If you’re on the hunt for zero-calorie foods, more than likely you are on a quest for weight loss.
While many foods that count as “zero calorie” are actually nourishing foods, using them as a tool to manipulate your hunger and weight isn’t something that I’d recommend.
Hey there, I’m Colleen. Not only am I a non-diet, intuitive eating registered dietitian (RD). That means that I look at your health not in terms of just what you’re eating, but also your relationship with your eating, the foods you eat and why, and how you view your body.
All of it matters for real, lasting health.
In this blog post, I’ll be explaining what zero-calorie foods are, how they can fit into your daily routine, and how the whys behind your eating choices really matter.
First up: what are zero-calorie foods?
What are zero-calorie foods?
Sorry Charlie: zero-calorie foods aren’t really a thing.
Turns out: you are going to find true zero-calorie foods about as often as you see Big Foot.
There are many foods that are super-super low in calories, but there is actually some rounding that happens with nutrition labels to say that a low-calorie food actually has zero calories; they might actually have a few. But, if something has less than 5 calories per serving size, they’re allowed to round down to nothing.
Lettuce, kale, cucumbers, and arugula are all examples of foods with minimal calories per serving, so they might be dubbed “zero calorie” foods, even though they do actually have a few calories in them.
Water, diet soda, and sugar-free drinks like seltzer water and black coffee are also calorie-free.
But as I alluded to earlier, what you choose is just part of the equation for health: why you choose something matters, too.
Why seek zero-calorie foods?
I’m going to take a reasonable guess that you are trying to manage (reduce) your weight by looking for zero-calorie foods.
And I get it. Our society worships thinness. I am someone with thin privilege and yet I struggled with body image and disordered eating for years.
With zero-calorie foods, you’re thinking about filling up your belly so that you feel full without having consumed many calories.
There are different diet plans that advocate for filling your tum-tum with lots of veggies in an attempt to quell hunger, such as the 2B Mindset Review and Weight Watchers, but the truth is that these attempts to trick your body into eating less are not going to last; your body is smarter than that.
But I also know that dieting is more likely to cause weight gain than weight loss long term; and weight loss, even temporarily, is no guarantee of better body image, happiness, or satisfaction.
When I trained to become a registered dietitian, we talked a lot about the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that make fruits and vegetables nourishing to eat. But I didn’t really have as strong of a grasp on your relationship with food until I was in recovery from my eating disorder and in training to become an intuitive eating dietitian.
While low-calorie foods such as vegetables can help a meal to feel more filling, they may or may not help with satisfaction. Let’s explore that next.
Filling vs. Satisfaction
Your body is able to register fullness in a few different ways. Kind of like you can communicate with your bestie via text message, IG chat and even have an entire conversation via a meaningful eyebrow raise across the table.
Your brain and belly also chat via a few different pathways. One is via the stretch receptors in your stomach and GI tract. As the contents of your meal begin to push out on your stomach, those stretch receptors let your brain know that you’re getting physically more full.
You also get cues of fullness by eating foods that you enjoy, by the rise in blood sugar, and by the staying power of specific nutrients. Protein, carbs, fat, and fiber all keep your body feeling fueled and nourished; a bunch of low-calorie veggies won’t.
Our bodies know the difference between volume alone and actual nourishment.
Studies have shown that the volume of consumed food had a small and short effect on satiety. Meaning, that maybe you’ll feel full immediately but your body will quickly realize its faux fullness, and the hunger will come in 🔥 H-O-T 🔥 !
As I said, our bodies are smarter than that and they will know when we need more energy.
It also matters that you feel satisfied with your meals. This can be achieved by eating foods that you like, having a variety of different meals throughout the week, eating without distraction at least some of the time, eating without food rules, and using gentle nutrition to build meals that provide you with the combo of nutrients that keeps your energy up.
If you’re new to the term ‘gentle nutrition’ check out this post, I’ll explain everything: Getting Started With Gentle Nutrition.
What can be hard to wrap your mind around when you’re in the thick of restrictive dieting is that calories are actually a good thing, not the enemy to be avoided.
Calories are good
We shouldn’t live our lives trying to limit calories as much as possible.
Our bodies need fuel to breathe, laugh, pursue dreams big and small, and fuel movement that feels good. (Not to mention some nice naps!)
We sabotage our metabolism by trying to minimize what we eat.
This behavior can actually increase our likelihood of binge eating, having a poor body image, gaining weight, and living a life that is short of our greatest potential.
Your body can regulate calorie intake on its own. You need more or less on different days depending on everything from your activity level to how well you slept. Your body doesn’t need you to micromanage your calories, points, or portions.
But: if you’ve been dieting for a while, you’ll have to go through the work of unlearning that diet culture BS and reconnecting with your hunger and fullness cues.
This is hard work. One common pitfall on the journey is trying to eat the right meals and snacks but you end up feeling hungry right after eating. This post helps you to troubleshoot if this is a frustration you’ve experienced: I Keep Feeling Hungry After Eating: What’s Happening?
So, are zero-calorie foods good or bad? Neither.
But your reasons for choosing them matter.
All foods can fit (but they don’t have to)
So my question to you is this: do you like those zero-calorie foods?
If so – great! Enjoy them. I just recommend that you build your meals and snacks with more than just zero-calorie foods. That way you can feel full AND satisfied.
For a few of my favorite balanced snack ideas, check out this round-up:
If you don’t like the zero-calorie foods that you find on random lists online; skip ‘em. It isn’t healthy to force yourself to eat foods that you don’t enjoy, even if the food has nourishing properties.
That’s a wrap
Focusing only on the volume of your food causes you to kinda lose sight of your fullness cues and get used to just eating to the point of being suuuuuper stuffed.
Instead, work on strengthening your hunger and fullness cues so that you can find a happy balance of comfortably filling your tummy AND giving your body the nourishment it needs.
Easier said than done, amiright? That’s why I made a full one-week Intuitive Eating meal plan that helps you to begin pacing your meals and snacks, with the satisfying combination of nutrients that nourish your body AND taste great. Download your free copy right here.
1 Week Plan For Binge-Free Intuitive Eating
Can’t skip tips & a non-diet-y meal plan to get you on your way to intuitive eating—without the endless binges!