You’ve heard about calories. Every package in the grocery store lists them on the back of the package. All the ads you hear about food dwell on their low-calorie appeal. Calories are bad…right?
Actually, the skinny on calories is a lot more complicated than that! It’s true that excess calories can be awful for your body. But without calories, you couldn’t enjoy daily life, go to work, or do much of anything! Most of all, understanding calories gives you a powerful tool in your nutrition and health maintenance toolbox. Read on.
Low Calorie Foods
Technically, any food can be “low calorie.” You just have to eat it in small amounts! Think of a 100-calorie snack pack.
100 calories is about a twentieth of what a full-grown woman needs to eat in a day. (I’ll talk more about the math and science of calories in a little while.) Maybe it has a few nuts, some raisins, and a couple of pieces of chocolate.
It’s not more than a handful of food. What would you say if I told you that you could get the same number of calories out of an entire head of Romaine lettuce?
It’s true! Here are a few other 100-calorie servings that might surprise you:
- One large apple
- Three large tomatoes
- Three cucumbers
- One and a half grapefruits
- Twenty-five strawberries
- Three cups of air-popped popcorn
- Sixteen ounces of raw spinach
Notice anything about that list? If you noticed that it was primarily made up of fruits and veggies, then give yourself a gold star!
Sure, I could have listed the single tablespoon of peanut butter that would constitute 100 calories, or the 23 M&Ms that would have done the same thing.
But let’s be real here: have you ever eaten just half of a bag of M&Ms? If you have, then you know chocolate’s dirty little secret…it doesn’t fill you up!
Low Calorie Foods That Fill You Up
Those 100 calories of M&Ms might be temporarily satisfying. That’s because they’re packed with sugar, which your body naturally craves. But they also don’t contain any significant nutrients. Your body will ask for M&Ms, and once it gets them, realize that they’re basically worthless. Nevertheless, it’ll dutifully store them away as fat. Then, it’ll ask you for more food. (In fact, it’ll probably ask you for more M&Ms!)
Be ready to give your body something filling instead. Better yet, give it something nutritious. Even if your snack just contains fiber, it’s a huge improvement over candy! In fact, fiber can really keep you feeling full. If you want to make the most of your 100 calorie snack break, here’s what to eat:
- Undressed salad. Remember how I said that an entire head of Romaine adds up to 100 calories? Other greens are much the same! As long as you don’t throw a bunch of thick dressing on your salad, it’ll fill you up nicely without throwing off your calorie count. You’ll benefit from the extra fiber, antioxidants, and beta carotene, too. Maybe the idea of raw, undressed greens doesn’t appeal to you. Try adding a touch of olive oil and a pinch of salt.
- Raw fruit. Michael Pollan likes to say that if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re not really hungry. Those are words to live by! Fruit is a sugary treat not unlike the candy we often crave. The difference is that the apple has nutritional value! Fruit is a good source of vitamins, fiber, and minerals. When your body processes it, it’ll find enough nutrients to satisfy it for a while. Over time, you can train your sweet tooth to accept a piece of fruit instead of a bag of chocolate.
- Surprised? Don’t be! I’m not talking about the butter-drenched cinema variety. Instead, think of the crunchy, plain, air-popped variety. Contrary to popular belief, popcorn has its own subtle but pleasing flavor. It also has something in common with our other stars on this list: tons of fiber! Like other whole grains, popcorn has some useful minerals and micronutrients, too. (That’s right: popcorn is a whole grain. This is true whether or not the popcorn is organic!)
- Green vegetables galore. Want to eat 100 calories of something that’s great for you? How about a full plate of asparagus? Twenty-two full asparagus spears comes to just 100 calories. You’ll enjoy a nice dose of vitamin K, too…and, of course, fiber! Not a fan of asparagus? Try five full cups of broccoli florets instead. That’s 100 calories, too. Maybe you’d prefer to eat four entire bell peppers. Or eighteen stalks of celery. Or two and a half cups of green beans. The list goes on! To make a long story short, green veggies are your friends. You can mix and match all of the ones I just mentioned. Roasting them will make a low-calorie side dish. You’ll keep your stomach and your waistline happy at the same time!
Zero Calorie Foods List
The foods I covered above are ultra low-calorie. If you nibble a single floret of broccoli, you’ll be getting close to nothing as far as calories go.
A single strawberry delivers all of 4 calories to your body! The same goes for cucumber rounds, single pieces of popcorn, and apple slices. If you just need something to chew, these options are nearly without consequence.
And yet, you do get a couple calories from a cucumber round. Even a blueberry has one calorie. Isn’t there a food that lets you avoid all calories?
If you want to avoid calories, you could drink water!
Water is naturally zero-calorie and undeniably good for you. Some sodas purport to be zero-calorie as well, but often come loaded with medically dubious artificial sweeteners.
It simply passes through your system. As long as it’s not mixed with anything, like sauce or tofu, it gives you no energy.
There’s also a diet myth surrounding foods that deliver so few calories that they cause your body to burn fat just by digesting them. These are called “negative-calorie” foods.
Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, it’s a little too good to be true. Negative-calorie foods are a widespread myth. I’ll talk a little more about them later.
What Is A Calorie
What are we really talking about when we talk about a calorie? Why do they always seem to come in large groups? Why do you need them at all?
Calories aren’t like vitamins or minerals. There’s no calorie chemical. You’ll never see pure calorie extract on sale at your health food store. Instead, calories describe how much energy a piece of food could potentially give you.
A calorie is equal to the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius.
If you took physics in school, you’ll know that a Joule is a standard international unit of energy measurement. One calorie is equal to 4.184 Joules.
You could measure any expenditure of energy in calories if you wanted to. Here are a few measurements that might put things in perspective:
- A 100-watt incandescent light bulb burns about 100 Joules per second. (Remember, energy equals power multiplied by time! 100 watts of power times 1 second equals 100 Joules.) We can convert those Joules to calories by dividing 100 by 4.184. That comes out to about 24 calories per second. Multiply that by sixty. In one minute, an incandescent lightbulb burns about 1,440 calories. That’s enough energy to keep a small woman on her feet all day!
- A low-power toaster uses 800 watts per 12-minute toast. Let’s recreate the math from the previous example. 800 is already a total, so we don’t have to worry about multiplying watts by time. Divide 800 Joules by 4.184, and we get about 191 calories. Ironically, the energy you could get from six slices of bread would more than cover the energy needed to toast them.
- What about your laptop? Compact computers are generally quite low-energy, running at about 60 watts per hour. Let’s make the math easy and assume you only use your laptop for an hour. That’s just 60 joules…and 14.3 calories!
Instead of using electricity, your body relies on chemistry to use energy. It gets calories out of your food by converting that food into simple sugars and then delivering those sugars to your cells. Not quite like the toaster!
Your body is also more sophisticated than your kitchen appliances. It has the ability to store extra calories for later by converting them to fat.
This may seem like an odd thing to do in a modern context. But remember, food abundance is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the Industrial Revolution, people went hungry a lot!
When that happened, their bodies would tap their fatty energy reserves and keep them healthy until food was abundant again.
Low Calorie Meals
Losing weight doesn’t have to involve an endless diet of lettuce! In fact, it should incorporate a variety of nutritious, protein-heavy foods. Here are a few options for healthy low-calorie meals:
- Stuffed peppers. One pepper adds up to 287 calories and includes protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. These portable feasts are ideal lunchroom fare!
- Skinny eggs Benedict. Amazingly, without the hash browns and bacon, one serving of this popular diner breakfast comes in at 150 calories!
- Pizza chicken. You read that right! This fun chicken dish measures 307 calories per serving, including a ton of protein.
1200 Calorie Diet
Before I talk about your minimum-calorie diet, let me explain a bit about how many calories your body needs to maintain its weight. That will help us put a low-calorie diet into perspective later.
Your personal calorie requirements may vary depending on your height, weight, and gender. WebMD has a good chart explaining how much you probably need.
For the most part, men require about 2,200 calories per day to maintain their weight. Women need around 1,800.
If you want to encourage your body to drop some pounds, the best way is to force it to burn fat. You can do this by creating a calorie deficit and forcing your body to draw upon its energy reserves.
Obviously, you can’t do that overnight! You only take in 1,800 calories per day, adding up to just 12,600 calories per week.
Your body can’t possibly burn calories that fast. If you do lose weight at a rate of ten pounds per week, then you almost definitely have a more serious health problem.
Even people on doctor-assisted extreme diets don’t drop the pounds like that. Aim to take off a pound or two per week.
For this exercise, I’m going to assume that you’re an average-sized woman. You eat about 1,800 calories per day. If you reduce that intake to 1,700 calories, your body will tap its fat for that missing 100 calories. Over 35 days, you’ll lose one pound.
Now, you could also cut your food intake right down to the medically safe minimum: 1,200 calories. By creating a daily calorie deficit of 600 calories, you’ll lose about one pound every six days.
However, taking this step will require you to do some extra work. Every calorie will count. Wasting precious bites on nutritionally empty candy, white bread, and soda will make your body weaker.
That’s why it will be important to plan your meals, eat healthy, and avoid junk food. If you do this, you CAN lose that weight!
Daily Calorie Intake
While cutting down your calories can be an important part of losing weight, it’s important not to go too low!
Along with every calorie you consume, you get the vitamins, minerals, and energy that you need to be healthy.
You’ll need more calories if you’re active, less if you’re older. For example, compare the needs of three sedentary women at different stages of their lives:
- Under 30: 1,800 – 2,000 calories
- Under 50: 1,800 calories
- Over 50: 1,600 calories
Active women may need to add up to 400 calories to their daily intake regardless of their age.
Male calorie needs are much the same as women’s, but scaled up to accommodate their naturally larger size:
- Under 30: 2,400 – 2,600 calories
- Under 50: 2,200 – 2,400 calories
- Over 50: 2,000 – 2,200 calories
Consuming calories according to these numbers will allow you to maintain your weight. If you want to lose, then you’ll need to restrict your calorie intake to force your body to start tapping its fat.
Negative Calorie Foods
There’s a widespread myth out there surrounding so-called “negative calorie” foods. The idea is clever: what if it took more calories to digest a piece of food than it gives you? Wouldn’t you net negative calories?
Theoretically, yes…but in fact, no. It turns out that your body’s digestive process is extremely efficient. Let’s look at the numbers.
One stalk of celery will give you 6 calories. In the course of digesting it, you chew it, move it to your stomach, toss it around, push it through your digestive tract, and eliminate what’s left of it. Want to guess how many calories that process burns?
One half of one calorie…
From a chewing gum study, researchers know that constant chewing burns just 11 calories per hour. The rest of your digestive process is super-efficient, too. You’d have to vigorously gnaw that celery stick for 30 minutes just to offset its caloric load.
Chewing gum may burn some calories, but you’d have to chew the same piece for hours to get any real benefit. If you’re committed to killing calories with your food, you could also try drinking one quart of ice-cold water.
Just heating the water would use about 100 calories. If you can shotgun an entire quart of water, then you deserve the calorie savings. Be aware, however, that the water needs to be on the verge of freezing for this to work. In my humble opinion, there are much better ways to lose weight!
Low Calorie Fruits
Contrary to popular belief, not all fruits are low-calorie! For example, if you eat an entire avocado, you will have well exceeded 100 calories. If you’re counting calories, try these fruits first:
- These delectable treats, loaded with antioxidants, are just one calorie apiece. Raspberries are about the same.
- I mentioned these before. Cultivated varieties fall between two and five calories depending on size. Eat as many as you’d like. This is one of those foods that will fill your stomach long before it’ll bust your calorie count.
- Each grape is about three calories. Unlike strawberries, however, grapes are small and tend to come in big bunches. If you eat a hundred grapes, you’ll rack up calories equivalent to a medium-small lunch.
- Nectarines, plums, and apricots. These fruits all weigh in at around 25 to 30 calories apiece. You could eat four nectarines and rack up only a hundred calories!
- One apple is about 95 calories, depending on its size.
500 Calorie Meals
500 Calorie Meals
If you eat three 500-calorie meals per day, your total intake will be 1,500 calories.
Whether you’re a woman or a man, this is ideal for weight loss. Remember, even a small woman generally needs 1,800 calories per day! 1,500 calories may be the entirety of your diet.
You may also need a healthy snack on top of that. However, eating a meal of 500-ish calories is a great baseline! Try these easy recipes first:
- Chicken enchilada stuffed zucchini boats. I realize that this sounds involved, but give it a chance. It’ll become a weeknight favorite! The best part: with eight boats, you can break this meal up into smaller ones. Each boat is only 116 calories.
- Slow cooker paella. If you’ve never had paella, then prepare for a treat. Your slow cooker does the work for you with this exciting and delicious 467-calorie recipe.
- Stuffed winter squash. The beautiful thing about this recipe is that it’s endlessly customizable. You could really stuff the squash with anything you wanted. However, this version is only 412 calories per serving.
Calories aren’t all you need to worry about if you’re trying to diet! I’ve already talked a little bit about nutrient density.
When I discussed why M&Ms aren’t great snacks, I talked about how they don’t give you a whole lot of vitamins and minerals. They are not nutrient-dense. Though they give you a lot of calories, they don’t really do much else for your body.
The average American struggles to get enough nutrients in their food, though getting calories is no problem. If you find that you’ve packed on a few extra pounds, it may be because you’ve been eating the food that’s most available, cheapest, and often tastiest. These low-nutrient-density foods include:
- Potato chips
- Candy bars
- White bread
- White rice
When you’re trying to get healthy, it’s important to focus on foods with a high nutrient density. Not only will this keep you from getting hungry again right after you eat, but it’ll help you make the most of your daily calorie allowance!
Recommended Calorie Intake
I mentioned before that women over thirty only need about 1,800 calories per day, while men may only need 2,200. That number may vary depending on your size and activity level.
There are many calorie calculators available for free on the Internet to tell you how much you should be eating per day. However, your best resource is always your doctor.
If you’ve come to exceed your calorie intake, there’s no need to feel ashamed. Studies show that people unconsciously seek high-calorie foods when they’re stressed out.
Getting married can cause weight gain, too. This isn’t necessarily because your new spouse makes you anxious, but because you’re no longer trying to attract a mate!
Ironically, being too poor to afford fruits and veggies can also result in weight gain. The cheapest foods are often the least nutritious. You may end up eating more calories to meet your basic nutritional needs.
There are even emotional reasons that people gain weight. Sometimes, people who deal with these kinds of issues need to go through therapy before they can lose their weight safely.
What I’m saying is just this: being overweight doesn’t make you a bad person. Or a weak person. Or stupid. It just makes you a person. Life is complicated and so are you.
But if you’ve read this far, then you’re at least considering a change. Just embarking on this journey is a big deal. Dropping your extra weight will add years to your life. Kudos to you for taking on this challenge! I know you can do it.
Daily Calorie Needs
When dieting, you might cut your calorie intake right down to the minimum. For women, this is usually 1,200 calories per day.
Men must eat at least 1,500 calories to remain healthy. However, those are fairly intense diets.
Cutting down by just a couple hundred calories per day – for example, by cutting out your afternoon snack – can also help you to lose weight. This is especially true if you add exercise into your daily routine!
Most Calorie Dense Food
So I’ve talked about losing weight by restricting your calorie intake. What foods do you need to watch out for? You might be surprised! Some foods that are healthy in small amounts can add up the calories fast! They include…
- Did you know that a single cup of peanuts contains 875 calories? Sure, it’s packed with nutrients, but that’s a lot of food! Almonds are a little less heavy, but only a little: you’ll gain 827 calories if you eat an entire cup of almond slivers. Even pistachios clock in at 685 calories to a cup. Bottom line: if you’re going to snack on nuts, make you you eat them one at a time…and chew!
- Nut butters. It may not come as a surprise that peanut, cashew, and almond butter are also calorie dense. A single tablespoon of peanut butter adds up to 94 calories. If that doesn’t sound bad, think about how you use it. Each slice of whole-grain bread in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich comes to about 70 calories. One tablespoon of grape jelly adds up to about 50 calories. Assuming you only use one tablespoon each of jam and peanut butter on these smallish slices of bread, you’ve still racked up almost 300 calories on this sandwich alone. One tablespoon of peanut butter is barely enough to stick the bread together. You wouldn’t have to add much more to push that sandwich’s calorie count close to 400!
- Say what you will about nuts: at least they’re nutritious. The redeeming aspects of the cocoa bean are generally gone by the time it lands in your grocery’s candy aisle. One cup of chocolate chips will put you back 899 calories. If you’re a woman, this is also known as “50% of everything you’re allowed to eat today.”
- Granted, you’re not likely to eat a lot of cheese in one sitting. For most people, cheese is something of a treat. However, it’s good to be aware that it’s not necessarily healthy to be cheesy. For example, one cup of Parmesan or Romano cheese costs 431 calories per cup. That can dramatically up the calorie count of a pasta dish without your full knowledge. Cheddar cheese is similar, containing 455 calories per cup. Even a cup of trendy goat cheese will set you back 505 calories. According to etiquette experts, the average person will eat about 1.5 ounces of cheese at a party. This might measure out to about a quarter of a cup and some change. In other words, you could end up consuming a 140-calorie cheese meal without even paying attention!
Low Carb Foods
It’s time to talk about carbs. Carbs aren’t calories. They’re just complex sugars present in a lot of breads and pastas. So why are they such a problem?
Carbs are also known as carbohydrates. They break down from complex sugars into simple ones once they get into your body.
It’s easy to eat carbs in volume. (Ever been to an Italian restaurant? There’s a reason they give you so much spaghetti!)
However, carb-heavy foods don’t tend to include a lot of other nutrients. All that stealth sugar they contain is bad for your body. They tend to be high in calories, too.
So what are your low-carb options? Here are some alternatives to bread, white rice, and pasta:
- Lettuce wraps. Fresh lettuce is both crunchy and supple. This makes it perfect for wrapping your food. If you like taking a pita to work for lunch, why not switch out that flatbread with a leaf? Not only will you cut the carbs, but you’ll dramatically reduce your sandwich’s calorie count!
- Whole grains. Multigrain bread and brown rice still contain carbs, but they’ll fill you up. The same can’t be said for their bleached cousins, white bread and white rice. That bleaching process removes the nutritious parts of these grains, leaving you with a bunch of empty calories. Bonus: eat quinoa instead of rice! It’s easier to prepare and far more nutritious.
- Vegetable pizza and pie crust. Did you know that you can make crust with cauliflower? It’s true! You can also make it with summer squash or sweet potato. The recipes at the links may be for pizza crust, but they’ll work just fine for shepherd’s pie, too.
- Baked veggie fries. Potatoes, alas, are starchy, carb-loaded food villains. Even oven-baked fries are bound to be bad for you. Luckily, you can switch out the potatoes with kohlrabi and still have a crunchy, satisfying snack.
- Veggie noodles. You need a spiralizer for this, but that’s really all you need. Once you have one, you can make noodles out of pretty much any vegetable. Zucchini, beets, cucumber, and jicama are popular choices.
Low Calorie Desserts
You might have read my earlier list of calorie-dense foods with a sinking feeling. If you’re anything like me, you like chocolate!
If you’re afraid of what dieting will do to you psychologically, don’t fret. Not all deserts are calorie count killers. Try these instead:
- Fruit cup. These aren’t hard to make. Better yet, they’ll satisfy your body’s desire for something sweet. A fruit cup can easily measure less than 100 calories, especially if you lean heavily on berries.
- Coffee. It’s not just for breakfast! Avoid adding dairy or you’ll miss the point. Even with a teaspoon of sugar, a single cup has under 30 calories total. Tea is also a good option.
- Frozen fruit. If you’ve ever craved ice cream on a warm summer evening, then this may be the dessert option for you! Bananas and grapes both freeze very nicely, making pleasant and low-calorie after-dinner snacks. You can even puree them and let them set in popsicle molds. Blueberries also freeze well.
Zero Calorie Foods
I talked before about Shirataki noodles, which may be one of the few truly zero-calorie foods out there.
Water is an option, too, but aside from those two consumables, your options for zero-calorie fare are limited.
All food has some calories. Even breath mints give you a little energy!
If you’re looking for a way to satisfy yourself without actually eating, then gum might be your friend. Sugar-free gum includes minimal calories. Chewing it even burns a little fat.
Your weight may seem like an insurmountable obstacle between you and your health right now. Don’t lose hope! Now that you know about calories, you have the power to take back your ideal weight. It may take patience and determination, but now that you know the secret of the calorie, you can succeed.
What do you snack on? Share your thoughts below…