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Should you be eating energy-dense foods?

We may often hear that we should consume fewer energy-dense foods and more nutrient-dense foods to meet daily nutrient needs without exceeding our daily caloric requirements.

Defined simply, energy density is the amount of calories per 100 grams of food, and nutrient density refers to the relative amount of micronutrients (like vitamins and minerals) in 100 grams of food. For example, peanut butter is a more energy-dense food than yogurt. Higher-energy-dense foods often contain higher amounts of fat and lower amounts of fiber and water content compared to lower-energy-dense foods. 

There are a few situations when energy-dense foods can be useful, particularly in times of high training load like training camps and/or when an athlete needs a high amount of calories but does not want to feel too bloated or full. During periods of high training load, energy needs can be very high, but an athlete may lack the time or appetite to eat the necessary calories. Athletes who are overly focused on "clean eating" or eating a large amount of high-fiber, high-water foods may feel too full before meeting their calorie requirements. Similarly, an athlete might want to reduce the amount of high-fiber foods before a race to avoid GI issues. Foods that are more energy dense can help to fulfill calorie and carbohydrate needs in these scenarios.

There are foods that can be considered both energy and nutrient dense, and these foods are typically very useful in an athlete's diet. Here are some examples:

  • Nuts and seeds like hemp seeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds

  • Nut butters

  • Avocado

  • Dried fruit

  • Granola

  • Egg yolks

  • Salmon

  • Chocolate or cacao

Including these foods in our regular diet can help us meet both nutrient and calorie needs, and there is nothing wrong with occasionally including pure energy-dense foods that aren't necessarily high in micronutrients to meet our calorie needs; many common café-stop foods fall in this category, such as croissants, cookies, donuts, and other baked goods. Ultimately, food can and should be enjoyed as much as it is used to fuel our training and performance. 


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