Can Calorie-Dense Foods Also Be Healthy?

Can Calorie-Dense Foods Also Be Healthy?

For so long, we’ve been taught that high-calorie means bad. But what if we told you that way of thinking was outdated, and more importantly, wrong? A food’s quality isn’t defined by a single characteristic. Rather, it’s the sum of all its parts—with calorie count being only one component. In fact, a slew of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients may accompany a calorie-dense food, meaning high-calorie can also be of high nutritional value. In this context, we’re not talking about calorie-dense foods like baked goods, chips or candy, which have less to offer nutritionally. Instead, we’ll focus on whole, minimally processed foods considered to contribute healthful components to our daily diets.

Take nuts, seeds and full-fat dairy products, for example. Nuts, seeds and butters made from nuts and seeds are high in healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats that are associated with lowering low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (otherwise known as LDL, or the “bad” kind of cholesterol). They’re also a source of protein, which makes us feel full after eating them—unlike other calorie-dense but nutrient-poor snacks like chips and cookies. Dairy products provide protein, calcium, vitamin D (if fortified) and potassium. Full-fat dairy has more fat than non-fat or low-fat options, which bumps up the calorie count but also enhances the richness of milk and yogurt. This can leave us feeling more satisfied than if we’d consumed something with less fat, making it easier to keep portions in check.

Here are a few more calorie-dense foods that are also nutrient-dense:

  • Avocados One medium avocado has about 240 calories. They’re high in healthy monounsaturated fat and are also a good source of copper, folate, fiber and vitamin K.
  • Olive oil Olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats, especially the types found in plant sources, help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind we want less of) which is an important factor in heart health. One tablespoon has about 120 calories. Other cooking oils, like canola, soybean and avocado oils, have different fat profiles that can also offer health benefits.
  • Chia seeds Two tablespoons of chia seeds have about 140 calories. They’re high in fiber (11 grams, or about a third of the daily recommended amount) and calcium and contribute protein, omega-3 fatty acids and important minerals like zinc and copper.

It’s important to be mindful when eating calorie-dense foods, since their calorie contributions can add up quickly. For example, one serving of nuts and seeds equals about a quarter of a cup, or about the size of the palm of your hand, and a serving of whole milk is one 8-ounce cup. Taking the time to portion out a serving and learning what that amount actually looks like helps us know more about what we’re putting into our bodies and can take the anxiety out of eating some of these types of foods.

How do you decide if something high-calorie is a good “nutritional investment”?

It may seem difficult—or for some, possibly anxiety-inducing—but fitting calorie-dense foods into your daily eating pattern can be done with a little bit of thoughtful planning. First, it’s worthwhile to look at these foods in the context of how they fit within your total diet and your behaviors around eating. What options do you have for getting the nutrients that these “investment” foods offer? And how will you decide how much to eat? If you’re prone to overdoing it when snacking on nuts or seeds, you could save them for special occasions and instead get your healthy fats from other foods like avocados, olive oil or fish. Another option could be pre-portioning nuts into individual containers (one serving of nuts and seeds is about one-quarter cup) rather than having a large jar on your desk or kitchen counter.

Overall, it’s important to consider how many calories you’re taking in through foods and snacks, but it shouldn’t become an obsession. High-calorie, high-nutrient foods can and should be a part of everyone’s diet, and learning strategies for balance is crucial for healthy eating. Balancing calorie intake with nutritional needs is a learned skill, but with a little practice it gets easier and easier.

This blog post includes contributions from Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD, our 2019 Sylvia Rowe Fellow.