Mega Portions Don't Always Mean Mega Calories

More on your plate as a way to lose weight? It could work for you; just learn more about the concept of volumetrics.


We hear it over and over: portion control, portion control, portion control if you want to lose weight. And it's true: As a general rule, the more food on your plate, the more calories. It's a sensible guideline, and portion control is important. But recent research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points to a catch: Larger portions aren't always higher in calories, and they may actually help you feel full longer.

The Lowdown on Volumetrics

This area of research is based on the energy density of food and dubbed "volumetrics." It is detailed in The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan, coauthored by Barbara Rolls, PhD, a scientist at Penn State University. Put simply, the energy density of a certain food is the number of calories (energy) per gram that the food contains. Examples of low-energy dense foods include fruits and vegetables-gram for gram, these foods contain fewer calories than a piece of cake of equal weight because of the amounts of water and fiber in each.

Why It Can Work

Part of the benefit is that foods that have more water (and fiber) in them may help you to feel more satisfied. While strict portion control may sometimes work in the short term, it is rarely sustainable, because it may leave you feeling deprived. Satiety is essential to helping control calories but also to sticking to a healthy pattern of eating over the long haul.

Low-energy dense foods include fruits, vegetables, soups, cooked grains, low-fat milk, lean meat, poultry, fish, and legumes (beans, lentils, peas). Combination foods, such as soups, stews, and casseroles, can also do the trick. Fortunately, many of these low-energy dense foods also contain a fair amount of fiber. Fiber naturally adds "bulk" to foods by absorbing liquid while in the stomach, which may increase the feeling of satiety. Because foods high in fat and calories typically fall into the high-energy dense category, choosing primarily low-energy dense foods means that you may be able to eat less fat and fewer calories-but plenty of volume.

Using Volumetrics in Your Life

Here are a few simple strategies for adding volume and fiber with fewer calories:

  • Pile sandwiches high with vegetables-sprouts, shredded carrots, lettuce leaves, and tomato, cucumber, and pepper slices.
  • Enjoy large portions of greens in your salad, topped with small portions of lean meat, poultry, or fish. Just go easy on the dressing and choose a low-fat or low-calorie option.
  • Choose a large bowl of broth-based soup loaded with vegetables and beans, instead of a sandwich.
  • Swap low-water snacks such as chips or pretzels for cucumber, carrot, and celery sticks dipped into hummus.
  • Substitute spinach and eggplant for traditional ingredients in casseroles and lasagna.
  • Opt for a glass of skim milk and some sliced fruit with a dollop of low-fat whipped topping for dessert.

Just Remember…

With volumetric eating, there are no forbidden foods. You can still occasionally enjoy some high-energy dense items, such as potato chips or chocolate-it's just that low-energy dense foods should be the dominant choices. If you're full and satisfied after a hearty, low-energy dense meal, indulge in a small portion of dessert.