What is considered good calories?

When it comes to healthy eating, not all calories are created equal. The source of calories matters just as much as the quantity. Calories from whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats are considered “good” calories that provide optimal nutrition. Meanwhile, calories from processed foods, added sugars, refined grains and unhealthy fats act more like “empty” calories that provide little nutritional value. This article will explore what makes some calories better than others and how to identify good calorie sources to include in your diet.

What are good calories?

Good calories come from foods that provide substantial amounts of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, healthy fats and phytonutrients (plant compounds with disease-fighting properties) along with their calorie content. These nutrients help the body thrive and function optimally. Good calorie foods are also less processed and closer to their natural state.

Here are some examples of good calorie foods:

  • Fruits like berries, citrus fruits, apples, bananas
  • Vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes
  • Whole grains like oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread
  • Beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fatty fish like salmon, sardines
  • Eggs
  • Lean poultry and meat
  • Low-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese
  • Healthy oils like olive oil, avocado oil

These foods provide filling fiber, disease-fighting antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and important vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium along with calories.

What makes them “good”?

There are a few key factors that set good calorie foods apart from empty calorie foods:

Nutrient density

Good calorie foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients yet relatively low in calories. Nutrient dense foods help meet your nutritional needs without excessive calorie intake. Foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, lean protein, nuts and seeds pack a nutritional punch for the amount of calories they contain.

High satiety

Good calorie foods are satiating, meaning they fill you up and satisfy hunger. The combination of protein, fiber and healthy fats in foods like oats, salmon and avocado keep you feeling fuller for longer compared to processed snacks which can lead to overeating.

Minimally processed

Good calorie foods tend to be close to their natural state like fresh produce, whole grains and plain Greek yogurt. They undergo little processing and contain few artificial additives. Highly processed foods often have added sugar, refined grains and unhealthy fats that contribute empty calories.

Rich in phytonutrients

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and other plant foods contain beneficial phytonutrients like antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. These are biologically active substances that protect cells from damage and reduce disease risk.

Examples of Good Calorie Sources

Here is a more in-depth look at some of the best sources of good, nutritious calories:

Fruits and Vegetables

All fruits and vegetables contain beneficial vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. However, the most nutritious choices are:

  • Berries: Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries are rich in vitamin C, manganese, fiber and antioxidant polyphenols.
  • Citrus fruits: Oranges, grapefruits and tangerines contain vitamin C, folate and antioxidant flavonoids.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower are great sources of vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and antioxidant carotenoids.
  • Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, romaine and other greens are loaded with vitamins A, C, K, folate, magnesium and lutein.
  • Root vegetables: Carrots, sweet potatoes and beets are packed with vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, fiber and protective carotenoids like beta carotene.

Whole Grains

Choose whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley, quinoa and buckwheat instead of refined grains like white bread and white rice. Whole grains provide:

  • B vitamins including niacin, thiamine, riboflavin and folate
  • Minerals like iron, magnesium and selenium
  • Fiber
  • Antioxidants
  • Protein

The bran and germ of whole grains are removed to make refined grains, stripping away many nutrients and fiber.

Beans and Legumes

Kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, lentils and other beans and legumes are excellent sources of:

  • Plant-based protein
  • Fiber
  • B vitamins
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium

The fiber and protein in beans helps slow digestion, leading to less insulin secretion and better blood sugar control.

Nuts and Seeds

Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds contain heart-healthy fats, protein, fiber and various vitamins and minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and selenium. They also provide plant compounds like flavonoids, resveratrol and phenolic acids.

Fatty Fish

Cold water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna and trout are excellent sources of:

  • High-quality protein
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin B12
  • Selenium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which support brain and heart health


Whole eggs provide a highly bioavailable mix of protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. The nutrient-dense yolk contains:

  • Choline, an essential nutrient for brain, liver and cellular health.
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that support eye health.
  • Vitamin A, selenium, B vitamins and iron.

Identifying Empty vs Good Calories

Once you know what foods contain nutritious calories, you can easily distinguish “empty” calorie sources that lack nutritional value. Here are some ways to identify empty calorie foods:

  • Added sugars – Foods with added sugars like syrups, honey, and concentrated fruit juice contain mainly empty calories and should be minimized.
  • Refined grains – Refined grains found in white bread, crackers, cakes, cookies and other baked goods act more like sugar in the body than a whole grain.
  • Fried foods – Deep fried foods like french fries, chicken nuggets and donuts contain empty calories from unhealthy fats as well as a high glycemic load that spikes blood sugar.
  • Processed meat – Bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni contain added sodium, preservatives and saturated fat or trans fats that provide empty calories.
  • Full-fat dairy – While dairy products contain calcium and other nutrients, the full-fat versions are high in saturated fat and calories for the nutrients provided.
  • Prepackaged snacks – Chips, cookies, candy, granola bars and other snacks are typically made with refined carbs, solid fats and added sugar.
  • Sugary drinks – Soda, sweetened iced teas, sports drinks, fruit juice cocktails provide excess sugar calories with little or no nutrients.

Tips for Getting More Good Calories

Here are some tips to increase your intake of nutritious calories from whole foods:

  • Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables at meals for nutrients and fiber.
  • Swap refined grains like white rice and pasta for unprocessed whole grains.
  • Choose fruit rather than fruit juice for better fiber intake.
  • Snack on a handful of nuts or chopped veggies instead of chips or cookies .
  • Include beans or lentils in soups, salads and side dishes for plant-based protein.
  • Cook with olive or avocado oil instead of vegetable oil or lard.
  • Select fatty fish over processed meat a few times per week.
  • Substitute full-fat dairy products with low-fat versions.
  • Drink water, unsweetened tea or coffee instead of sugary beverages.

Sample Menu with Good Calorie Sources

Here is an example of what a day in your diet may look like when focusing on getting calories from nutritious whole foods:


  • Oatmeal made with milk, topped with berries, nuts and cinnamon
  • Whole grain toast with mashed avocado and poached egg
  • Greek yogurt parfait with granola and blueberries


  • Salmon salad sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce, tomato and avocado
  • Lentil soup with whole grain crackers
  • Veggie and hummus wrap with carrots, cucumbers, lettuce and hummus


  • Burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, salsa, avocado and sautéed veggies
  • Broiled salmon with roasted Brussels sprouts and quinoa
  • Chicken stir fry with vegetables served over brown rice


  • Apple with peanut butter
  • Greek yogurt with mixed berries
  • Kale chips
  • Carrots and celery with hummus
  • Handful of unsalted nuts

The Bottom Line

When it comes to healthy eating, focus on getting nutritious calories from whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Limit empty calories from added sugars, refined grains, fried foods, processed meat, full-fat dairy and prepackaged snacks. A diet rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fats and antioxidants from good calorie foods can help you meet your nutrient needs, manage weight and reduce disease risk.

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