The Secret to Weight Control: Not Being Dense

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Worried about fitting into your bathing suit, shorts and other revealing summer clothes without feeling chronically hungry and deprived?

The answer may be to eat more, not less.

Yes, you read that correctly. And no, it's not the latest diet fad.

Chalk it up to energy density -- a theory that has been simmering in nutrition circles for years. It's an idea that also fits well with our super-sized eating habits, since it's based on volume. In fact, one of the leading researchers in the field has dubbed the idea "volumetrics."

Here's how it works: Swap high-calorie (also known as energy-dense) foods with lower-calorie (low-energy-dense) fare. If that sounds like just the latest spin on the traditional low-fat approach, think again.

The twist is that gram for gram, low-energy-dense foods contain fewer calories than their energy-dense cousins. That's because they're higher in water, fiber or air. Not only does that additional volume fool the eye, it also satisfies the appetite. As a result, you can serve larger portions of low-energy-dense foods than of standard fare.

Can eating this way really help you shed pounds and keep them off?

Yes, according to a new, year-long Penn State study of 71 obese women, ages 22 to 60. The study found that those who ate low-energy-dense food lost 17 pounds vs. 14 pounds for women who just cut back on fat -- or roughly 21 percent more weight. Both approaches rated equally well on ease of following, health benefits, cost-effectiveness, prep time, convenience and ability to work well in a family environment.

But study participants who used energy density as their guide ate 25 percent more food (by weight, not by calories) than their counterparts. They also reported feeling significantly less hungry than did women who just cut back on fat, the Penn State team wrote in June in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The findings show that "choosing foods that are low in calorie density helps in losing weight, without the restrictive messages of other weight-loss diets," notes Julia A. Ello-Martin, who conducted the research as part of her doctoral dissertation at Penn State.

Plus, the results suggest that eating more fruit and vegetables while limiting fat "is effective in controlling hunger," notes the study's co-author, Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State and author of "The Volumetrics Eating Plan." "The good thing about fruits and vegetables [is that it] allows you to focus on what you can eat rather than what you have to give up. I like that idea."

Food low in energy density may satisfy your appetite and whittle your waistline, but it can also take a bite out of your wallet.

A new report from the University of Washington compared the weekly costs of eating high- and low-energy-dense food for 1,500 French teens and adults. It found that fruit, vegetables and other lower-calorie fare cost more than fast-food burgers, fried chicken and other energy-dense foods -- a finding that could help explain the higher rate of obesity among low-income groups in developed nations. This finding suggests, Adam Drewnowski and his colleagues reported in June in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, that "lasting improvements in diet quality may require economic as well as behavioral interventions."

And more nutrition knowledge. To learn smart food choices, participants in the Penn State study met weekly with a dietitian during the first half of the study. For the second half, they met monthly with a dietitian and attended small group meetings.

That's an option that many people don't have. But here are some tips from the researchers:

· Add fruit or vegetables to cut calories. Diced grapes, celery, carrots and water chestnuts lower the calories in chicken or tuna salad and add flavor and texture. Use mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, spinach and other vegetables on pizza in place of some of the pepperoni and sausage. Add spinach, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and other veggies to pasta dishes while cutting back on meat.

· Get more fiber. Not only does it help dilute calories, but it increases satiety. So add beans to taco fillings, salads and soups. Switch to whole-wheat bread, pasta and cereal.

· Add a first course to lunch and dinner. Make it a large leafy salad with plenty of vegetables and low-fat or nonfat dressing. Penn State researchers have found this practice can cut an average of 100 calories from the main meal without affecting fullness.

· Sip soup. It's filled with water, which helps you feel full on fewer calories. Stews are another smart option. The exception: Avoid cream-based soups, which are packed with fat and calories.

· Cut fat, but not flavor. Choose fat-free or low-fat cheese instead of full-fat varieties, particularly in casseroles and mixed dishes where other ingredients can take up the slack. Try flavored vinegars and a pinch of sugar in place of mayo on coleslaw and other creamy salads.

· Save room for dessert. Just make it fruit, which is low in calories and high in water, fiber and flavor.

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