The New York City ban on sugary soda drinks larger than 16 ounces has generated a lot of controversy. But nutrition experts say the ban will have an effect because sugar sweetened drinks, with their high energy density, are the biggest single source of calories in the American diet. By choosing more foods low in energy density, you can take in fewer calories, eat more food and feel more satisfied.
High energy density sodas
Sugar sweetened drinks aren’t the only thing to blame for soaring rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. But sodas, concentrated juices and sports drinks, with their high energy density, make up a substantial portion of the total calories in the American diet, while contributing virtually no nutrients.
Energy density is simply the number of calories in a specific amount of food. When you want to lose weight you need to eat a greater volume of food that’s lower in calories. When it comes to energy density, sugar sweetened drinks are off the charts.
Liquid calories and solid food
Sugar sweetened drinks are especially dangerous because their lack of texture and mouth feel don’t contribute to quelling hunger. A study conducted by Barbara Rolls, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, suggested that when people consume a large number of liquid calories, they don’t compensate by eating fewer calories from solid food.
The researchers compared the effects of three first courses on total calorie consumption: a vegetable-and-rice casserole, the same casserole served with a ten-ounce glass of water, and a soup made by cooking the water and casserole together. Compared with the casserole alone, drinking the water with the casserole resulted in no reduction in lunch calories shortly thereafter. The casserole soup resulted in a 100-calorie reduction during the rest of the meal.
Low energy density foods
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and cooked grains are examples of low energy density foods that contain plenty of water and fiber and fewer calories. Fresh raw carrots, about 88 percent water, have only 25 calories in a half cup. High-calorie foods tend to have less water and more fat, which has twice the calories of carbohydrates or protein. For example, one teaspoon of butter contains almost the same number of calories as 2 cups of raw broccoli.
Healthier food choices
Focusing on low energy density foods isn’t radical. It’s only about making more healthy food choices. Plus, if you want to lose weight by eating fewer calories, choosing foods with lower energy density ensures that your body gets the essential nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
Be conscious about avoiding foods with low moisture content, such as pretzels and crackers. Start having meals with a vegetable soup or salad to increase fullness and reduce calorie intake during the main course. Choose whole-grain breads, add veggies to soups and stews and add fruit to salads.
Other research by Rolls shows that this approach is effective. In the study, young women who replaced high calorie foods with low energy density foods ate 800 fewer calories a day—a 25 percent reduction—and never missed them.