When you reach for that afternoon snack, don’t just count calories — consider caloric density.
Scientifically speaking, caloric density is the number of calories contained in 1 gram of food. But what does that mean for your diet?
“There are two components that play into caloric density: water content and fiber content,” said Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. “Generally foods that are high in water and fiber are going to be lower in calorie density: fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes.”
Foods that are high in water and fiber also keep you feeling full.
“If you have an apple and you compare that to 2 ounces of potato chips — which are a very high calorie-density food — because of the water and fiber in the apple, you’ll feel just as full as if you ate 2 ounces of chips. But the chips have about five times the number of calories.”
Several diets, including the Pritikin Principle and the Okinawa Diet, are based on caloric density. The Okinawa Diet sets up a food pyramid with “heavyweight” foods at the top, to be eaten sparingly, and “featherweight” foods at the bottom, to be eaten freely. Heavyweights include full-fat cheeses, high-fat meats, such as bacon, and processed foods, such as corn chips and doughnuts. (Processing often strips out fiber and water.) Featherweights include fruits, vegetables, fat-free yogurt, water-based soups and tofu.
But high caloric density isn’t always a bad thing, said Gazzaniga-Moloo.
“Nuts and seeds and avocados, which have a very high calorie density, can still be included as part of a healthful diet because they contain fiber and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are hard to get in low-calorie dense foods,” she said.
So if you’re looking to pack in maximum nutrients with minimum calories and stave off hunger pangs, aim for a diet filled with low-calorie dense foods, sprinkled with some healthful high calorie dense choices.
“In a nutshell,” said Gazzaniga-Moloo, “it’s another measure that can help us identify healthful foods that should form the basis of our diets.”