We talk about calories a lot. So much so that new food labels will highlight calories in a big, bold font. But as much as we obsess over them, calories don’t always tell the full story of a food.
Beyond calories, we need a variety of nutrients to keep our bodies and minds as healthy as possible. After all, three-hundred calories of whole-grain bread, turkey, lettuce, tomato, and sliced avocado are far different than the same amount of calories from a candy bar. While the number of calories in your diet can determine your weight, the quality of your calories determines your health.
When we get too caught up with calories, we may end up writing off a number of healthy foods that absolutely deserve a spot on our plates. Allow me to make my case for a few of these foods.
1. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds may be tiny, but the calories add up as fast as you can sprinkle them. Don’t let their calorie count—138 calories per two tablespoons—scare you off, though. Those two tablespoons provide a powerhouse of protein (five grams, which is about as much as an egg) and fiber (10 grams).
Try topping a cup of plain Greek yogurt with some fresh-cut mango, half a cup of high-fiber cereal (at least five grams), and a tablespoon of chia seeds. Stash in the fridge overnight and you’ll have a pudding-like breakfast you’ll want to jump out of bed for in the morning.
2. Full-Fat Yogurt
If you haven’t already noticed, full-fat Greek yogurts are taking up more and more shelf space in the dairy aisle. When my patients tell me they don’t like plain Greek yogurt, I usually recommend they give the full-fat version a go. Here’s why: Although a serving of full-fat yogurt is 130 calories (versus 80 for the fat-free stuff), it packs a richer, creamier texture. And, of course, it still provides the usual protein (13 grams, which is about as much as two ounces of chicken). You’ll also get 15 percent of your daily needs for calcium, plus some potassium, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12. What’s more, the probiotics in yogurt fuel the friendly bacteria in your gut to help boost your immune system. All this goodness is certainly worth 130 calories.
Try swapping full-fat plain Greek yogurt in for sour cream on your next baked potato. The yogurt packs four times as much protein as sour cream and will help you feel fuller for longer.
Oil might make you think, ‘calorie bomb’—and rightly so, considering a single cup of oil is almost 2,000 calories. If you’re mindlessly drizzling it all over your salads and veggies, you might be taking in hundreds of extra calories, but as long as you limit oil to a tablespoon or so, you can benefit from its health benefits without going overboard on the cals. Two of my favorite picks are olive oil and avocado oil, because they contain healthy monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) that can support your heart and cholesterol.
When making salad dressings, focus on using less oil and more vinegar. Adding a thick balsamic glaze to your dressing can help keep you from going to oil-heavy—and just a tablespoon provides about a third of the calories as a tablespoon of oil. Just combine balsamic vinegar and a little sweetener in a saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally until the liquid thickens.
Full disclosure: I am nuts about nuts. If there’s any food that I admittedly overdo, it’s nuts. A one-ounce serving of nuts is about 170 calories, with six grams of protein, two grams of fiber, and an array of nutrients coming along with those healthy fats.
Here are a few reasons to eat more nuts (in proper portion sizes, of course): Almonds provide bone-building calcium as well as vitamin E, a nutrient that supports healthy skin. Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium, which is needed to help boost immunity and wound healing. Cashews provide iron, which helps build blood cells. Pistachios are rich in vitamin B6, which supports your nervous system, and lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that play a role in eye health. Walnuts are rich in the beloved omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health.
Sprinkle sliced, slivered, or crushed nuts over salads, veggie dishes, or even your oatmeal to satisfy your hunger with every crunchy mouthful.
We love to ditch bread when we’re trying to lose weight—but it’s one of the most satisfying, energizing foods out there! While you can feel free to skip the bagels (which often pack around 500 calories even before the cream cheese), a slice of bread is typically about 100 calories. My advice: Instead of giving up bread completely, stick to whole-grain. Whole-grain bread provides more fiber (about two grams versus 0.8 in the white stuff) to promote healthy digestion and fill you up. You’ll also get a dose of B vitamins, which support energy and your nervous system, and the carbs your body needs for fuel. Just look for a loaf that lists ‘whole grain’ as the first ingredient.
Treat yourself in a healthful way by making French toast with whole-grain bread and topping it with fresh fruit instead of syrup.
Beans are not given the superfood status they deserve! These plants pack tons of nutrition into a half-cup serving, which is about 100 calories. Beans are rich in fiber (eight grams), protein (six grams), and goodies like B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, and zinc. Not to mention, they are easy to find in any supermarket, affordable, and simple to store. The soluble fiber in beans has been shown help ward of high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—whew! Just avoid pre-made bean dishes or sides that are often packed with added sugar.
Beans are great alongside your morning eggs, atop your salad at lunch, or in a soup with dinner. You an even enjoy beans in the form of dip (like chickpeas in hummus) for a fiber and protein-filled snack. I like to jazz up store-bought hummus with chopped veggies, pesto, herbs, spices or honey, and tons of veggie sticks for dunking.
Cheese pretty much speaks straight to our souls. And while a serving of cheese isn’t quite as much as we wish it was, it provides some valuable nutrients. A one-ounce portion (about the size of two dice) is 110 calories of mostly protein or fat, depending on the variety. You can get up to seven grams of protein per ounce of cheese, plus about 20 percent of your daily calcium needs.
Most cheeses also contain phosphorous, which is important for building strong bones and teeth, as well as zinc, which enhances our ability to taste and smell. Cottage cheese is one of my favorites because you get lots of value (six grams of protein) for little fat—even the full-fat types weigh in at just 55 calories per two ounces.
Just don’t confuse cheese and cream cheese. Cream cheese is composed mostly of fat (10 grams per ounce) and offers little protein (2 grams per ounce). And when adding a little cheese to your eggs, use shredded cheese instead of sliced cheese. A tablespoon of shredded cheese is just 40 calories, while a slice can be closer to 100.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.
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