Logo for N.C. Cooperative Extension N.C. Cooperative Extension Homepage

Energy Dense Foods

What does the term “energy density” mean, and why are so many nutritionists beginning to use it?

Energy density relates to the number of calories per unit of measure – whether that unit is a gram, an ounce, or a “bite”. Foods that are energy dense have a high concentration of calories per bite. In low energy dense food, the calories are diluted by water and often fiber, so there are fewer calories in the same size bite.If you are trying to lose or maintain weight, understanding energy density can be useful. Let’s say you usually take 20 bites of food before feeling full.If you choose energy dense foods, those 20 bites will deliver a hefty load of calories before you feel satisfied. If you choose low energy dense foods, the same 20 bites will deliver fewer calories but the same sense of satisfaction.

Energy dense foods are often processed foods. Food processors need products that ship well, have a long shelf life, are easy to prepare and entice with an intense taste. To produce these characteristics, they often dry out foods, pulverize or remove fiber, cook foods in fat, and/or add large amounts of sugar or fat. Consider what happens to a potato to turn it into a potato chip.

Common processed foods that are energy dense are packaged snack foods, frosted cakes with filling, cookies and candies. Traditional fast foods such as cheeseburgers, fried chicken, and French fries and bakery items such as doughnuts are famous for their energy density.

Low energy dense foods, in contrast, tend to be moist or juicy. They often have a high percentage of fiber, which retains their natural water. Most vegetables, fruits and legumes are examples of low energy dense foods. Other plant foods like nuts and dried fruit, however, are energy dense. Nuts are loaded with healthy fat, but even healthy fat has lots of calories per bite. Therefore, nutritionists suggest we eat these foods in moderation.

The general recommendation is that Americans should stop making high fat meats, fatty dairy products, and processed foods high in fat and sugar the mainstay of their diet. Tip the balance scales in the other direction by eating more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Lean meats and fat-free dairy product are also part of a healthy diet. Reduce the amount of high-fat cheeses and dressings, processed meats, and processed snack foods.

Page Last Updated: 11 months ago
Was the information on this page helpful? Yes check No close