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Tricks of the trade: how to change energy density to lose weight – with guest expert Trudy Williams APD

Have you heard about energy density? Would you like a handy guide on how to eat more and weigh less? Then you need to meet this weeks expert guest dietitian.

About our expert:

Trudy Williams APD is a highly experienced dietitian in the areas of research, student training, clinical and management dietetics in both hospital and private sectors, industry consulting and media relations. Perhaps best known for her award winning books that form part of many a dietitian’s arsenal (see below) Trudy is passionately embracing the world of social media.  You can read her full bio here and connect with her on Twitter @foodtalkbites.

What would you rather have? A spoon full of pure gold nuggets or that very same spoon filled with mud?   Surely, that’s an easy choice – the gold. Why? Is it about quality and value? The gold will last you a whole lot longer. It may make your life a little better. It is the better choice. If you really needed mud, you could go out and buy bucket loads of it if you originally chose gold! The same volume of mud won’t get you anywhere very fast at all. It’s a waste.

But in the end the mud and the gold fill the same volume – they both fill a spoon.

Now think about those spoons filled with different foods. The same serve size, a spoon, will yield different value for your body depending on what food you’ve served; different amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fibre, water, vitamins, minerals and kilojoules (calories).

But let’s narrow this down to kilojoules because these make or break your body weight. The majority of adults in Australia, the UK and USA could shed a few kilograms if they pulled back on their kilojoule intake.  And you can do that without necessarily cutting back on serve sizes, feeling deprived or going hungry, once you know a few secrets about energy density.

What’s energy density?

It’s how many kilojoules are packed into a set measure of food, in this case a spoon. The more kilojoules in each spoonful, the higher the energy density, the worse it is for your weight. The reverse holds true. Fewer kilojoules in each spoon = lower energy density = weight loss success.

Energy density is not something you’ll find on food labels, but it’s something that manufacturers are well aware of and use to manipulate and design reduced calorie and ‘diet’ foods that you pay top dollar for.

But you don’t have to buy special foods to reduce the energy density of your diet because I am going to let you in on a few secrets that will help you change the energy density of your diet for the better.

Three key secret factors to influence energy density are the amount of water, fat or alcohol and air present within the food at the time you eat it.

  1.  The more water present within the food or meal, the lower the energy density.
  2. Puff the food up to incorporate air and space to reduce the energy density.
  3.  Reduce the fat or alcohol you also lower the energy density

If you do any of these things you will alter the energy density of the food as you will discover with a few examples.

Which contains fewer kilojoules and so has a lower energy density?

Answer:  8 dried apricot halves = 300kJ (72cals)   Compared with the same volume of 10 soft jubes = 600kJ (140cals)

A spoon of water or a spoon of oil? No, this isn’t a trick question. Water wins with zero kilojoules. Oil loses with nearly 600 kilojoules.

A square of aerated chocolate or a square of dark chocolate? Not exactly an ideal food for nutrition, but the aerated chocolate wins because the bubbles of air displace chocolate.  You still feel like your being satisifed by a square, but your cutting kilojoules choosing the aerated choccy.

A bowl of peanuts or a bowl of pretzels? The pretzels win because they contain a lot less fat.

Sometimes the answer is obvious but for other foods it can get tricker. Test yourself on these foods.

A bowl of movie popcorn or a bowl of corn flake breakfast cereal? Both are dry. The corn is popped with oil so at first glance you might think the corn flakes wins, but infact a bowl of popcorn contain fewer kilojoules than a bowl of cereal, so popcorn wins.

A bowl of broccoli, beans and capsicum or a bowl of boiled basmati rice? Both are low in fat and both contain water and basmati rice has a low glycemic index, but don’t let GI fool you, the vegetables have the lower energy density because they contain almost 20% more water than the rice.

A glass of full strength beer or a glass or alco-pop (pre-mixed spirit with soft drink)? The beer is ahead because it has a less alcohol coupled with a higher water content.

Eat more, weight less

Simple changes make a huge difference when you change the energy density and it doesn’t mean you have to eat less food! Pretend you plan to eat 2 cups of rice for dinner. If you replaced 1 cup of that rice with 1 cup of steamed green vegetables you will instantly slash the energy density of the meal and cut your kilojoule intake by 700, yet you’d still be eating the same total volume: 2 cups of food.

But you don’t need to be a food scientist, dietitian, calorie contortionist or maths expert to work out and use energy density once you discover another secret tool of mine that allows you to quickly compare foods and drinks just by looking. It’s my award-winning book “this=that: a life-size photo guide to food serves” RRP $65.00 revised and expanded in 2011.

More than 400 life-size photos of foods and drinks reveal which foods to have more or less of, for better health and body shape. There has never been an easier way to see and understand energy density, portion control and serve size. Discover more at FoodTalk.

Editor’s comment:

Thanks so much Trudy and for donating a copy of your divine book for us to giveaway to a lucky reader.  To enter the giveaway all you need to do is leave us a comment below and we will pick one lucky winner.  Perhaps you have a question for Trudy? Or your own story about pumping up your food volume with salad veg and other lower energy density foods? Competition is open to all readers until Thursday 10th November, 5pm AEDST.

  • Josephine Mollica

    Thanks for the great info on energy density.
    One suggestion I make time and time again is to replace some of the meal with a vegetable soup. Studies show that those who consume soup with a meal consume up to 30% fewer kilojoules, but similar rating of fullness, to those who didn’t have soup with their meal. This adds up to alot of kilojoules in the long run and therefore makes a difference with weight loss efforts!
    Josephine Mollica
    Eat Wiser.

  • Oh I could really do with that book! I try to look at the meal we are having and make sure it is at least half vegetables. I love having my spaghetti sauce on spinach instead of spaghetti, and I sneak a few lentils into the spaghetti sauce too!

  • Great tip Josephine. Incorporating fluid within the dish, as in soup, casserole or stew, is a fantastic way to reduce energy density. And as you’ve pointed out the benefits of a vegetable soup are big.

    Soups hit the menu in winter but chilled summer soups such as gazpacho or chilled beetroot soup are easy.

    Delicious Gillian. A bed of spinach instead of pasta. Lentils in the sauce. Both great food tips to reduce energy density, add nutrition and flavour.

    If skipping the pasta entirely won’t work in your house, then try this trick. Reduce the amount of pasta prepared and towards the end of cooking it add long fine strips of zucchini to the pot.

  • I remember stumbling across this book as new grad many years ago and I couldn’t remember what the name was to find it again! This is the one! A great visual aid to help explain energy density, especially to children!

  • Carol

    Very useful also for those trying to gain a little s they can take the denser option!

  • Hi Carol. You’re so right. Energy density works both ways. If anyone needs to gain weight or finds it hard to consume enough to maintain weight then choose the high energy dense option – naturally keeping healthy choices in front of mind. Thinking dried fruit vs fresh fruit, nuts vs lollies, beef steak vs lentils. In my book, high energy dense foods are small in volume/serve compared with the low energy dense foods that give you more volume to eat per serve.

  • Libby

    A great article, and a fantastic book! We use this book at work and is an excellent visual tool to help illustrate the energy content of different foods. Would be a great resource to pair up with the national Swap It Don’t Stop It campaign, and to help children make better food choices.

  • Jacki

    Hi Trudy,
    I am a big fan of the this=that book. It is such a good, clear, easy to understand resource especially when working in communities with low literacy levels and where English is not their first language. Plus I just find it facinating to share with family and friends too!


  • Tyson

    Great, simple, easy to understand messages. Exactly what clients need to be successful.

  • Raewyn

    Can never learn enough – really appreciate knowledgeable people informing me as sometimes I don’t know what questions to ask and therefore where to look for the answers. Informative books and articles are very valued by me and then, when I get to ask questions and get answers, now that is the REAL icing on the cake.

  • Hi Trudy
    A great book showing serving sizes which we had lost with all the upsizing of meal these days. Thankyou

  • Sam

    We have the kids version and have found it very useful. Can’t wait to see the adult copy.

  • Ena

    This is a great book. I have recommened it to friends who have also purchased it. As well as the life size picture there is a good table in the back so that if you are not sure if you have measured correctly in the cup or half cup you can actually weigh the serving you plan too eat to make sure you are not eating too much. I also like the idea that every serve is approximately equivalent to 600kj (140 cals) so if you are being eally serious about you weight loss or gain you can easily do the calculations. I recommend this book to anyone one who needs to watch their weight, and lets be realistic, that is a great percentage of us. Thanks for the great book, Trudy.

  • Karalyn

    Excellent resource for both clients and myself. I have a lot of weight to loose. This book is so easy to understand.The life size pictures realy drive the message home about portion control and healthy eating.
    Makes daily choices so mch easier to make. It really dies give you a reality check on jsut how easy it is to eat little but still not loose weight simply by not making the health choices.

  • Lauren

    I think this book is particularly good in light of the ‘Swap it’ campaign that is currently running. It’s important to understand what constitutes a healthy swap. A great resource!

  • The old saying ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ certainly rings true with this book. This is such a simple but effective way of explaining nutritional concepts – sometimes a visual is all that is needed to drive home a point rather than laboring over a verbal or written explanation. I would love to explore this book more!

  • caroline

    A great book. I particularly found comparing the serving sizes of different fruits very useful as a mother of two.

  • So many comments and such wonderful feedback. Thank you

    Libby, Jacki, Tyson

    Karalyn. You’ve made a great point there about giving you a reality check to see how easy it is to eat little but still not lose weight – small serves are not always the best serves. Keep working on your choices. Consistent and small changes work in the long run.

    Sam, you’ll love the adult’s version if you’ve already been using the kid’s edition.

    Ena. Glad to see you’re still using “this=that” and its food composition tables to keep yourself in shape.


  • Nicole

    Hi Trudy,
    Finally a tool to help simplify nutrition and weight loss! Working in a busy GP Practice with an ever increasing demand for Chronic Disease Management we are always looking for ways to help patients achieve their goals. We purchased a couple of books for our surgery and many of our patients were so impressed they bought their own copies and have had fabulous results – losses of many centimetres!! Thank you again for helping us make a difference.

  • From the comments, it looks like there are many people keen to get a second copy or update their old version. Good Luck. Someone has to win!

    Raewyn. You’ve come to a great site for expert nutrition information. Make sure you sign up for newsletters if you haven’t done so already. I am sure you will love the simplicity of “this=that” – others say the same so it’s not just me being a biased author!

    Mary. It’s really scary looking back just a decade or two at the creep in serving sizes coupled with the explosion of fabricated foods, many of which are energy dense.

    Lauren. Thanks for the suggestion. It would compliment the government’s “swap it” campaign. Do you have any connections? Every household could get a copy!

    Nina. Like you, I am a very visual person. The simple inventions in life are often the ones that have the biggest long-term impact. Although my book is not an invention, I really think it has the potential to make a huge difference because of its ‘simplicity’.

    Caroline. Many parents find the photos open up a whole new world of food exploration and discovery and because the books give suggested serve numbers for different ages, it helps everyone know what and how much to eat to meet their basic nutritient needs.

    Whew…hope I haven’t missed anyone so far.


  • Hey Nicole. That’s great feedback about using “this=that” in GP practice. I am so glad it has made a difference for some of your patients.

  • Leanne

    This is such a fantastic book! I don’t actually have a copy of my own but have used a shared copy with clients and incorporated it into group nutrition education activities. Everyone loves the colours and the practicality of the images being life-size. Thank you Trudy!

  • Sue

    I am studying towards my degree in Nutrition and Dietetics and your book was highly recommended by our lecturer. I love the visuals and can appreciate how useful it would be in “real life” situations.

  • Kim Fisher

    For me(a true yo-yo dieter)this book has been so refreshing!
    It is my: no fuss/problem solving book of health. No longer is it about dieting for me – it is about better choices 🙂 which make me feel so much better, health wise and then the trimming down, just happens – incredible!
    My Dietitian used it with me, I became fascinated with the layout of this book (I couldn’t believe it, a picture book for adults – I loved it, it worked…so easy)I wanted one, so I got one and in the process, told my Doctor about it, who noted it down, to suggest it to other patients and so forth and so forth, the word is out… “this=that”, get one, each household should have one 🙂 Thank you so much Trudy

  • Manda

    This book looks amazing. Sometimes when you think you are making ok choices, it’s amazing how much better off you’d be choosing something a little different!! I think my husband would enjoy this book too as it helps put different foods into perspective without him ‘wasting time on reading’ lol.

  • Glenn

    Fantastic , a book without lots of words and such a novel approach to getting the message out there.
    Well done Trudy and thankyou for the motivation to do something good for yourself.

  • Have looked at for this book many times and have commented to many how i would love this book to add to our resources for parents, families and staff. A great visual to have in the centre.

  • Donna

    This book is great, it not only shows you what is good to eat, but also how bad some things can be even in small amounts. When I first read this book my 3 year old at the time used to love reading through it and became alot more interested different fruit and vegies.
    We recently got a copy of your kids book and my now 5 year old again loved looking through it. I later found out that he was telling one of his fellow classmates, that the donut in his lunch box was not a good choice and that if he was going to eat it, he should only have a third of it!
    Just shows you that armed with the right information it doesn’t matter who you are or how old you are you can make the right decisions to set you up for the rest of your life.

  • Sharon

    This is a fantastic book. A picture (or pictures in this case) speak a thousand words.

    The kid’s version of this=that is just as amazing.

  • Pauline

    Well I would sure love to own your book too Trudy. I asked my local library to get it in but no luck there. I purchased a couple of your books on lapbanding and they’ve been really helpful.

  • A picture book for adults! I love that Kim. It’s pleasing to read how it’s helped you stop dieting which in turn helped you feel better.

    Thanks Glenn. We’re all so busy and flipping pictures is so fast. Novel yes but definitely not a throw-away novelty. The images have a strong impact and make a true difference to the way a person approaches eating.

    Manda – guys love this book for all the same reasons girls do. No fuss, fast to ‘read’, quick to understand. No maths, heaps of choices. And still heaps to eat.

    Donna and Sharon. Your experiences with the kids’ version made me smile. Kids are so funny and such great sponges. Maybe I should say cous cous ‘beings’ – soaking up all they can and in your case, Donna, nourishing others with advice.

    Pauline. “this=that” works really well for people who have had a lapband placed. It helps you see which foods will satisfy you quickly for maximum nutrition with good variety. Naughty library – maybe the book was between editions and out of print when they tried to get it.

    Leanne, Sue and Melissa….hope you can convince your teams to grab a copy. Perhaps lead them back to Scoop Nutrition to read the post about energy density and the comments.

  • Elsa

    I loved the article, it makes so much sense! I’d love to
    have a copy for myself and family. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us all!

  • Dear Trudy,
    I would love a copy of this book to have at work. I am a nurse and do shiftwork. We often compare our brought in meals. Nurses are becoming bigger and bigger. I am sure a copy of your book in our meal room would encourage all of us to have healthier meals.

  • Anna Wardle

    The book looks fascinating… It can certainly be hard to know the ‘right’ thing to do sometimes!

  • Cathy

    Dear Trudy,
    I am a Nurse in the UK and recently had a 25 year school reunion. All the nurses were BIG ! I realise its time to adress the weight that has crept up on me over the years.
    You have many fans in the UK including a gastric band support group who reccomend your books.
    Many thanks for your work.

  • melissa

    What a fantastic book! Thanks Trudy for all your hard work!

  • Karen

    Great article, thank you! I am studying Nutrition at Uni and my lecturer actually recommended this book when we were talking about energy density. I think the visual aspect of the book would help to make a significant impact on food perspective and choices. 🙂

  • Josie

    Would love to get a book. I really need some assistance with losing weight. I have heard that this book is fantastic (my daughter in law) now I would like to have it.
    From what daughter-in-law has told me, I could definitely have the right tools to eat healthier and lose weight.

  • Susan

    I bought a copy of this book for our bariatric centre. Patients and I would look at the equivalent choices and I encouraged them to eat the ‘bigger portion’ foods when they were very hungry and save the treatie/high cal foods for those times when they were less likely to eat to the bottom of the box. They were happy to see that they could still eat things they liked but could easily see the right amount and then pick the right hunger zone. A very useful tool, not just for weight loss but also for my cholesterol control. Definitely part of a healthy and educated food lifestyle.

  • Hello Denise and Cathy – you both highlight the problem that shiftwork can bring when it comes to food choice/timing and weight. Add to that sleep imbalance, stress and workplace food gifts that patients bring…an almost sure fire recipe for creeping weight gain, but it can be reversed.

    Hi Anna and Josie. Stay tuned to The Scoop Nutrition’s site for more great food and nutrition information to help you succeed. Become a ‘member’ for regular updates.

    Glad you enjoyed the post Karen and Elsa and thanks for your positive note Melissa.

    Susan. What a clever way to use the book in your practice. A perfect example of how energy density and serve size can be used to suit level of hunger. Large pix when hungry, small pix when less hungry and less impulsive. Plus it helped with your cholesterol. Guessing you cut back on the red alerts and red extra pages!


  • So wonderful to see such support for Trudy’s books! We’ve picked a random number….drum roll….and it’s Glenn! Just sent you an email to organise delivery. Thanks again to Trudy for the excellent post and for donating a copy of the book.

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