Anyone who’s ever tried to lose extra weight or reach specific fitness goals knows that it’s a numbers game: It’s all about the calories. After all, one pound is equivalent to 3,500 calories. It will take a lot of hours at the gym to burn off a single pound so it’s important to make adjustments to your diet for quicker results—as they say, abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym.
This doesn’t mean you have to starve yourself. You should still be getting enough calories to fuel your workouts and aid in recovery (read more about the best foods for exercise here as well as keep your metabolism running efficiently. The key is to choose low-calorie foods that fill you up so you won’t get hunger pangs throughout the day. Here are some of the best low-calorie foods:
Oats. Start your day with a bowl of oatmeal. Half a cup of dry oats has about 150 calories and plenty of protein and fiber. Fiber can help keep you feel full for longer so you end up eating less later in the day.
Oats are a much better breakfast option than a calorie-filled pastry from a café. Missing the sweet kick you get from your a.m. muffin? Top your oatmeal with some fresh fruit.
Bulgur. Add some variety to your grains with fiber-rich bulgur, which contains about 76 calories per half cup. You can read about other ancient grains here.
Potato. Some people don’t think of potatoes as healthy but it all boils down (no pun intended) to the way it’s cooked. Instead of snacking on fries or potato chips, go for a baked or boiled potato. It’s more filling and doesn’t have the extra calories from the oil that comes with fast-food staples. Studies also suggest that potatoes have compounds that can reduce appetite.
Strawberries. At just 49 calories a cup, strawberries are a guilt-free sweet treat. Plus, they’re loaded with fiber, vitamins, and free-radical-fighting antioxidants.
Watermelon. Yet more proof that you don’t have to give up the sweet stuff when you’re cutting back on calories, watermelons have only 46 calories per cup. Add to salads or eat it on its own—especially refreshing on hot summer days!
Celery. Looking for texture? Celery can give you that crunch for just 6 calories a stalk. Eat it on its own or chop it up and mix it with tuna and a bit of mustard for an easy lunch.
Cucumber. Another diet addition that can give you that satisfying crunch, cucumbers are mostly made up of water so they’re low in calories (22 calories for half a cucumber) and very filling. Mix one with bell peppers, avocado, peppers, cilantro, lime juice, and salt to make a colorful side dish.
Zucchini. Carb-y and starchy foods are usually calorie-dense, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up pasta. You just have to get more creative and use substitutes like zucchini, which has just 17 calories per 100 grams. Use a serrated vegetable peeler to slice a zucchini into strips. Saute in a tiny bit of olive oil then top with tomato meat sauce (preferably made from scratch—ready-made sauces normally contain plenty of added sugar).
Popcorn. At just 31 calories per cup, fiber-rich and filling popcorn makes an ideal snack—but only if it’s air-popped. Non-air-popped corn may have lots of sodium and sugar from the added flavorings. Make sure you only eat a reasonable amount (the calories in a big bucket of popcorn add up, even if it’s air-popped), drizzle with a bit of olive oil instead of dousing with butter, and flavor with a sprinkle of salt and some chili powder for a spicy kick.
Eggs. You’ll consume just 72 calories when you snack on a hard-boiled egg. Bonus: You’ll get plenty of protein, vitamins, and minerals in a small, low-calorie package.
Fish. One of the best low-calorie sources of protein is fish, particularly halibut, sole, and cod (about 70 calories for 85 grams). Other fish like salmon are still a good option but contain more calories. Bake or steam fish with herbs for added flavor.
Shrimp. Seafood lovers, rejoice! You can eat your shrimp and consume just 84 calories per 85 grams.
Chicken breast. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is always recommended as a source of protein for a reason—it packs a protein punch for just 92 calories for 85 grams. As always, the cooking method you use is crucial; bake, grill, or poach to keep the calories down.
As this list shows, eating low-calorie foods doesn’t have to feel like you’re depriving yourself. Low-calorie foods can be filling and come in a variety of interesting flavors and textures that can excite your taste buds.