When it comes to dieting advice we are often told to approach high-calorie foods with a certain degree of caution. If you’ve ever measured out a single serving of peanut butter, then you know that some foods pack in a surprisingly high amount of calories in a small space. Eat these energy-dense foods too liberally and it can have waistline and health repercussions, which is why awareness of calories isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Energy density is a concept referring to the amount of energy or calories per weight of food. At one end of the spectrum is something like celery, which has just 14 calories in 100 grams. At the opposite end would something like a croissant, which has about 406 calories in a 100-gram serving.
Certainly, it’s a wise move to limit your intake of energy-dense foods that hail from ultra-processed sources like fried foods, chips, and even buttery croissants. But that doesn't mean you should cross them off your menu completely.
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Just because a food is highly caloric doesn’t make it problematic. Healthy, whole foods can be both energy-dense and nutrient-dense. “When training volume is high, energy needs are as well,” says Emily Edison M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Momentum Nutrition. “Our stomachs can only handle so much volume of food at one time, so energy-dense foods allow us to meet the energy demands of sport without overfilling our stomachs, which can cause discomfort.” Those extra calories can also support building lean body mass for runners who have trouble doing so when burning a ton of calories.
Scratching your head on which healthy energy-dense foods you should toss into your shopping cart? These items make it clear that not all calories are created equal. Enjoy them, and remember to eat mindfully.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tbsp (14 g) = 119 calories
Liquid fats are the most energy-dense foods around, but this staple of the much-researched Mediterranean diet is proof that some fatty items do the body good.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology this year found that adding half a tablespoon or more of olive oil to your diet could lower risk of death from heart disease and cancer by an impressive 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively. Olive oil was also associated with a 29 percent lower mortality risk from neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Replacing about 10 grams a day (about 3/4 tbsp) of butter, margarine, mayo, or dairy fat with the equivalent amount of olive oil was associated with a lower risk of early death by up to 34 percent.
A separate report concluded that eating a moderate amount of extra virgin olive oil is associated with improvements in several health measures including reduced inflammation, blood pressure and certain cancers.
“Polyphenols in olive oil have been associated with reducing morbidity which is related to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” Edison tells Runner’s World. “These properties can also help enhance healing from sport and minimize the damaging effects of free radicals released during intense training.” She also points out that the monounsaturated fats in olive oil can contribute to a reduction in LDL cholesterol when replacing other fats in the diet.
The fat pressed from olives is also a source of vitamin E, a nutrient that also acts as an antioxidant to protect our cells from the harmful effects of circulating free radicals. Another way that olive oil may help athletes better recover from the rigors of training.
Edison says that extra-virgin olive oil is considered the highest quality and healthiest grade of olive oil. “It is not treated with heat or chemicals, thus maintaining the phenol and nutrient content.” However, more refined “pure” or “light” varieties are better suited to higher heat cooking and still contain high amounts of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.
Make EVOO the backbone of your salad dressings, but also drizzle it on roasted vegetables and soups.
1 cup (132 grams) = 447 calories
Dried fruits like plums (a.k.a. prunes) are fresh fruits that have had nearly all of their water content removed through various drying methods. By weight, they are more calorie-dense than fresh options (a cup serving of fresh plums has a mere 76 calories), but also a denser source of important nutrients. These include fiber, B vitamins, potassium and large amounts of heart-benefiting vitamin K.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that people who ate more foods that are high in vitamin K had a lower risk for cardiovascular diseases related to atherosclerosis compared with those who ate fewer foods rich in vitamin K.
What’s more, people who regularly eat dried fruits (about 1/4 cup daily) have better overall diet quality and higher intakes of important nutrients like potassium and fiber, compared to those who don’t consume any of the water-starved fruit, according to research.
Since most Americans do not get the recommended number of servings of fruit per day, turning to shelf-stable and convenient dried fruits can be a way to squeeze more in and help fill any nutritional gaps. “Dried fruit is a convenient, portable snack for athletes to aid in fueling performance on the go, and to also get in some extra high-antioxidant fruit servings,” adds Edison.
Because dried plums are carbohydrate-dense (118 grams in a cup serving) Edison says they can be a great option for runners who are wishing to restock their energy stores after a long workout. “Just be sure you don’t forget to drink plenty of water with them.” Edison also points out that some athletes can use dried fruit as a fuel source during a long workout. “But the concentrated fruit sugar in dried fruit can cause an upset stomach in some people so, as always, try your fueling strategy during practice before using it in competition.”
Research also suggests that prunes can help prevent or delay bone loss as we age. Possibly due to their nutrients and antioxidants reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which can contribute to bone loss and weakening.
And, yes, it’s true, eating dried plums can lead to better bathroom visits. Research shows that the fiber contained within the parched fruit increases stool frequency and consistency.
3 ounces = 223 calories
Ounce for ounce, this Scandinavian favorite contains more calories than popular options like salmon, tuna and tilapia. But those are extra calories that can help keep your ticker—that’s because herring is very high in calories from omega-3 fatty acids.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that monitored 2,200 people over eleven years concludes that having higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids in the blood that you can get from fatty fish like pickled herring increases life expectancy by almost five years. Recent evidence shows these mega-healthy fats can make our red blood cells more uniform in size which allows them to move around our bodies, while carrying oxygen, more easily.
Herring is also one of the few reliable food sources of vitamin D for better bone health. It also appears that vitamin D plays a role in improving metrics of exercise capacity including the amount of aerobic and anaerobic power you can generate during a workout. The swimmer also helps you reel in plenty of vitamin B12, “a vital nutrient for energy metabolism and helping runners feel more energetic,” says Edison. Plus, you get a good amount of high-quality protein to support muscle growth and maintenance.
Chunks of no-cooking required pickled herring (which are more delicious than you think if you are a fish fan!) can be worked into sandwiches as a healthy upgrade to deli meat or tossed onto salads for a nutritional boost.
1 ounce = 204 calories
In a food group that is never in danger of being accused of being stingy in calories, macadamia nuts are the leaders of the pack.
But it’s important to look past their lofty calorie count. Almost 80 percent of the fat contained within the buttery nuts is the monounsaturated kind—a likely reason why including more macadamia nuts in the diet appears to help bring down total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels which could translate into better heart health in the long term.
Tree nuts like macadamias are also rich in polyphenols which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions in the body. Another nutritional perk includes significant amounts of manganese and thiamine, two nutrients that are necessary for various metabolic processes. Finally, each serving of these nuts supplies some dietary fiber and because very few Americans are eating enough, every bit counts.
1 cup (150 grams) = 240 calories
Compared to other whole fruits, avocados are significantly more calorie-dense. That’s because their creamy flesh is rich in fat. Each gram of fat supplies 9 calories, compared to the 4 calories in carbs and protein. So with 22 grams of fat in each cup of avocado, you can see how the calories add up.
Keep in mind, the majority of these fat calories hail from monounsaturated fat, which are less troublesome in the case of heart health than the saturated fat you would find in some energy-dense meats, coconut oil, and ultra-processed foods.
Science suggests replacing some of the carbs in a meal with calories from avocado can increase feelings of satiety which may translate into consuming fewer calories later in the day.
Beyond the fat, the high amounts of fiber in avocado, 10 grams in each cup, make it extra filling. This lofty fiber level is likely a major reason why including avocado in your diet can improve how well your microbiome (that mix of bacteria in the gut) is functioning. Dietary fiber serves as a food source for the beneficial microorganisms in your gut so they can flourish.
Research also shows that the diet quality of people who regularly enjoy nutrient-dense avocado tends include higher intakes of several vital nutrients including fiber, vitamins E and K, potassium and magnesium.
3 tablespoons (30 grams) = 190 calories
Nobody should consider these bitter-sweet crunchy nuggets as being low in calories—but they’re also not being low in nutrition.
These are made when roasted whole cacao beans, the same beans used to make chocolate bars, are smashed into small pieces. So you can think of them as a lesser processed form of chocolate (and minus the added sugars). That leaves you with a more concentrated source of cacao-derived antioxidants including flavonoids that have been linked with a lower risk for heart disease and improved brain functioning.
“Intense exercise triggers the release of free radicals. causing acute inflammation in the body,” Edison explains. “Athletes can use antioxidant foods like cacao nibs to provide some protection against these free radicals.” And research on 20 participants found that consuming dark chocolate (cacao nibs are about as dark as you can get) can help improve your VO2 max, which is a measure of how efficiently you can use oxygen.
On top of supplying a payload of antioxidants, each 3-tablespoon serving of crunchy nibs provides an impressive 9 grams of dietary fiber. A recent investigation in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that as the intake of fiber goes up the risk of premature death from conditions like heart and respiratory disease drops.
Cacao nibs are also a source of several key minerals including iron, magnesium, copper and manganese to further up the health ante.
You can toss cacao nibs on oatmeal, yogurt, and salads. They are good in homemade energy bars and balls. And you can try grinding them with your coffee beans to add a chocolatey background flavor to your morning cup of Joe.