When you have a weight loss goal, incorporating zero calorie foods can allow you to increase the volume of your meals without increasing the calorie content. This can be beneficial, since eating fewer calories than you burn is required in order to achieve weight loss.
With that said, you want to ensure that you are not only eating zero calorie foods, since healthy weight loss can be achieved with a balanced diet of protein, carbs and fat.
It is also important to remember that certain zero calorie packaged foods can have negative consequences on your health, and for this reason are best limited during a calorie deficit, or avoided altogether.
In this article, I will discuss:
- What is considered a zero-calorie food?
- Pros & cons to eating zero calorie foods
- How to incorporate zero calorie foods into your diet properly
- 16 examples of zero calorie foods (plus, ones you should avoid)
What Is Considered a Zero Calorie Food?
When we discuss zero calorie foods, we are generally examining foods that contain almost zero calories, or extremely low-calorie foods, since all foods contain calories. The majority of the foods discussed in this article are considered zero calorie foods, since these foods likely take more energy to digest than they provide your body.
Zero calorie or very low-calorie foods can come in the form of whole foods such as certain vegetables and fruits, or they can be food products that have been produced to contain almost no calories.
While the opinion of what exactly qualifies a food to be considered a “zero calorie food” might vary, it is generally agreed upon that any food containing 5 calories or less per serving is considered a zero-calorie food, while foods containing 40 calories or less per serving are considered to be extremely low-calorie foods.
For the purposes of this article, I will be combining extremely low-calorie foods into the zero-calorie food category, and explain how these foods can be beneficial during a dieting phase.
3 Reasons to Include Zero Calorie Foods into Your Diet
1. To Add More Volume to Your Meal to Reduce Hunger While Dieting
When you are on a weight loss journey, you must create a calorie deficit for a consistent period of time in order for your body to lose fat. Oftentimes when people are reducing their calorie intake, hunger can become a problem.
If you are not filling your calories with plenty of high-volume foods during a calorie deficit, you might find it hard to adhere to your diet long term, since it can be tough to ignore those nagging hunger pains. That’s where high-volume foods come in.
Whole foods that provide plenty of volume, water, and fiber content can be your best friend while in a dieting phase, since these foods are often extremely low in calories. The higher the water and fiber content a particular food has, the more effective it will be at keeping you full.
Celery, for example, is made up of roughly 95% water, and roughly 1.6 grams of fiber in a 14-calorie serving (about 1 cup of celery).
There are countless different ways that you can add these zero and low-calorie foods into your diet in order to reduce your calories while also increasing the volume of your meals, which is the perfect combination for a successful calorie deficit.
For example, you could replace spiralized zucchini noodles in place of your regular pasta to add more volume to your meal. While 1 cup of cooked spaghetti noodles contains around 220 calories, 1 cup of spiralized zucchini noodles contains only 19 calories. Therefore, you could eat roughly 11.5 times the amount of zucchini noodles for the same calories as the regular pasta.
2. To Meet Your Micronutrient Needs Without Adding Extra Calories
Many of the zero or low-calorie foods that I will discuss in this article come with the added benefit of being high in many important vitamins and minerals.
Since this will vary depending on the low-calorie food, it is best to try and eat a variety of these foods in your meals to ensure you are getting an assortment of different nutrients.
For example, 1 cup of kale contains around 9 calories, but also provides you with nutrients such as calcium, vitamin C, vitamin K, and even iron. Similarly, ½ cup of white mushrooms provides nutrients such as vitamin D, zinc, and various antioxidants, all while only coming in at about 8 calories
When you are in a calorie deficit, it is crucial that you are focusing on getting foods that are dense in micronutrients in order to avoid any nutrient deficiencies that could result in negative health outcomes
3. To Enhance the Flavor of Your Food
Lastly, adding in zero or low-calorie foods, herbs and spices, and certain condiments can help to enhance the flavor of your meals while you are dieting. Keep in mind, that in this instance, I am primarily talking about minimally processed foods.
For example, adding hot sauce to your meal can spice up your dish, and contains anywhere from 0-5 calories per tablespoon. In addition to this, hot sauce is primarily made of whole food ingredients such as chili peppers, vinegar, and salt.
Similar to this, adding ingredients like cocoa powder to your meals (such as your oatmeal or smoothie) can help to give your dish a chocolate flavor, all for only 12 calories per tablespoon.
Using a variety of herbs and spices such as basil, oregano, thyme, and garlic are also great to enhance the flavor to your meals as opposed to using high calorie condiments.
While these are not really considered foods, they are still worth mentioning when talking about zero calorie food items, since they are a great flavor enhancement alternative.
- Related Article: What Are Fast Digesting Foods?
Drawbacks of Eating Zero Calorie Foods
1. You Might End Up Restricting Your Calories Too Low
It is easy for someone desiring weight loss to become hyper fixated on eating only zero or low-calorie foods.
However, it is very important to remember that the goal of a diet is not to eat as few calories as possible, but instead to create a healthy and sustainable calorie deficit, all of which can be done with a combination of zero, low calorie, and even high calorie foods.
If you are focusing too heavily on only eating zero or low-calorie foods, while avoiding foods that are considered to be higher in calories, you will likely be undereating on a variety of essential nutrients, in particular not eating enough protein, carbohydrates and fat.
While zero and low-calorie whole foods have a place in everyone’s diet, it is very important to also ensure that you are not avoiding higher calorie, nutrient dense foods in the process.
2. Processed Zero Calorie Foods Contain Little to No Nutritional Benefit
A very common trend I see amongst individuals who become obsessed with weight loss is the over consumption of zero calorie processed foods.
The amount of “sugar free”, “fat free”, and “calorie free” processed foods on the market can become both overwhelming and tempting to a dieter that has not been educated in the negative effects of these foods.
For example, if you are reaching for a diet coke to satisfy your hunger and avoid excess calories instead of reaching for an apple, you are not only missing out on essential vitamins, minerals, and whole food sourced energy that the apple has to offer, but also potentially exposing yourself to harmful ingredients found in the soda.
Further on in the article, I discuss in further detail certain zero calorie foods that should be avoided and why.
How To Incorporate Zero Calorie Foods into Your Diet Properly
There are 4 different ways that you can try including zero calorie foods into your diet.
1. Utilize Different Herbs, Spices and Condiments to Flavor Your Meals
Adding different herbs, spices, and condiments to your cooking can help to enhance the flavor of your meals with no added calories (one of my favorite spices is Flavor God). This is a great alternative for anyone who normally relies on flavoring their food with high calorie condiments.
For example, if you normally like to add sugar to your morning oatmeal or coffee, try adding some cinnamon and/ or stevia instead. This will cut calories drastically down while still allowing you to enhance the flavor and sweetness of your meal or beverage. I like stevia in moderation since it is a plant based, natural sweetener that does not affect blood sugar levels.
Similarly, using zero and low-calorie condiments such as hot sauce and mustard on your meals can do a lot to enhance the flavor, and are great low-calorie alternatives to higher calorie sauces such as BBQ sauce, mayo, or ranch dressing.
2. Add Low Calorie Greens Into Your Morning Smoothie or Power Bowl
A great way to add in additional micronutrients, water and fiber to your meal is to incorporate high-volume greens such as lettuce, spinach or kale.
For example, if you aren’t a fan of eating your greens, you can blend spinach or kale into your smoothie with a combination of fruit, yogurt, and protein powder. You won’t even taste the greens, but you will be provided with all of the nutrients that they have to offer.
Similarly, if you normally eat a power bowl or meal that is heavy in high calorie grains such as rice, try replacing half of your rice with greens like lettuce. This will allow you to eat a similar amount of volume that you are used to, while simultaneously cutting down on the calories in that meal.
- Related Article: Can You Eat Rice While Cutting? 5 Things To Know
3. Try Grating Zucchini Into Your Oatmeal
This one may sound a bit strange, but one of my favorite meals when I am looking to increase volume but cut down on calories is to grate up zucchini and add it into my oatmeal while cooking.
Once I have added the grated zucchini and cooked the oatmeal, I will add toppings such as cinnamon, yogurt, berries and almond butter, and at this point I cannot taste the zucchini at all, but I am provided with so much added volume in my meal.
4. Snack on Low Calorie Vegetables Like Cucumber and Celery
If you normally like to snack on higher calorie foods like crackers and chips, try replacing these with chopped zero and low-calorie vegetables such as celery and cucumber.
Both of these foods are high in fiber and water, which will help to keep your stomach full.
One of my favorite snacks is a chopped cucumber with a bit of added salt, dipped into hummus. One cup of cucumber only contains around 16 calories, making it the perfect almost zero calorie food to incorporate into your diet.
- Related Article: Check out my picks for the Lowest Calorie Chips.
16 Zero Calorie Food Options
Here are the 16 best zero calorie foods:
1. Celery-14 calories per cup
2. Cucumber- 16 calories per cup
3. Lettuce- 5 calories per cup
4. Broccoli- 31 calories per cup
5. Zucchini- 19 calories per cup
6. Cabbage- 17 calories per cup
7. Kale- 33 calories per cup
8. Mushrooms- 16 calories per cup
9. Asparagus– 27 calories per cup
10. Spinach– 7 calories per cup
11. Cauliflower- 27 calories per cup
12. Spaghetti squash- 31 calories per cup
13. Cocoa Powder- 12 calories per Tbsp
14. Mustard- 10 calories per Tbsp
15. Hot sauce- 0 calories per Tbsp
16. Coffee and Tea- 1 calorie per cup
Zero Calorie Foods to Avoid
Unlike the zero calorie foods I recommended above, the zero-calorie foods below are food products that have been highly processed in order to achieve a zero-calorie status.
These foods offer up little to no nutritional value, and can even have negative effects on your health.
More specifically, when it comes to calorie free foods containing artificial sweeteners, studies have shown that these sweeteners can have detrimental effects on the good bacteria living in your gut.
The health of your gut bacteria in your gut microbiome is directly linked to the health of your immune system, and if you are eating too many foods containing artificial sweeteners you run the risk of depleting the good bacteria in your gut.
Artificial sweeteners have also been linked to health issues such as an increased risk of weight gain, headaches, stroke, and even certain types of cancer.
While there is some controversy surrounding the topic of safety and artificial sweeteners, to be on the safe side I highly recommend limiting or avoiding large amounts of these types of foods.
Here is a list of zero calorie food that I recommend avoiding:
- Diet sodas
- Zero calorie jello
- Zero calorie dressings/ syrups
- Sugar free syrups and sweeteners
While zero and low-calorie foods can have a place in your diet, it is very important that you are not consistently choosing “chemicals over calories”, since this can increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies, along with potential health issues caused by over consuming calorie free chemicals.
5 No Calorie & Low-Calorie Store-Bought Snacks
If you are looking for some store-bought snacks that contain low or no calories, here are 5 different examples for you to try:
1. SeaSnax- Made from organic seaweed, one package of SeaSnax only contains 15 calories, and provides other nutrients such as iodine, calcium, sodium and magnesium.
2. Rice Cakes– While rice cakes don’t offer up much in terms of additional nutrients, they do succeed at being low calorie, coming in at about 35 calories per serving.
3. Krunchy Melt Meringues- These sugar free meringue cookies use stevia as a sweetener, and are primarily made from egg whites. You can eat 4 of these cookies for around 30 calories.
4. Skinny Pop Popcorn– Popcorn is a great low-calorie snack, and Skinny Pop popcorn only contains about 39 calories per 1 cup. Keep in mind that this snack is only considered low calorie if you stick to a 1 cup serving.
5. Pre-Prepared Veggie Cups– While not necessarily a packaged snack food, most grocery stores and gas stations have refrigerated sections that contain fresh foods such as veggie and fruit cups. If you are looking for an on the go zero or low-calorie snack, a pre prepared veggie cup is a great option.
What To Know About Losing Weight in A Healthy Way
It is important to reiterate that while losing weight does require a calorie deficit, that does not mean that you should only be eating zero or extremely low-calorie foods.
In fact, as long as you are in a calorie deficit of around 250-500 calories, you can lose weight and still include higher calorie foods into your diet.
If you are only eating extremely low-calorie foods, you are likely undereating, which can result in the exact opposite effect that you desire.
If you are looking for more personalized guidance on how to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way, you can work with one of our nutrition coaches directly to have a personalized plan made just for you. Click HERE to learn more about our one-on-one coaching services.
Other Weight Loss Resources From Us
- How To Eat 1500 Calories A Day & Feel Full (9 Tips)
- Should You Undereat After Overeating? (Here’s What To Do)
- Do Macros Matter for Weight Loss? (Yes, Here’s Why)
About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.