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Note: As part of National Nutrition Month, we'll be highlighting tips from our Registered Dietitians around the theme of "Nutrition from the Ground Up." For more info see our kickoff post or visit ADA's National Nutrition Month page.

By: Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RD  Date: 3/31/10

Do you know how many calories you really need in a day?  Most people do not according to our Food & Health Survey.  When asked to estimate the number of calories they should be consuming in an average day, 74 percent of Americans provide an answer; 26 percent say that they “don’t know.”  Among those willing to estimate the amount of calories per day, only 11 percent are able to provide an accurate estimate.

So much attention is being paid to calories these days from calorie listings on the front of food and beverage packages as well as menus and menu boards to calorie charts highlighting how many calories can be burned during brief bouts of certain types of physical activity.  The “calorie” – this small, seven-letter word - is a BIG deal.  We often talk about what eating too many calories will do to us or how we should expend more calories than we consume.  But what I – and many of my weight management clients from my experience working in private practice – find more interesting is…”How can I make calories work for me?” 

As we close out National Nutrition Month®, we at the International Food Information Council Foundation, will continue to reflect on many of this year’s themes, including “making calories count” and “balancing physical activity and a healthful diet to manage weight.”

Is There a Difference Between Nutrient Density and Energy Density?

Making our calories work for us begins with a mindset that does not consider “good” and “bad” foods based on calories alone, but rather looks at the healthfulness of the overall diet and the nutrient-rich food and beverage choices that make up that diet.  Nutrient-rich foods are simply foods and beverages that pack a number of vitamins, minerals and other key nutrients that support health. Foods full of nutrients, often called nutrient rich or dense, do not have to be low calorie, low fat or low in sugar. However, many nutrient dense foods are naturally lower in these components.

Nutrient density is not to be confused with energy density. Energy density is used to describe how high a food is in energy, or calories.  Essentially, foods that have lower energy density are foods with fewer calories for the same amount or volume. For example, dried fruit is a more energy dense food than the same amount of whole fruit. That’s because the water is removed from dry fruit, leaving the same amount of calories in a smaller size.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t consume dried fruit, but eating whole fruit just gives you a larger portion for the same amount of calories.   


Consider MyPyramid as a guide that can help us quickly identify key food groups such as the vegetables, fruits, grains, milk, and meat and beans groups.  There are nutrient dense or rich choices within each group. 

MyPyramid recommends considerable consumption from the fruit group and vegetable group whether its fresh, frozen, or canned.  This is an easy choice: Build your meal around nutrient dense (and often low in calories) fruits and veggies. Fruits and veggies are rich in vitamin A for skin and eye health and vitamin C for healing and dental health. They can also be a good source of calcium, fiber, folate, iron, magnesium and potassium. Check out this link for a short explanation of these important nutrients.

Add a few servings from the milk group, which consists of milk, cheese and yogurt; three servings a day is a nice goal. In addition to being an excellent source of calcium, milk is also high in protein, electrolytes (potassium and sodium) for fluid balance and several other vitamins and minerals.  Quick tip: All milk, whether it’s nonfat, whole, 2 percent, or skim, contains the same amount of calcium. So cutting the calories you consume by choosing low-fat milk and milk products will keep you on track to getting your daily recommended intake of calcium.

The grains group is a great place to make sure your calories count. Anything made from grains, like bread, pasta, oatmeal, cereal and tortillas is part of the grain group.  It is recommended to choose whole grains at least 50 percent of the time to gain the best possible health benefits from your grain intake; increasing your fiber intake is often a benefit from increasing your consumption of these types of grains.  Whole grain choices include oatmeal, brown rice, and products made with whole-wheat flour, including certain breads and pastas.  Many cereals also provide many options for tasty whole grain choices.

The meat and beans group is the protein powerhouse of MyPyramid. Protein is a building block for strong bones, muscles, skin and blood. Meat and beans are also a great source of B vitamins, Vitamin E and several other minerals. Most choices from this group should still be lean or low-fat to control your saturated fat intake; you will also likely decrease your calories by choosing leaner cuts of meat. Fish, nuts, and seeds are a great source of healthful fats and should be chosen more often.

The Bottom Line

Calories really do count and they add up; portions are important.  Choosing these foods recommended by MyPyramid most of the time is the best way to be sure you’re getting the most “nutrient bang” for your “calorie buck.” Still, knowing how many calories are in your “calorie bank” is wise; to figure out how many calories you need to achieve a healthy weight, visit  Finally, be sure to “deposit” some physical activity into the bank on most days to keep things in balance; it’s good for the bottom line. 

How do you keep your calories “in check”?



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