Even with nutritional facts available online, it can be difficult to find diet foods with the right ratio of calories to essential nutrients. In other words, even experienced dieters sometimes need a quick, low-calorie reference guide like the one below.
Do Zero Calorie Foods Actually Exist?
The short answer is no, but don’t despair. Foods have calories that generate energy for your body. There are also good and bad calories. This may seem daunting at first, but remember that the majority of bad calorie foods are also higher calorie.
Good calories come from:
- complex carbohydrates in beans, fiber-rich vegetables, and whole grains
- unsaturated fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 in nuts, fish, avocadoes, and olives
- lean proteins in skinless chicken, fish, plain yogurt, and tofu (soy)
That doesn’t mean you can eat as much of the above foods as you want. You should still count calories because too many lead to weight gain. But at the very least, you can avoid the bad calories, which come from:
- processed foods like potato chips, soda, and cookies
- refined foods like sugary breakfast cereals and white flour
- high-sugar foods like low-fat yogurt, chocolate milk, most canned soups, and canned fruit
There is one more thing you should know before we dive into our list. With bad calorie foods, you should basically count the calories on the label twice. Even on a 1,000 calorie diet, you can still gain weight if you are taking in too many bad calories. The list below will help you target the calories and nutrients you need, providing you with a balanced and reasonable diet. It also runs the gamut in terms of the five flavor profiles – bitter, sweet, sour, salty and savory.
Some are bitter, some sour, and some sweet. Regardless of flavor, a cup of sliced apples contains 57 calories and has 3 grams of dietary fiber along with antioxidants (which can help prevent heart disease and cancer) and other nutrients.
Since digesting apples actually burns calories, the net calories are probably a little less than 57. This also makes them a great breakfast food that can kickstart your metabolism in the morning.
Eating arugula means you never have to have a bland salad again. This lettuce has a savory, peppery, and slightly bitter flavor. One cup has six calories.
Arugula also contains vitamin K (which helps with blood clotting and wound healing), calcium and potassium (which help keep your bones strong), and folate (which is key in cell division and growth).
Broccoli is one of the most nutritious vegetables out there. One cup provides 100% of your daily vitamin C needs. It is packed with cancer-preventing nutrients. It also contains more protein per calorie than steak! One cup contains 31 calories.
Broccoli is in the cruciferous family with cabbage and cauliflower. It can be baked, steamed, boiled, sauteed, mixed with meats, or thrown into soups.
Broth is an extremely versatile liquid used in soups, parboils, and gravies. One filling cup contains 7-12 calories. Chicken or beef broth will give you that salty, savory flavor, while vegetable broth will have a lighter, more complex taste. While it doesn’t have a huge amount of protein, you can pack basically any vegetable on this list into it for quick, nutritious soup.
Carrots are naturally sugary and great for satisfying a sweet tooth. A cup of carrots contains 53 calories, 6 grams of sugar, and 2 of fiber. In addition, carrots contain copious amounts of the nutrients essential to eye health – beta carotene and vitamin A.
If you are tired of the flavor of orange carrots, try the starchier tasting white and yellow varieties. For a richer, earthier flavor, try the red or purple ones. They are best eaten raw but are delicious baked or grilled.
Cauliflower is very popular right now. In restaurants, it is mashed to replace potatoes (which are much higher in carbohydrates). They can also be made into (or bought as) a cracker base or pizza crust.
This cruciferous veggie contains 25 calories per cup, 2 grams of protein, 5 total carbs, and 2 grams of dietary fiber. Cauliflower is unique in that it contains absolutely no sugar, so it is ideal for a low-carb diet.
Since most of celery’s dietary fiber is insoluble and therefore can’t be digested, it cannot be absorbed as calories. Insoluble fiber is one of two types essential to bowel health and function. Celery is also low-carb, low in sugar, and reasonably fiber-rich.
Containing 18 calories per cup, celery is as close to a natural zero calorie food as you can get. Its high water content gives it a low flavor profile, making it a great filler in dishes like spaghetti, meatloaf, and soups.
Not to be confused with tangerines, this diminutive fruit is a hybrid cultivated from the sweet orange and the mandarin orange. They are typically sweeter and less acidic than oranges.
One of these little guys has just 35 calories. While they have trace amounts of many vitamins, just one contains almost 60% of your daily vitamin C needs. Though sweet, the clementine has only nine grams of carbohydrates.
95% water, moderately sweet and crisp, this vegetable, which has many species, is actually a gourd in the same family as the zucchini. While they are a favorite in salads, cucumbers can also be used as pickles and in salsas, chutneys, and even jams.
One cup contains only 16 calories. Add to that trace amounts of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as magnesium, manganese, and potassium.
Garlic is pungent and savory, and you will find it in many ethnic dishes. Technically a root, it is in the same family as onions, leaks, and chives. It has nearly a dozen proven health benefits, with anti-inflammatory and anti-viral qualities.
An entire clove of garlic (about the maximum you would put in any dish) contains a mere 4.5-5 calories. A clove also has a moderate amount of calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin B1. It can be a great salt substitute as well.
Kale is one of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world. It has one of the highest concentrations of vitamins K and A, which help blood clot and wounds heal. Rich, savory, and slightly bitter, it can be a salad leaf or put into soups and smoothies.
One cup has 33 calories, 6 grams of carbs, 2 grams of dietary fiber, and an amazing 3 grams of protein. With a little oil, salt, and pepper, they can be dehydrated into delicious chips that make a satisfying, low-calorie snack.
Kale, like its cousin spinach, has some interesting qualities. Its flavor concentrates and increases when cooked. It also lowers bad cholesterol, has eye-enhancing nutrients, and prevents cancer. It is very filling and an excellent daily food for weight loss.
12. Legumes (especially garbanzos and peas)
The term “superfood” is thrown around a lot nowadays, but it truly applies to the two legumes on our list.
Beans and peas are high in fiber and protein, low in fat, and contain vitamins B1, B9, K, manganese, and often iron. Studies show they may reduce your risk of heart disease. They may also mitigate the effects of type 2 diabetes.
One cup of earthy, savory garbanzo beans (chickpeas) has 269 calories (good ones), 14.5 grams of protein, and 12.5 of dietary fiber. A major study has shown chickpeas help reduce your blood sugar levels, so they are great for diabetics and vegetarians alike.
Green peas (the ones from the Pisum sativum plant) have a sweet note, and are one of the highest fiber vegetables in the world per volume. One cup contains just 125 calories, 8.2 grams of protein, and 8.8 grams of dietary fiber.
Peas are known to fight blood pressure and prevent kidney disease. A little known fact is that they can be a quick, satisfying treat straight out of your freezer.
13. Lemons and Limes
These two tangy, sour citrus fruits often go together in Mexican food, drinks, and pickling recipes. One fluid ounce of either contains just 8 calories. They are also packed with antioxidants, heart-protecting flavonoids, and vitamin C.
Studies also show that lemons and limes contain a special antioxidant called polyphenols. This nutrient may help jumpstart your metabolism, help your body process fat more quickly while enhancing your response to natural insulin.
Sweet or bitter, large, small, or spicy, peppers can be snacked on raw, stuffed, roasted, put into salads and relishes, or used as an edible garnish. The health benefits of the humble pepper are about as diverse as the number of species that bear the name.
One cup of chopped red bell peppers has 46 calories, just under 9 grams of carbs (6 net carbs), and is extremely high in antioxidants. Since they contain a lot of water per volume, they also make a filling addition to your diet in any form.
These special berries range in flavor from tart to sweet. They are extremely versatile, found in jams, salads, desserts, and on yogurt and breakfast cereals. Among their many health benefits are enhanced heart health and cancer prevention.
One cup of sliced strawberries contains just over 50 calories, a mere six grams of sugar, nearly three grams of dietary fiber, and your 100% of your daily vitamin C needs.
Sweet or tart, red, yellow, or green, tomatoes can be served raw on salads, or cooked in stews, roasts, soups, and pies. A slice or two of tomato can easily replace a sugary ketchup serving.
One cup of sliced tomatoes contains about 27 calories, no fat, as few as 4.3 carbohydrates, and plenty of vitamins like A and C. Tomatoes also contain lycopene, a cancer-fighting and heart disease-preventing nutrient.
Zucchini is one of the cheapest, healthiest, and most versatile foods in the squash family. With its high water content and mild flavor, it can be a filler in spaghetti or a flavor carrier in soups and bakes. You can even make nice, firm noodles out of it.
A cup of raw zucchini (which can be snacked on) contains just over 26 calories, 3.4 grams of protein, 1 gram of fiber, and about 4 carbs. With lots of water and low-fat inner flesh, this veggie can stretch dishes, making them healthier and more filling.
Zucchini’s many health benefits include high amounts of vitamin A, C, and manganese, along with many antioxidants. The squash is also purported to help lower blood sugar, aid in digestion, improve cardiac health, and protect your vision.
To Cook or Not To Cook?
Cooking these foods at high temperatures greatly reduces many of the nutrients. When you must cook any of these 17 items (except broth), your best best for nutrient retention is dehydrating (at no more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit) or steaming.
To maximize the benefits the 16 solid foods on our list, go with raw. You can and probably should heat broth to prevent pathogens from getting into it, and heating does not change the nutritional content.
Some Final Thoughts
Remember that a calorie-counting diet primarily means avoiding the bad calories (from processed, refined, and high sugar foods) and maximizing the good calories (from complex carbs, unsaturated fatty acids, and lean proteins).
Balance the good calories with high nutrient content to keep the number of total calories (even good ones) down. Remember, dieting is about practice and perseverance. Don’t give up. You now have 17 new strategies for satisfying and healthy eating.