Navigating the realm of weight loss and maintenance, monitoring every calorie consumed is often beneficial.
Contrary to popular opinion, tracking caloric intake isn’t exclusively for individuals aiming to shed pounds. In fact, even elite athletes and bodybuilders diligently monitor their dietary energy.
Given this, the allure of zero-calorie foods is undeniable. Imagine indulging in foods to your heart’s content without surpassing your daily caloric limit - sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
We all have a soft spot for tasty dishes. While we may wishfully think calories don’t count, the reality is different. Eating more energy than we expend invariably results in weight accumulation.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a comprehensive list of zero-calorie foods to guide your nutritious, guilt-free decisions?
In the following sections, we’ll delve deep into popular queries like “What exactly are zero-calorie foods?”, “Is the zero-calorie food concept myth or reality?”, and highlight some satiating zero-calorie options, among other insights.
What’s the deal with zero-calorie foods?
Despite the misleading label, these items don’t actually contain zero calories. So, what’s the story behind the term?
Health specialists explain that these products, sometimes called negative or near-zero calorie foods, are primarily fruits and vegetables that are believed to require more energy to break down than the energy they offer to your body.
Do zero-calorie foods really exist?
The answer varies based on perspective. Every food provides a certain amount of energy, though the quantities differ. Take, for instance, a slice of pan-crust pizza, which contains 280 calories, compared to a stalk of celery weighing 40g that holds roughly 5.6 calories.
Given its low caloric content, when you consume celery, your body might expend more energy digesting it than the energy it provides. This leads some to view celery as a potential zero-calorie food.
However, despite such beliefs’ popularity, no solid scientific evidence or studies confirm the existence of foods with this characteristic.
List of the best zero-calorie foods and how you can consume them
This guide details fruits and vegetables that fall into the negative or almost-zero calorie category, highlights their energy content, delves into their health advantages, and offers suggestions on seamlessly incorporating them into your daily meals.
If you’re searching for zero-calorie foods, apples are a top contender. A single cup (125 g) of this fruit contains only 65 calories.
Apples are considered excellent for weight loss not only because of their low food energy count but also because they are high in fiber and water.
A 2008 10-week study of 50 overweight women revealed that the participants who ate apples consumed fewer calories than those who ate oat cookies. They are also good for heart health as they help lower blood cholesterol levels.
They are also said to help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, have probiotics that promote gut health, may prevent cancer, promote bone health, and help fight against asthma.
Apples can be consumed as snacks or added to salads for extra crunch, sweetness, or tartness.
Not only is kale low in calories, with just 8.75 per cup, but it’s also a highly sought-after ingredient in salads.
Packed with antioxidants, this dark leafy green is especially effective in neutralizing harmful free radicals that can cause oxidative damage to the body.
Kale is also high in nutrients and vitamins such as vitamin C, which boosts your immunity, and vitamin K, which is critical for blood clotting and helps prevent heart disease and osteoporosis.
Magnesium protects against type 2 diabetes, calcium essential for bone health, and potassium, which has been linked to reduced blood pressure and a lower risk of heart disease.
The consumption of celery juice has overtaken the world by storm, with everybody claiming how good it is for your body. However, juicing, despite its claimed benefits, is not often recommended.
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Instead, consuming the whole vegetable gives you only 5.6 calories and a slew of vitamins and minerals.
The vegetable contains antioxidants, preventing your cells, blood vessels, and organs from oxidative damage.
It contains compounds that protect against inflammation, which has been linked to many chronic illnesses, supports digestion, and is low in sodium which helps control your blood sugar.
Celery is often consumed in salads, added to recipes, and eaten as snacks with nut butter or hummus.
Not only do berries make a delicious snack, but they also make a great addition to salads and breakfast foods like oats to add natural sweetness. Plus, with their low calorie content, they’re the perfect guilt-free treat.
- Blueberries. Half a cup has about 40 calories and is full of antioxidants which may boost your immune system and help protect you from illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and dementia.
- Blackberries. 100 g of them have about 43 calories and are full of polyphenols, which help reduce inflammation which help prevent heart disease, cancer, and type II diabetes.
- Strawberries. A cup has 48 calories and contains vitamin C, folic acid, fiber, and antioxidants. Strawberries may help lower high blood pressure and cholesterol, help you manage blood sugar, and fight the effects of aging on your brain.
- Cranberries. 1 cup of these has about 46 calories and is popularly used to prevent urinary tract infections.
Arugula is a dark, leafy green with a peppery flavor.
It’s commonly used in salads, is rich in vitamin K, and contains folate, calcium, and potassium.
One-half cup (10 grams) of arugula has only three calories.
Packed with minerals and vitamins, this citrus fruit contains only 42 calories per 100 g.
They are low glycemic fruits and thus will not negatively affect your blood sugar levels, making them great for people with diabetes.
They also have fiber, potassium, lycopene, vitamin C, and choline which contribute to your heart health by preventing high blood pressure. They are rich in antioxidants which help lower your risk of cancer.
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Full of water and fiber, grapefruits promote regular bowel movements and help prevent constipation.
Broccoli is one of the planet’s most nutritious vegetables. It’s a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables and may help fight cancer.
One cup (91 grams) of broccoli has only 31 calories and over 100% of the amount of vitamin C that most people need daily.
Cabbage is a vegetable with green or purple leaves. It’s a common ingredient in slaws and salads.
Fermented cabbage is known as sauerkraut.
It’s very low in calories and contains only 22 calories per cup (89 grams).
Carrots are very popular vegetables. They’re usually thin and orange, but can also be red, yellow, purple, or white.
Most people associate good eyesight with eating carrots since they’re rich in beta-carotene, which can be converted to vitamin A. Getting enough vitamin A is necessary for proper vision.
A one-cup serving (128 grams) of carrots has only 53 calories and over 400% of the daily value for vitamin A.
Cauliflower is typically seen as a white head inside green leaves. Less common varieties have purple, orange, and yellow heads.
In recent years, cauliflower has become very popular as a substitute for higher-carb vegetables or grains.
One cup (100 grams) of cauliflower has 25 calories and only five grams of carbs.
Asparagus is a flowering vegetable that comes in green, white, and purple varieties.
All types of asparagus are healthy, but purple asparagus has compounds called anthocyanins that may help prevent heart disease.
One cup (134 grams) of asparagus has only 27 calories and is rich in vitamin K and folate, providing 70% and 17% of the daily value, respectively.
Chard is a leafy green that comes in several varieties. It’s exceptionally high in vitamin K, which helps with proper blood clotting.
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One cup (36 grams) of chard has only 7 calories and contains 374% of the daily value for vitamin K.
Clementines resemble mini oranges. They’re a common snack in the United States and are known for their high vitamin C content.
One fruit (74 grams) packs 60% of the daily value for vitamin C and only 35 calories.
Cucumbers are a refreshing vegetable commonly found in salads. They’re also used to flavor water along with fruits and herbs.
Since cucumbers are mostly water, they’re very low in calories — one-half cup (52 grams) only has 8.
Fennel is a bulbous vegetable with a faint licorice taste. Dried fennel seeds are used to add an anise flavor to dishes.
Fennel can be enjoyed raw, roasted, or braised. There are 27 calories in one cup (87 grams) of raw fennel.
Garlic has a strong smell and taste and is used widely in cooking to add flavor to dishes.
Garlic has been used for centuries as a remedy for various illnesses. Research suggests it may decrease blood pressure and fight infections or cancer.
One clove (3 grams) of garlic has only 5 calories.
Beets are root vegetables that typically have a deep-red or purple color. One of the most researched benefits of beets is their potential to lower blood pressure.
Beets contain only 59 calories per cup (136 grams) and 13% of the daily value for potassium.
18. Iceberg lettuce
Iceberg lettuce is known for its high water content. It’s commonly used in salads and on top of burgers or sandwiches.
Even though most people think it’s not as nutritious as other lettuce, iceberg lettuce is rich in vitamin K, vitamin A, and folate.
One cup (72 grams) of iceberg lettuce has only 10 calories.
Jicama is a tuber vegetable that resembles a white potato. This vegetable is typically eaten raw and has a texture similar to a crisp apple.
One cup (120 grams) of jicama has over 40% of the daily value for vitamin C and only 46 calories.
Kale is a leafy green that has gained popularity recently for its impressive nutritional benefits.
You can find kale in salads, smoothies, and vegetable dishes.
Kale is one of the richest sources of vitamin K in the world. One cup (67 grams) has close to seven times the amount of vitamin K that the average person needs daily and only 34 calories.
21. Lemons and limes
The juice and zest of lemons and limes are widely used to flavor water, salad dressings, marinades, and alcoholic drinks.
Citrus does more than just add flavor. Research shows that lemon juice has compounds that can act as antioxidants to fight and prevent diseases in your body.
One fluid ounce (30 grams) of lemon or lime juice has only 8 calories.
22. White mushrooms
Mushrooms are a type of fungus with a sponge-like texture. Vegetarians and vegans sometimes use them as a substitute for meat.
Mushrooms contain several essential nutrients and have only 15 calories per cup (70 grams).
Onions are a very popular vegetable. Varieties of onions include red, white, and yellow and spring onions or scallions.
Even though the taste differs depending on the type, all onions have very few calories — one medium onion (110 grams) has approximately 44.
Peppers come in many colors, shapes, and sizes. Popular types include bell peppers and jalapeños.
Research shows that bell peppers are exceptionally high in antioxidants and may protect the body from the damaging effects of oxidation.
There are only 46 calories in one cup (149 grams) of chopped, red bell peppers.
Papaya is an orange fruit with black seeds that resembles a melon and is typically grown in tropical regions.
It’s very high in vitamin A and a good source of potassium. One cup (140 grams) of papaya has only 55 calories.
Radishes are crunchy root vegetables with a somewhat spicy bite.
They’re typically seen in grocery stores as dark pink or red but can be grown in various colors.
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Radishes have several beneficial nutrients and only 19 calories per cup (116 grams).
27. Romaine lettuce
Romaine lettuce is a very popular leafy vegetable used in salads and on sandwiches.
The calorie content of romaine is very low since it’s high in water and fiber. One leaf (6 grams) of romaine lettuce has just a single calorie.
Rutabaga is a root vegetable also known as swede.
It tastes similar to turnips and is a popular substitute for potatoes in recipes to decrease the number of carbs.
One cup (140 grams) of rutabaga has 50 calories and only 11 grams of carbohydrates.
The versatility of strawberries makes them a highly sought-after fruit, as they can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, from breakfast dishes to baked goods and even salads. Their popularity is undeniable.
Studies show that eating berries may help protect you from chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.
There are less than 50 calories in one cup (152 grams) of strawberries.
Spinach is another leafy green that is loaded with vitamins and minerals and very low in calories.
It’s high in vitamin K, A, and folate and has more protein than other leafy vegetables.
A one-cup (30 grams) serving of spinach has only 7 calories.
31. Sugar snap peas
Sugar snap peas are a delicious variety of peas. Their pods are entirely edible and have a sweet flavor.
They’re typically eaten raw on their own or with a dip, yet can also be added to vegetable dishes and salads.
Snap peas are highly nutritious and contain almost 100% of the daily value for vitamin C for only 41 calories in one cup (98 grams).
Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables in the world. They can be served raw, cooked, or pureed in a tomato sauce.
They’re also highly nutritious and contain a beneficial compound called lycopene. Research has shown that lycopene may protect against cancer, inflammation, and heart disease.
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One cup (149 grams) of cherry tomatoes has 27 calories.
Turnips are white root vegetables with slightly bitter flesh. They’re often added to soups and stews.
Turnips have several beneficial nutrients and only 37 calories per cup (130 grams).
Watercress is a leafy vegetable that grows in running water. It’s typically used in salads and tea sandwiches.
Even though watercress is less popular than other greens, it’s just as nutritious.
One cup (34 grams) of this vegetable provides 106% of the daily value of vitamin K, 24% of the daily value of vitamin C, and 22% of the daily value of vitamin A — and all for a meager 4 calories.
As its name suggests, watermelon is a very hydrating fruit. It tastes delicious on its own or paired with fresh mint and feta.
Watermelon contains almost every nutrient and a high amount of vitamin C. There are 46 calories in one cup (152 grams) of diced watermelon.
Zucchini is a green type of summer squash. It has a delicate taste that makes it a versatile addition to recipes.
In recent years, spiralizing zucchini into “zoodles” as a substitute for higher-carb noodles has become very popular.
Zucchini is also quite low in calories, with only 18 per cup (124 grams).
37. Beverages: Coffee, herbal tea, water, carbonated water
Some beverages are very low in calories, especially when you don’t add anything to them.
Plain water contains no calories. Most herbal teas and carbonated waters have zero to very few calories, while black coffee has only 2 calories per cup (237 grams).
Choosing these drinks over beverages with added sugar, cream or juice can help you reduce your calorie intake.
38. Herbs and spices
Herbs and spices are used to add flavor to foods and are extremely low in calories.
Common herbs that are eaten fresh or dried include parsley, basil, mint, oregano, and cilantro. Some well-known spices are cinnamon, paprika, cumin, and curry.
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Most herbs and spices have fewer than five calories per teaspoon.
What foods are zero calorie or negative calorie?
While the fruits and vegetables highlighted in the previous section might be labeled as zero or negative-calorie, none of them actually register as having zero food energy when tracked in a calorie-counting application.
Rather, they are exceptionally low in calories and should be considered essential inclusions in a balanced diet for weight reduction and maintenance.
What happens if I only eat zero-calorie foods?
You might believe that solely consuming vegetables and fruits labeled as zero-calorie can assist in shedding those persistent additional pounds. This is a misconception.
These foods, while low in calories, provide minimal energy when digested. As a result, you’re left with an almost negligible calorie intake.
Potential consequences of eating too few calories
Our metabolism converts the food and beverages we consume into energy, fueling our body during both activity and rest. A brisk metabolism is sought-after during weight loss because it helps efficiently burn consumed food, preventing its conversion into stored fat.
However, when calorie intake is too low, the body perceives a threat of starvation. In response, it shifts into a survival mode, conserving energy and preventing further weight loss. This metabolic slowdown can lead to issues like extremely low blood pressure, decreased heart rate, the formation of gallstones, anemia, fragile bones, and mood disorders, among other health concerns.
Risk of nutrient deficits
Often termed malnutrition, this condition arises when the body doesn’t obtain or effectively absorb necessary nutrients from consumed foods. This can occur when one’s diet is dominated by extremely low-calorie foods.
While such foods might largely consist of fruits and vegetables, a truly balanced diet — supplying all essential nutrients — encompasses all five primary food categories:
- Vegetables and legumes
- Proteins like lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, and seeds
- Dairy or its alternatives suitable for vegans or those with lactose intolerance
- Carbohydrates including whole grains, bread, cereals, rice, pasta, and noodles
Neglecting these categories could result in malnutrition, exposing one to risks like anemia, visual and reproductive complications, short-term memory issues, gastrointestinal distress, muscular weakness, cognitive decline, respiratory challenges, and various skin conditions.
Compromised immune function
Severely limiting calorie intake, particularly by relying on zero-calorie foods, amplifies susceptibility to infections and diseases. Research conducted on athletes indicates that cutting back on calories weakens immunity, enhancing vulnerability to infections and heightening illness susceptibility.
Deterioration of bone health
Inadequate caloric intake can cause a decline in the body’s estrogen and testosterone levels. Diminished levels of these reproductive hormones can impede bone formation and stimulate bone degradation, culminating in frail bones.
Furthermore, a diet dominated by zero-calorie foods can leave individuals energy-deprived, possibly deterring them from physical activity. Such sedentary behavior, combined with poor nutrition, heightens the risk of bone degradation and fractures.
Why are greens often labeled as zero-calorie foods?
If you follow health and fitness aficionados on platforms like social media or YouTube, you might observe that several of them rarely include their greens when tracking their daily macros.
Curious about this practice? It’s largely because numerous greens carry such minimal calories that even a sizable serving barely impacts your daily macro count. You can eat them in abundant quantities without significantly affecting your suggested daily caloric intake.
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While there may not be any truly zero-calorie foods, there are plenty of low-calorie fruits and vegetables that can actually burn more energy than they provide. These are great options for anyone looking to lose weight.
While incorporating near-zero calorie foods into your meals can be beneficial, it is important to remember that they should not replace your meals entirely. Attempting to use them as a sole weight loss strategy is not sustainable and can lead to a dangerously low-calorie intake, putting your health and life at risk.
To enhance your diet, incorporate the fruits and vegetables listed above. They can be consumed as snacks, added to salads for a satisfying meal, blended into smoothies (avoid juicing), or used in place of high-calorie ingredients in cooked recipes. Keep in mind that zero-calorie foods only aid in filling you up if you already maintain a balanced and calorie-conscious diet.