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Maintaining a healthy weight may protect us from chronic disease and lengthen our lives.

And for decades, we have been taught that counting calories is the best way to control our weight and improve our health.

But for all its popularity, calorie counting does not really work. Despite widespread use, almost 70 percent of Americans are overweight.

The problem with calorie-counting diets is that they focus solely on calories while ignoring the nutritional value or satiability of your food.

And any diet that lacks nutrients or leaves you hungry will be unsustainable in the long run.

But there is a better way!

An efficient, easy weight management concept called energy density.

The beauty of energy density is that you can lose weight while eating a highly nutritious diet that also fills you up.

Let me explain.

What Is Energy Density?

Energy density is the amount of energy (or calories) contained in a particular weight of food.

Energy density is presented as the number of calories per gram: kcal/g or, for countries that use the International System of Units, kJ/g.

A high-energy dense food has a large amount of energy for a given weight while a low-energy-dense food will contain far less energy for the same weight.

The energy density of any food will depend on its macronutrients.

The more water and fiber in a food, the lower its energy density. The more fat in a food, the higher its energy density.

Water’s energy density is 0 kcal/gram so it contributes to a food’s weight but not to its energy density. Fiber, with an energy density of 1.5–2.5 kcal/gram, will also lower the energy density of any food in which it is present.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is fat. With an energy density of 9 kcal/gram, it has twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates or proteins (which are 4 kcal/gram).

Whole fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are all in the lower end of energy density because they often contain high water content, lots of fiber and/or little fat.

Energy Density and Weight Management

Research shows that people tend to eat a consistent weight of food every day—somewhere between 3–5 pounds. And this is true regardless of the food’s energy density.

If the weight of food you consume daily remains constant, it stands to reason that if you obtain that weight through foods lower in energy density, then you will lose weight.

By applying the principle of energy density, you can substantially reduce your caloric intake without cutting portions.

To achieve this, simply substitute high-energy dense foods that contain added fats and/or sugar with low-energy dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

To lose weight while following a plant-based diet, keep the high-energy dense whole fat foods (e.g. nuts and seeds) to a minimum (1 serving per day) or omit them entirely.

The only exception to this rule is ground flaxseed, which you should consume every day to obtain essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Finding Energy Density Balance

A good example of how to achieve an ideal energy density balance in a meal is discussed in our blog post How to Build the Perfect Salad.

The salad example is important because it illustrates that a whole food, plant-based diet is not a fruit- and veggie-only diet.

While high in nutrition, eating only vegetables will never completely satiate you.

In order to feel full, you must balance out your veggies with higher energy dense foods.

By combining foods that are low in energy density— like leafy, cruciferous, and non-starchy vegetables, with those that are slightly higher in energy—e.g. starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and seeds and nuts, you can enjoy a nutritious meal that satiates but will not make you gain weight.

Balancing the energy density of your meals will get you the best of all worlds—a satisfying, health-promoting diet that still allows you to lose the weight you want!

The Four Foods Chart

We have developed a tool called The Four Foods Chart to help you achieve the right energy density balance in your diet depending on your goals.

The basic principle of the chart is simple: as you move around the wheel from green to orange to red (pink), the energy density of foods increases. Using the chart, you can select the foods that deliver the right balance of energy density (and satiety) to meet your weight and health goals.

There are two types of food you will NOT see on the wheel or chart.

The first are mushrooms, which are not included because they are fungi, not plants. Nevertheless, the energy density of mushrooms falls in the lower end of the first category, i.e. vegetables at 22 kcal/100g.

The second food that is missing is avocados. A whole plant food, the avocado is high in fat. For that reason, while technically a fruit, its energy density is situated at the higher end of the third category, i.e. starches at 140 kcal/100g.

The Grey Zone

The Four Foods Chart includes non-whole plant foods as well.

The reason they appear on the Chart is because, at the beginning of your plant-based journey, it is possible that you will be eating a few ‘transition’ foods, such as meat and dairy alternatives, grain-based foods, sugars, and oil.

They provide a bridge between your old way of eating and your new whole food, plant-based diet, as we explained in our article, The 5 Phases of The Plant-Based Journey.

All of these non-whole and/or processed foods are depicted on the bottom of the Chart, outside the ‘whole foods wheel.’

Please remember that while the word ‘processing’ has a negative reputation, minimally processed foods such as SOS-free sprouted grain tortillas or whole-wheat bread may be integrated into your diet, even in Phases 4 and 5 of your journey.

To understand how foods in the ‘grey’ zone may affect your weight, consider the following:

  • If you eat 100 grams (3.5 oz) of wheat berries, an intact whole grain, you will be in the orange category, where energy density varies between 71–172 kcal.
  • If you eat a food made from whole-wheat flour (like bread), you will fall in the energy density range of grain-based foods (grey zone)—i.e. 203–388 kcal/100g.
  • If you eat chocolate chip cookies made with whole-wheat flour, this would correspond to the energy density shown in the grain-based foods with added SOS (also grey zone)—i.e. 472–536 kcal/100g.

It is worthwhile noting that, in terms of energy density, the ‘nuts and seeds’ category is located in the middle of the grey zone. While nuts are correctly classified as a high-energy food, they are still whole plant foods, and consuming them is linked to improved health and decreased risk of chronic disease.

Get Your Four Foods Chart

If you are looking to lose weight and maximize health, you should eat mostly from the green and orange whole food groups on the Chart.

You can also safely integrate nuts and seeds (depicted in red/pink) into your plant-based diet as long as you are careful about the quantity you eat.

Energy density provides you with a system to lose weight without scrimping on nutrition or starving yourself—a method that allows you to make healthier food choices without having to count calories ever again.

Go here to get a copy of the Four Foods Chart and start creating meals with a balanced energy density today.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.