How to Cut Calorie Density (Plus Three Recipes)

Eating foods with fewer calories per bite can help people eat less and stay trim. But what’s the best way to cut calorie density?

One day a week for four weeks, scientists provided all the food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and evening snack) eaten by 59 adults aged 20 to 45. On those days, the researchers lowered the calorie density of the entrées by 20 percent in one of three ways: adding less fat (butter or oil), increasing fruits and vegetables, or adding water. (For example, the researchers added water to a Tex-Mex pasta casserole and a chicken rice casserole by turning them into soups.)

The participants weren’t told what the study was testing or how the entrées varied. For instance, the fruits and vegetables were either chopped into small pieces or puréed so participants wouldn’t notice them.

The results: the volunteers ate roughly 400 fewer calories on days when the entrées had less fat, roughly 300 fewer calories on days when the entrées had more fruits and vegetables, and about 230 fewer calories on days when the entrées had extra water.

What to do: If you’re trying to cut calories, try eating dishes with more water, more fruits and vegetables, and (especially) less fat.

Cut calorie density to lose weight

“People eat for weight or volume,” explains Barbara Rolls of Pennsylvania State University. Her studies show that if you trim the calorie density—that is, the calories per bite—people leave the table feeling full but with fewer calories in their belly (and, eventually, with less belly).

Her research team analyzed data from the Premier diet, which was similar to the Omni-Heart higher-carb diet.

“People who lowered their calorie density ended up eating fewer calories and losing more weight,” she explains. “The change in calorie density was the biggest predictor of six-month weight loss. And those people ate a pound more food a day.”

Rolls got similar results in a one-year trial. “Both groups were told to eat smaller portions and less fat,” she notes, “but only one group was also told to eat more fruits, vegetables, and broth-based soups.” That group lost more weight.

“We tell people to manage portions of calorie-dense foods and eat as much as they want of fruits and vegetables,” Rolls explains. “They’re free foods.”

Her advice doesn’t apply to dried fruit or fruit juice. Nor does it apply to French fries, potato chips, or other starchy vegetables.

“Non-starchy vegetables like celery are the best way to lower calorie density,” says Rolls. “You’re mostly eating water and some bulk. Fruit should also be unlimited because it’s got a low calorie density. You can only eat so much because you’re going to fill up.”

Three lower-calorie-density recipes

These low calorie density recipes are adapted from the 125 recipes in The Volumetrics Eating Plan, by Barbara Rolls ($18.99, HarperCollins).

Balsamic Berries Recipe

Each dish to the right has 60 calories, but the Balsamic Berries (right) are more filling than traditional berries & cream. To make Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.44.13 AMBalsamic Berries, use this low calorie density recipe:

  • 4 cups strawberries (about 1 lb.)
  • 1 Tbs. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. aged balsamic vinegar

Wash, dry, and quarter the strawberries lengthwise. Place the berries in a large bowl. Add the sugar and balsamic vinegar and toss gently to combine. Refrigerate one hour. Spoon the strawberries into chilled stemmed glasses or dessert bowls. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving (1 cup)

Calories: 60, Total Fat: 0 grams, Saturated Fat: 0 grams, Fiber: 3 grams, Sodium: 0 milligrams, Cholesterol: 0 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 14 grams, Protein: 1 gram

Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich Recipe

  • low calorie density dishes1/2 cups diced cooked chicken breast
  • 1 cup halved seedless red grapes
  • 1/4 cup diced celery
  • 1/4 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbs. toasted slivered almonds
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 slices thin whole-wheat bread
  • 2 cups shredded green leaf lettuce

Combine the chicken, grapes, celery, mayonnaise, almonds, and pepper together in a medium bowl and mix well. Divide the chicken salad evenly on 4 slices of bread. Top each with 1/2 cup lettuce and another slice of bread. Makes 4 sandwiches.

Per serving (1 sandwich)

Calories: 270, Total Fat: 9 grams, Saturated Fat: 2 grams, Fiber: 7 grams, Sodium: 410 milligrams, Cholesterol: 55 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 30 grams, Protein: 22 grams

Charlie’s Pasta Primavera Recipe

Our only tweak: we reduced the salt in the Pasta Primavera from 1 tsp. to 1/2 tsp. (and didn’t add any salt to the pasta cooking water).

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.55.14 AM

  • 8 oz. dry whole-wheat penne
  • 1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup seeded, chopped bell peppers
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 tsp. chopped garlic
  • 2 cups diced zucchini
  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 2 cups cored, chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 2 Tbs. fresh oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Pinch freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups baby spinach
  • 4 Tbs. grated parmesan cheese

Cook the penne as directed on the package, omitting any salt. Drain the penne, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

While waiting for the pasta water to boil, heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the peppers, onions, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the zucchini, asparagus, tomatoes, oregano, salt, and pepper and stir well. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the penne and spinach to the vegetables and stir thoroughly. Let the mixture sit over low heat about 1 minute. Stir in 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking water, adding more if the mixture looks dry. Divide the pasta among 4 plates and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Makes 4 servings.

Per Serving (3 cups)

Calories: 330, Total Fat: 5 grams, Saturated Fat: 1 gram, Fiber: 11 grams, Sodium: 390 milligrams, Cholesterol: 5 milligrams, Carbohydrates: 62 grams, Protein: 15 grams.

Sources: Appetite 66: 75, 2013; Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 85: 1212, 2007; Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 85: 1465, 2007; The Volumetrics Eating Plan (HarperCollins, 2005)

3 Replies to “How to Cut Calorie Density (Plus Three Recipes)”

  1. Exelllent! Happy to see there was a study done about this as this is exactly what I recommmend my clients who are trying to lose weight!
    Thank you. Your emails are of the few I look forward to reading every day!
    Connie Costello Health Coach

  2. “The Volumetrics Eating Plan” by Barbara Rolls (PhD), [Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences] is based on the concept of reducing energy density. It has been rated as by Consumers Reports as a “winner among diet plans.”

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