Energy density and nutrient density are two important terms to understand when making food choices.

Energy (or calorie) dense foods contain a higher number of calories per serving.

Nutrient dense foods 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 a 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.

bowl of potatoes

Most nutrient-dense foods are low in calories.

Choosing nutrient-dense foods more often allows you to consume a higher number of essential vitamins and minerals that promote good health, while avoiding too many calories that can lead to overweight or obesity.

Studies show that people who eat more nutrient-dense foods that are naturally low in calories (foods like fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, fat-free dairy products and lean sources of protein) weigh 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 the volume without increasing calories. As a result, you can eat a larger volume of low-energy, nutrient-dense foods and lose weight while feeling satisfied.

Tips to reduce energy density and increase nutrient density:

1. Start lunch or dinner meals with a fresh vegetable salad to help you start to feel fuller. Use the least amount of salad dressing as possible. Dressing typically contains 100 calories or more per tablespoon — that’s the same number of calories in 14 cups of lettuce.

2. Eat a piece of fruit before a meal and you’ll consume fewer calories overall during the meal. One study showed that eating a whole apple before lunch reduced calories consumed at that meal by 15% compared to eating applesauce or drinking apple juice before 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 vegetables, increases satiety with very few calories. One study showed that participants consumed 26% fewer calories and rated themselves as feeling fuller after eating a broth-based soup at the beginning of a lunch meal.

4. When you want something sweet, reach for fresh fruit like a handful of grapes or a small orange. Fruit contains both water and fiber making it a low-energy-density, high-nutrient-density food that contains a variety of nutrients including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that promote health with only 60-80 calories per serving.

5. Choose less processed foods like brown rice instead of white rice, whole grain bread instead of white bread, or whole grain breakfast cereal instead of a processed cereal. Whole grain foods contain more fiber, which helps us feel more satisfied after eating. They also contain more of the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.

6. Instead of purchasing sweetened yogurt that contains more sugar and calories, choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit.

7. Replace energy-dense potato chips with nutrient-dense, low-calorie crunchy raw vegetables that are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Some fast food restaurants, such as Subway and McDonald’s, offer apple slices instead of chips or French fries to make choosing fruit easier.

Important take-away

Take responsibility for your food choices and eat to feel well.

Don’t get caught up in counting calories in a futile attempt to follow a strict weight loss diet.  Instead, use your knowledge of nutrient density to choose healthy foods most of the time and then, eat just enough by paying attention to your body’s signals of hunger and satisfaction.

Lorraine Matthews-Antosiewicz, MS, RD

Reprinted with permission from

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