By Justin Sedor
Diet fads come and go every day, each one more extreme than the next. No carbs, no fat, high fat, no meat, high meat, no gluten - we don't know about you, but we can hardly keep up. The one piece of conventional wisdom that we just can't seem to shake, though, is the idea that cutting calories will help us lose weight. Okay, yes, there is definitely truth to the concept that a net calorie deficit will result in body-weight reduction. But, obsessing over those little numbers on the back of your groceries often means ignoring basic tenets of nutrition. All calories are definitely not created equal; while a scoop of ice cream and an avocado contain the same number of calories, one choice is fundamentally healthier than the other. The important thing, of course, is to focus on giving your body what it really needs. But, it's almost impossible to ensure you're getting the right balance of nutrients when you're busy tallying calories.
With the help of some star nutritionists, we show you what 100 calories looks like in terms of your favorite foods. We're also breaking down the nutritional pros and cons of each, so you can make decisions based on what's actually good for your body - not just on some arbitrary number.
Avocado: 2.1 oz per 100 calories
Avocados pack a lot of calories, mainly because they're so high in fat (yes, including saturated fat). But, many of the fats in an avocado are considered "good fats," which help support brain health. Not only that, but avocados are chock-full of vitamins and minerals. According to nutritionist Sophie Jaffe , "Avocados are loaded with crucial nutrients like B6 for energy and stress relief, vitamins C and E for antioxidant power, and essential minerals like potassium and magnesium." They also contain 60% more potassium per ounce than bananas. Finally, avocados are also a great source of fiber, so while they're calorically dense, they also help keep you fuller, longer.
Blueberries: 1.2 cups per 100 calories
You've heard it before: Not only are they delicious, but these little guys pack a serious nutritional punch. Blueberries contain more antioxidants than almost any other fruit. Maybe even better, they help keep your brain in tip-top shape. As nutritionist Hillary Irwin points out, "Blueberries contain anthocyanins, which have been linked to an increase in neuronal signaling in brain centers, and studies show they may help improve memory function." Careful, though - blueberries are naturally high in sugar (1.2 cups contains about 18 grams of the sweet stuff), so resist the urge to add them to sugary cereal or granola. We recommend stirring them into unsweetened Greek yogurt for a filling, nutritious breakfast.
Steak: 1.3 oz per 100 calories
We know, we know. Sometimes, what you really, really need is a big, juicy, meaty hunk of steak. And, you know what? That's just fine. Yes, red meat is calorically dense, and it's definitely high in saturated fat, but it's also packed with massive amounts of protein, B vitamins, and minerals like iron. So, go ahead and order that rib eye - just as long as it's not every day. (And, remember: The protein portions at your local steak house are way higher than a recommended serving of meat, which falls at a mere three ounces.)
Dark Chocolate: 0.25 bars (0.6 oz) per 100 calories
Yes, what you've heard is true: Chocolate is good for you (in moderation, of course). Jaffe points out that dark chocolate is high in antioxidants and magnesium as well as caffeine, which is not only good for your brain in small doses but also stimulates the production of serotonin (which is why you feel good after eating a chocolate bar). But, as Jaffe says, it's important to choose your chocolate wisely. "Some dark chocolate still has a lot of sugar in it," she says. "Look for good-quality chocolate with a high cacao percentage and only a few total ingredients."
Blood Oranges: 1.5 oranges (7.4 oz) per 100 calories
Nutrition wise, oranges are pretty much a no-brainer. As Irwin says, "Like all oranges, blood oranges are fat-free, cholesterol-free, sodium-free, high in fiber, and contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, blood oranges contain up to 40% more vitamin C than other sweet oranges." Also, they're naturally high in anthocyanins, those brain-boosting antioxidants also found in blueberries.
Remember, though: As with all fruit, drinking blood-orange juice doesn't pack nearly the same nutritional punch as chowing down on that juicy fruit itself. You're missing out on key nutrients, particularly fiber, which can keep you from reaching for salt and sugar in the afternoon.
Broccoli: 10.6 oz per 100 calories
As far as a nutritional bang for your buck goes, it doesn't get much better than broccoli. Massive amounts of fiber help keep you full. Plus, Irwin points out, those little green trees are packed with kaempferol and other anti-inflammatory properties that fight allergies and inflammation. It's also a great source of vitamin C. And, of course, you can eat a lot - and we mean a lot - without piling on the calories. Keep in mind, though, that broccoli can make some people gassy. But, we think that's a small price to pay for such a treasure trove of nutrients, don't you?
Multigrain Bread: 1.5 slices per 100 calories
Forget what you've heard: Bread is not the enemy. As Jaffe points out, "Multigrain bread has beneficial whole grains and healthy fiber, which helps balance blood sugar levels, maintain a healthy colon, and keep you full for longer." Of course, some nutritionists argue that you're better off eating whole grains like oats, barley, and farro by themselves, as they're less processed and contain more fiber and other nutrients. Ultimately, though, there's no need for any gluten guilt. Go ahead - eat that PB&J. (But, watch out for the sugar in your jelly!)
Cheese: 0.9 oz per 100 calories
Good news: Like steak, cheese is one of those things that's totally fine (yes, even healthy!) when eaten in moderation. One hundred calories' worth of cheese (note: each of the pieces above contains 100 calories) contains slightly less protein than an egg, as well as 20% of your daily calcium requirement. Of course, as Kristy Del Coro, nutritionist for Rouge Tomate New York , says, "Cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium, so portion control is important: Excess amounts in combination with other foods high in saturated fat may contribute to cardiovascular disease." So, while that queso in itself is A-okay, maybe limit the cheeseburgers to an every-once-in-a-while splurge.
Frozen Greek Yogurt: 1.25 bars (5.25 oz) per 100 calories
Now, most of us know that regular ice cream is stuffed with sugar and has very high levels of saturated fat. But, while frozen yogurt might seem like a healthy alternative - it's usually advertised as fat-free - it often contains nearly as much sugar as that pint of Ben & Jerry's. Look for frozen Greek yogurt, which, Del Coro points out, has almost double the protein and half the natural sugar as regular, plain yogurt.
French Fries: 15 (2.8 oz) per 100 calories
Here's the thing about fries: They give potatoes a bad name. As Jaffe notes, "The simple potato isn't the culprit. Deep-fat frying destroys nutrients and infuses the potato with trans fats and a ton of calories. Additionally, foods that are high in salt and fat, and low in nutrients, don't nourish the system, so we eat more of them as our body searches for 'satisfaction.'" We recommend making your own oven-baked fries using Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, or, even better, root veggies like turnips, parsnips, and carrots. This way, you'll retain most of the nutrients while still getting that happy, crispy French-fry feeling.