Produced by Heather LaPergola


Calorie-Dense vs. Nutrient-Dense Food

By: Heather LaPergola

The struggle of a balanced diet is difficult for most, but can be especially difficult while food insecure. Many of the foods that are easiest to find in areas sparse of food markets or grocery stores, as well as the cheapest in price, are calorie-dense foods, otherwise known as energy-dense foods.

“Energy density is the amount of energy or calories in a particular weight of food and is generally presented as the number of calories in a gram (kcal/g). Foods with a lower energy density provide fewer calories per gram than foods with a higher energy density,” an article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) writes. “For the same amount of calories, a person can consume a larger portion of a food lower in energy density than a food higher in energy density.” The article continues to say that, “research studies indicate that consuming a low-energy-dense diet—one that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products—helps people lower their calorie intake.” 

In simplest terms, the article, titled “Low-Energy-Dense Foods and Weight Management: Cutting Calories While Controlling Hunger,” explains how foods that are energy-dense contain more calories in smaller servings. In this way, you could eat a cup of rice which can only fill you up to a point, or you can eat numerous fruits, vegetables, or proteins which could fill you up fully for less or equal the amount of calories. It is a concern however, that these “nutrient-dense” foods tend to be more costly and therefore more difficult for food insecure households to get ahold of. The cheaper foods tend to be the high-energy-dense foods, or “calorie-dense” foods, so they are easier to stock up on and eat more regularly, potentially creating an unbalanced diet and calorie intake.

“We can see insufficient weight gain in children and things like that, and on the other hand, you actually can see an overweight and malnourished population,” Juliana Cohen, Research Associate of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University, said. “And so partly because many of the food available that are inexpensive to eat are incredibly calorie dense and don’t necessarily have good nutrient qualities. So it is both possible to have poor nutrition – malnutrition in food insecurity and still be overweight or obese.” 

Poverty is directed tied into this issue of unaffordable, unhealthy foods. “Food insecurity is an economic issue, and we have very inexpensive food available and but often of low nutritional quality,” Dr. Maria Hallion, Associate Professor of Exercise Science and Health Promotion at Cabrini College, said. Without sufficient funds, food insecure households struggle to purchase nutrient-rich foods, and are often forced to buy the foods high in sugar, fat, and calorie content.

Many site food subsidies as being the cause of high prices in healthier foods and low prices in more calorie-dense foods. The USDA tells how evolving trends have affected the global supply and demand for food commodities. “The impact of these trends has been to slow growth in production and to strengthen demand. The resulting tightening of the global supply and demand balance has gradually put upward pressure of agricultural prices.” These subsidies make it easier for larger companies to sell their products for less, and influences their small business or organic competitors to raise their prices just to keep up with their competition and demand. 

Farmers will always need to make a profit, so if they have to sell their corn, wheat, soybeans, etc. to companies that will make them into unhealthy food products, many will. To break this cycle, it will take time, effort, and governmental involvement to resolve and balance the prices we see in groceries stores across the U.S.

Next: Obesity