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Energy density and managing portions



The best way to determine the energy density of foods is by calculating how much energy is in a typical serving.

Energy density = no. of calories/weight (grams)

Based on this calculation:

  • Very low energy-dense foods = less than 0.6 kcal/g
  • Low energy-dense foods = 0.6 to 1.5 kcal/g
  • Medium energy-dense foods = 1.5 to 4 kcal/g
  • High energy-dense foods = more than 4 kcal/g (Source: The British Nutrition Foundation)

Calculating is not always an option, especially when it’s home-cooked meals made using various ingredients. The next best thing is to identify whether the meal is composed of foods that are mainly carbohydrates, proteins or fats. Fats provides the highest amount of energy (calories) per gram – double what carbohydrates or proteins provide. It thus follows that the more fat is contained in a food or used to prepare the food, the higher its energy density. Fat can be added to food as ghee, lard, butter, vegetable oil or cream. Think of dishes made of puff pastry, like croissants and pies, creamy pasta dishes, and most baked goods. Certain protein-rich foods like fried chicken, beef intestines (tripe), breakfast sausages, cheese and chicken nuggets are also high in fat. In cases where these foods are part of a meal, the food should be served with a proportionally larger serving of fruit and vegetables. Desserts, cookies, sweets and cakes should only be given after a meal, in small quantities and only occasionally as a treat.

Sugar is a carbohydrate which in its usual form only consists of calories. Foods that contain a lot of added sugar as is the case with certain breakfast pastries and desserts are therefore high in energy density. When you add sugar to another carbohydrate food such as wheat flour and then deep-fry in oil, you get a very high energy-dense food. Think of burfi, koeksisters, magwinya and mandazi. It is not advisable for a child to consume large amounts of these high energy-dense foods and they should be offered, if at all, only an occasional treat.

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