Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research
Emphasizing foods that fill you up while limiting calories seems to help not only with losing weight, but with keeping it off too. ‘Energy density’ refers to how many calories a food contains for a certain weight. For an equal number of calories, foods low in energy density will provide a larger portion and thus, satisfy hunger more than foods high in energy density.
One recently-published study by researchers at University of Alabama, Birmingham, evaluated the effect of energy density on long-term weight control. Researchers checked in an average of two years after a group of middle-aged, overweight adults participated in a 12-week program. The program focused on behavior changes to help people eat more foods low in energy density (vegetables, fruits and whole grains) and limit consumption of high-energy density foods (meats, cheeses, sugars and fats). The 74 participants lost an average of almost nine pounds during the program. Two years later, only 22 percent had regained more than five percent of their program-ending weight; 78 percent were still below their starting weight and had either continued losing weight or regained very little.
Food records completed by participants showed small but significant differences in eating habits between those who regained weight since finishing the program and those who did not. Once researchers adjusted for differences in age, size and gender, they found the group maintaining or continuing to lose weight was not eating less food than the group who had regained weight. However, they were consuming about 244 less calories each day. The difference was in what the two groups were eating: the energy density of the ‘regainer’ group was about 25 percent higher than that of the ‘maintainer’ group.
Regainers were eating larger portions of high-calorie foods among different food groups, including meats and beverages. They slid away from what they had learned about filling up on vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
However, in another study these researchers compared a group managing energy density by increasing foods low in energy density (boosting water-rich foods like vegetables, fruit, and soup) to a group focused on limiting foods high in energy density (eating less fat and limiting portions). Both groups lost weight and kept it off during the one-year study. However, after 6 and 12 months participants who boosted low energy dense foods lost more weight than participants focused on limiting foods high in energy density.
For people who are overweight, losing 10 percent of their weight is considered a realistic target with significant health benefits. Studies suggest that reducing the energy density of our diets alone may not be enough to reach such targets, however. Penn State research shows that moderately reducing both energy density and portion sizes brings a more substantial drop in calorie consumption than you could realistically achieve by dropping energy density alone.
A three-part strategy to lose weight reduce energy density, control portions, and get some activity daily can make weight loss more successful. Turning that strategy into a lifestyle will help to keep a healthy weight and a lower risk of cancer and other diseases.
Reprinted with permission from the American Institute for Cancer Research