Purpose Energy intake varies day-to-day because we select different foods, and different amounts of these foods. Energy balance is not tightly regulated over the short-term, and the variability in diet results in an energy surplus or deficit. The aim of this study was to explore how consuming more, or less, than usual amounts of foods contributed towards balancing of total energy intake (TEI) within a day. Methods Four-day food records came from 6155 adult participants of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey to study these effects. Within-individual regression models of the energy from 60 food groups on TEI were calculated. Energy intake variation within-individuals was regressed separately on the variation in amounts of each food group. Regression models were also fitted to individual four day means. Results Within-individual coefficients ranged from about 0 for high-fibre breakfast cereals to 1.7 for sugar preserves and spreads. Three food groups (e.g. low-calorie soft drinks) tended to reduce TEI, and 13 food groups (e.g. margarine and other spreads, and alcoholic drinks) tended to elevate TEI above the energy content of the food group when more than usual amounts were consumed. Foods groups of higher energy densities, or lower fibre content (e.g. typical "snack" foods, low-fibre bread, and processed meat) tended to promote greater TEI more so than did food groups of lower energy densities (e.g. meat, fish, high-fibre foods, and potatoes). Conclusion Different food groups vary considerably in the extent to which they affect TEI in free-living adults. The associations between consuming more, or less, than usual amounts of foods and the effects on TEI are consistent with those found in laboratory studies. Importantly, the present study found similar associations, but using a different methodology and in observational data, providing novel information on energy intake compensation.