ED Stands for Energy Density: and How to Gain Weight

October 22, 2008

Don’t be Dense!  Energy Density Predicts Long Term Weight Gain or Loss! (or ED is a Woman’s Problem Too!) 

 Competency # 5 : The Way to Eat                                Reference:  Savage et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:677-84 and Deierlein p 693-699. 

 We’ve known for quite a while that how many calories you eat in a day comes down to how efficiently you pack your calories into a certain volume.  That is energy density(ED).  How many calories in a given volume.  The more calories packed in the same space, the higher the density.  Barbara Rolls at Penn State has advocated the “Volumetrics Plan” for dieting.  It’s very simple.  Eat your volume of food, but changing the amount of calories in that volume.  

There is something set in each of our heads that wants to get a certain volume of food each day.  Intriguingly simple, isn’t it?  Your natural instinct and setpoint is to a specified volume.  All you have to do is lower the energy density to succeed at long-term weight loss.  All this time we thought it was taste, and snacking, and how many meals a day.  Very little has been documented about what that means for the long haul. 

 Well, this study from Penn State gives us the long haul.  For six years, 186 women were followed with frequent assessments of their food intake.  Excluding beverages, they found a very stable pattern.  Energy density predicted weight gain over six years.  Over those 6 years, the participants didn’t change their energy density.  They continued to be very stable.  They demonstrated consistent patterns of eating.  Baked desserts, refined grains and fried vegetables predicted trouble.  Fruit, vegetables and whole grains predicted good results. 

 The second study, in the same journal says the precise same message for pregnant women from North Carolina.  They followed 1,231 pregnancies in their last trimester when most weight gain happens.  They looked at it slightly differently.  They looked at “glycemic index” versus energy density.  Energy density was what predicted weight gain, not the glycemic index.  They found that women consumed between 0.71 calories per gram of weight to 1.21 calories.  That’s about a 50% increase in energy density.  For the same volume of food, women were eating as many as 50% more calories.  Women eating the lower density diets started by weighing less and ended up weighing less.  And again, they were consistent during their pregnancy. 

 This is a whole new way of looking at what we eat.  It simplifies everything.  Low energy-dense foods have less fat in them, less sugar, less refined carbohydrates.  In other words, they are called whole fruits, whole vegetables, and whole grains.  High energy density is otherwise called donuts, ice cream, cookies, french fries, fast food, milkshakes, pizza.  Your brain is set to a certain volume.  If it’s pizza you choose, you will be full when you get to that volume, 3,000 calories later. 

 WWW.  What Will Work for Me?  At 9 o’clock when I’m about to eat my fourth meal of the day, I’m trying to reach for that large volume apple, instead of three scoops of Greek God Honey Yogurt.  If I’m craving more food, I need to remind myself that it’s a volume that will satisfy my inner elephant that’s demanding to be fed.  An apple will keep him happy.  Remember ED stands for Energy Density!

Column written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI (262-784-5300)