 1064
    apples 65 769
    ling fish 168 298
    steak 250 200
    Mars Bar 451 111
    cookies 476 105
    chips 1242 40
    olive oil 1879 27

    How much fat is on that steak? See, this is why doing
    nutrition research is an endless pit.

  • Bill Robinson says:

    “…people who are looking to reduce their energy intake to lose weight…”

    That’s not how it works. See Sam Feltham’s 5000 calorie/day experiments.

    • Mattias says:

      Sure, when trying to eat excess weight. Eating 5000 kcal/day with sugar (high insulin) and fat will get you fatter than fat and protein (low insulin). But if Sam Felton would have done a kcal restrictive experiment, eating 2000 kcal instead. I’m sure he would have lost weight even if he had a higher insulin load! Would be an interesting experiment though…

  • Hi there, great piece, do you have the correct link to reference 1.?

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