What is Caloric Density

 

This article addresses a thoughtful question that was submitted by one of our website users. The website user asked, "What is caloric density and how does this number relate to eating a healthy, cancer prevention diet?"

This article addresses a thoughtful question that was submitted by one of our website users. The website user asked, "What is caloric density and how does this number relate to eating a healthy, cancer prevention diet?" In this article, we answer this question and describe how the concept of caloric density can be incorporated into your own cancer risk reduction nutrition plan.

Note: Numbers appearing at the end of sentences indicate research references. References are listed at the end of each article.

Website User Question

"What is caloric density and how does this number relate to eating a healthy, cancer prevention diet? I have heard that it is better for me to eat foods that have a lower caloric density number. However, when I figured out the caloric density of oatmeal, it was very high. Is oatmeal good for me or do I need to avoid this food because it has too many calories? I'm confused about caloric density and what it tells me." 

Caring4Cancer Response

You've raised some excellent questions regarding caloric density and how it relates to a healthy diet.

What is Caloric Density?

Caloric density is a number that tells us how many calories are contained in a specific amount of a food. Usually caloric density (CD) is calculated to be the amount of calories contained in one gram of a given food. Using nutrition values from the USDA Nutrient Database, we can calculate the CD of some foods to give you examples of how this works. Some examples of how caloric density (CD) is calculated are:

  • Apple - 100 grams of apple contain 52 calories. This means that one gram of apple contains 0.52 calories. Therefore, the caloric density (CD) of an apple is 0.52.
  • Green Beans - 100 grams of green beans contain 35 calories. This means that one gram of green beans contains 0.35 calories. Therefore, the CD of green beans is 0.35.
  • Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting - 100 grams of yellow cake with chocolate frosting contains 379 calories. This means that one gram of yellow cake with chocolate frosting contains 3.79 calories. Therefore, the CD of yellow cake with chocolate frosting is 3.79.
  • Potato Chips - 100 grams of potato chips contains 531 calories. This means that one gram of potato chips contains 5.31 calories. Therefore, the CD of potato chips is 5.31
  • Spinach - 100 grams of spinach contains 23 calories. This means that one gram of spinach contains 0.23 calories. Therefore, the CD of spinach is 0.23.

In general, researchers categorize foods by caloric density as follows (1):

  • Very Low Caloric Density = 0.0 to 0.7
  • Low to Moderate Caloric Density = 0.8 to 1.5
  • Moderate to High Caloric Density = 1.6 to 3.0
  • Very High Caloric Density = 3.1 and up

From the examples above where we calculated the caloric density of a few common foods, you can probably guess why lower caloric density foods are better for you!

For more information on the caloric density of a variety of foods, please see the Okinawa Diet Caloric Density PyramidTM.

Why is the Caloric Density of Oatmeal so high?

There are two parts to the explanation of oatmeal's caloric density and how it relates to whether oatmeal should be a regular part of a healthy diet. The first part is related to how oatmeal is prepared. The second part is related to how some higher calorie density foods actually can be part of a healthy, cancer risk reduction diet.

Part 1: Food Preparation

When you read the nutrition information for oatmeal, the package provides the calories based on the dry weight of oatmeal. Indeed, these numbers do yield a very high caloric density of 3.7 to 3.8, depending upon the brand & type of oatmeal. However, when oatmeal is prepared it is mixed with boiling water and the water is absorbed by the oats.

If you weigh the oatmeal NOW, after it is prepared, and then calculate caloric density, you get a very different number. When considering prepared oatmeal, the caloric density is actually 0.55!

There is a world of difference between a caloric density of 3.75 and 0.55! The first number puts the food into the category of something to be eaten only in very small amounts, if at all. The second caloric density number puts this food squarely into the category of foods that you can eat as much as you would like. Prepared oatmeal has a very low caloric density and is a healthy addition to the diet.

Unless a person eats dry oatmeal, which is pretty unlikely, the caloric density of this food is very low and healthy at 0.55. The addition of the water adds plenty of weight to this food, without adding any calories. This, in turn lowers the caloric density.

The water content of solid food has a big effect on that food's caloric density. This also explains why vegetables and fruit, which are loaded with water, are very low in caloric density.

Fiber is another part of the caloric density picture. Fiber adds weight and "bulk" to food, without adding calories. Again, this helps to lower the caloric density. This part of the equation explains why plant foods, including vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and legumes (beans), which are rich in fiber, are low caloric density foods.

Keeping these two ideas in mind, the water content of a food and the amount of fiber in a food, you can understand why it is that plant foods, most of which are rich in fiber and water, should form the basis of a healthy, cancer risk reduction, low caloric density diet.

Part 2: Healthy High Caloric Density Foods

The second part of your question relates to the fact that caloric density is just one measure of the health properties of a given food. There are a few exceptions to the calorie density rule. Nuts, which have a VERY high caloric density, are one example of a food that has a higher CD yet can be included as part of a healthy diet.

Nuts contain fiber plus they contain healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and other disease-fighting phytochemicals . Some studies even show that people who regularly consume nuts have an easier time maintaining a healthy body weight over time (2-4). In addition to this studies tell us that having nuts in the diet may reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (5-11).

Besides the healthy nutrients contained in nuts, they appear to be particularly satisfying. Nuts tend to "stick with you", which means that if you include a small amount of nuts or nut butter in a meal or snack, you will feel full longer and may be less likely to snack or overeat later on.

For all of these reasons, it makes sense to include nuts in the diet, in moderation. However, even regular consumption of nuts needs to be put into the context of your total healthy diet. Nuts can be consumed regularly, even daily, but the quantity needs to be moderate. A serving of nuts is just one-half to one ounce, which is a SMALL handful.

So again, you can eat these foods regularly and maintain a healthy diet and a healthy body weight, but include them in small serving sizes. As an example, you might try sprinkling a serving of walnuts onto a big, leafy green salad. This will give the salad more "staying power" so that you are full longer, but the nuts won't put the whole meal into a high caloric density category.

Another example of a high caloric density, yet healthy food is avocados. Avocados have a very high caloric density, but again, they contain many healthful nutrients, including the healthier, monounsaturated fats. But, as with nuts, you shouldn't sit down and eat a whole avocado. Instead, you should slice a few chunks of avocado into an otherwise low caloric density food such as a salad or a vegetable sandwich on whole grain bread.

In summery, when you consider how caloric density relates to the healthful properties of a given food, consider two things:

1. How that food is actually prepared and eaten. This means that if you add water to it, you are lowering the caloric density.

2. Whether that food has other healthful properties, such as nuts, seeds and avocados. In this case, these foods may have a high caloric density, but can be included in your regular diet, in moderation.

How does Caloric Density relate to a cancer prevention diet?

We already mentioned that vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes (beans) all have very low caloric densities. This is true of nearly all plant foods, with a few exceptions such as nuts, seeds, and avocados, as we just described.

The interesting thing is that basing your diet around a wide variety of low caloric density foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes is the ideal way to follow a cancer risk reduction diet. Hundreds of studies confirm that this is one of the single most important ways that you can use diet to lower your cancer risk (12-25)!

In summary, caloric density is another measure that helps us identify the healthful foods that should form the base of our diets. There are exceptions to the caloric density rule, such as nuts, seeds, and avocados, which have a high caloric density, but are still considered to be healthy foods. However, caloric density as a general measure is a good way to identify those foods which best reduce risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases.

We hope this information has answered your question and is helpful to you as you plan and follow your own cancer risk reduction diet.

IMPORTANT NOTE:

If you are in cancer treatment, these diet changes may not be right for you.  In fact, if you are having trouble keeping your weight up during cancer treatment, you need to do exactly the opposite of eating a low caloric density diet. Instead, you need to focus on foods that pack as many calories into a small amount of food. This can help you better meet your nutrition needs if you are not eating well due to cancer treatment.

References

1. The Okinawa Diet On-Line. Available at: http://okinawa-diet.com/. Accessed November 20, 2005.

2. Sabate J, Cordero-Macintyre Z, Siapco G, Torabian S, Haddad E. Does regular walnut consumption lead to weight gain? Br J Nutr. 2005;94(5):859-64.

3. Sabate J. Nut consumption and body weight. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(3 Suppl):647S-650S.

4. Garcia-Lorda P, Megias Rangil I, Salas-Salvado J. Nut consumption, body weight and insulin resistance.
Eur J Clin Nutr. 2003;57 Suppl 1:S8-11.

5. Lovejoy JC. The impact of nuts on diabetes and diabetes risk. Curr Diab Rep. 2005;5(5):379-84. 

6. Williams MT, Hord NG. The role of dietary factors in cancer prevention: beyond fruits and vegetables. Nutr Clin Pract. 2005;20(4):451-59.

7. Nash SD, Westpfal M. Cardiovascular benefits of nuts. Am J Cardiol. 2005;95(8):963-65.

8. Chisholm A, Mc Auley K, Mann J, Williams S, Skeaff M. Cholesterol lowering effects of nuts compared with a Canola oil enriched cereal of similar fat composition. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2005;15(4):284-92. 

9. Jaceldo-Siegl K, Sabate J, Rajaram S, Fraser GE. Long-term almond supplementation without advice on food replacement induces favourable nutrient modifications to the habitual diets of free-living individuals. Br J Nutr. 2004;92(3):533-40.

10. Hu FB. Plant-based foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease: an overview. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(3 Suppl):544S-51S. 

11. Kendall CW, Jenkins DJ. A dietary portfolio: maximal reduction of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol with diet. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2004;6(6):492-98.

12. Cerhan JR, Potter JD, Gilmore JM, Janney CA, Kushi LH, Lazovich D, Anderson KE, Sellers TA, Folsom AR. Adherence to the AICR cancer prevention recommendations and subsequent morbidity and mortality in the Iowa Women's Health Study cohort. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2004;13(7):1114-20.

13. Wright ME, Mayne ST, Stolzenberg-Solomon RZ, Li Z, Pietinen P, Taylor PR, Virtamo J, Albanes D. Development of a comprehensive dietary antioxidant index and application to lung cancer risk in a cohort of male smokers. Am J Epidemiol. 2004;160(1):68-76.

14. Hodge AM, English DR, McCredie MR, Severi G, Boyle P, Hopper JL, Giles GG. Foods, nutrients and prostate cancer. Cancer Causes Control. 2004;15(1):11-20.

15. Riboli E, Norat T. Epidemiologic evidence of the protective effect of fruit and vegetables on cancer risk. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(3 Suppl):559S-69S.

16. Sauvaget C, Nagano J, Hayashi M, Spencer E, Shimizu Y, Allen N. Vegetables and fruit intake and cancer mortality in the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Life Span Study. Br J Cancer. 2003;88(5):689-94.

17. Neuhouser ML, Patterson RE, Thornquist MD, Omenn GS, King IB, Goodman GE. Fruits and vegetables are associated with lower lung cancer risk only in the placebo arm of the ß-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET). Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2003;12(4):350-58.

18. Harnack L, Nicodemus K, Jacobs DR Jr, Folsom AR. An evaluation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in relation to cancer occurrence. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76(4):889-96.

19. Messina M, Lampe JW, Birt DF, Appel LJ, Pivonka E, Berry B, Jacobs DR Jr. Reductionism and the narrowing nutrition perspective: time for reevaluation and emphasis on food synergy. J Am Diet Assoc. 2001;101(12):1416-1419.

20. La Vecchia C, Altieri A, Tavani A. Vegetables, fruit, antioxidants and cancer: a review of Italian studies. Eur J Nutr. 2001;40(6):261-67.

21. Terry P, Terry JB, Wolk A. Fruit and vegetable consumption in the prevention of cancer: an update. J Intern Med. 2001;250(4):280-90.

22. van't Veer P, Jansen MC, Klerk M, Kok FJ. Fruits and vegetables in the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Public Health Nutrition. 2000;3(1):103-107.

23. Chatenoud L, Tavani A, La Vecchia C, Jacobs DR Jr, Negri E, Levi F, Franceschi S. Whole grain food intake and cancer risk. Int J Cancer. 1998;77(1):24-28.

24. Jacobs DR Jr, Marquart L, Slavin J, Kushi LH. Whole-grain intake and cancer: an expanded review and meta-analysis. Nutr Cancer. 1998;30(2):85-96.

25. World Cancer Research Fund. Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: a global perspective. Washington, DC: American Institute for Cancer Research; 1997.

Publish Date: 11/2005

This content was last reviewed August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.
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