It’s easy—and common—to assume that high-calorie foods will inevitably lead to weight gain. While this isn’t totally untrue, it’s not 100 percent accurate either. What matters even more than the number of calories a food might “cost,” so to speak, is its nutritional value. In other words, foods can be high in calories (calorie dense) for many reasons. But there is such thing as high-calorie healthy foods. “While highly processed empty-calorie foods (think low nutritional value) are typically high in sugar or fat, or both, like candy, pies, pastries, cookies, crackers, soft drinks, sausages, and other processed meats, other healthy foods might be equally caloric, but nutritious for you,” says Roger E. Adams, PhD, Houston-based dietitian, nutritionist, and founder of Eat Right Fitness.
When in doubt, check the label to figure out what might be in a certain food to spike its calorie count, or choose from the below high-calorie healthy foods.
This creamy, green fruit (yes, it’s technically a fruit!) is one of the top high-calorie healthy foods that nutrition experts recommend to their clients. “Avocados are chock full of healthy monounsaturated fats, carotenoids and copper, folate, and potassium,” says Bridget Swinney, R.D., author of Baby Bites. But, just one half of a medium-sized avocado has 125 calories—and they are usually pretty small. “The fat in the avocado helps the body absorb carotenoids. So adding a bit to your salad can make the nutrients more bioavailable,” she adds. What’s more, avocados are very versatile. Not only are they great in guacamole, but you can add them to smoothies, salad dressings, and as a substitute for fat in baking.
If you have a serious sweet tooth that you can’t shake, make dark chocolate the type you reach for to satisfy it. “Dark chocolate is rich in heart-protective flavanols, has been shown to help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease. It may also aid in keeping your skin hydrated and your brain sharp,” writes Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, in her book Eating in Color. “Chocolate also contains the bone-building minerals magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, and phosphorus.” While one-fourth of a cup of milk chocolate chips weighs in at a whopping 224 calories, the same one-fourth of a cup of dark chocolate is just 80 calories. Enjoy it as is or atop a bowl of yogurt or fresh fruit!
Regular whipping cream has about 104 calories and 11 grams of fat (seven saturated), while coconut cream has 90 calories and nine grams of fat (eight saturated). Not much of a difference, right? But, where they do differ is in their nutritional value. “Coconut-based foods are, of course, vegan and contain more phytonutrients,” explains Swinney. “While both high-fat coconut products and high-fat dairy products contain saturated fat, coconut oil contains a different type of fatty acid (lauric) which has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.” You can add coconut cream to just about anything that you’d add regular whipping cream to. These include hot cereals, smoothies, hot drinks, soups, and desserts.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, dates can easily fill it! “At 200 calories in half [of] a cup, they are perfect for sweetening your smoothie, hot cereal, or quick bread while adding nutrition,” says Swinney. “Surprisingly, dates have a moderate glycemic index of 43—about the same as an orange. Plus, dates are high in fiber and rich in potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants!” Pop one or two daily for a sweet dessert!
Nuts and the butters processed from them are very dense in calories. But many have a healthy amount of monounsaturated oils to benefit the heart and joints, explains Dr. Adams. The caution he gives to his clients with these choices, however, is that the combination of salty and fat can often be too great to resist and can easily be overeaten. “Measure out a serving of nuts, around one ounce, or one tablespoon of nut butter. Enjoy this as a snack each day paired with a high-fiber fruit. You will have enough fuel to make it through any dangerous hunger period,” he says. “Nuts can be a tasty part of your diet that actually helps manage appetite later in the day. Just don’t overeat them!”
Peanuts and peanut butter are a good choice. However, he also recommends other nuts and their products, like pecans, walnuts, and almonds, especially since they are higher in monounsaturated fats.
Ancient grains are all the rage and for a good reason. They’re incredibly nutritious, but also caloric. Farro, like many other kinds, such as quinoa, contains a nice amount of calories. “One cooked cup provides 220 calories, two grams of fat, 47 grams of carbs, and five grams of fiber,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, and Wall Street Journal best-selling author of The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook. “But, this portion also provides a hefty amount of antioxidant vitamins A and E, and minerals like iron and magnesium.”
Americans are starting to use this type of oil, instead of canola oil (which was more commonly used decades back), for just about everything. Like all other oils, olive oil is high in calories. It provides 120 calories and 14 grams of fat in just one tablespoon. But it is also jam-packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated oils. “Increasing monounsaturated fat in the diet helps lower total cholesterol and LDL (bad cholesterol), and improve the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol,” says Largeman-Roth. “Olives also contain various phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.” Olive oil can be used daily for cooking, baking, and also as a base for salad dressings.
Many people eat low- or non-fat yogurt. However, the full-fat version should still be considered a healthy part of your diet. “Dairy fat isn’t high in monounsaturated oils like other healthy high-calorie foods. But it does a great job at managing your appetite,” says Dr. Adams. “Dairy, in general, is slow to empty the stomach (it has a slow gastric emptying rate), which is important because the slower [that] something moves through your gastrointestinal tract, the less hungry you become.”
Add the fat from the full-fat dairy, and you really slow down the transit time of this food! In addition, yogurt is also loaded with beneficial bacteria to help the digestive system, so you can get a lot of quality nutrition with this choice, adds Dr. Adams. He suggests keeping to a serving size of one half a cup or so since the calories are quite dense. “I recommend to my clients to use the plain full-fat Greek yogurt varieties. Not the ones with fruit and sugars already added.”
Calories shouldn’t define your diet, nutrients should. Of course, as with anything, enjoy these high-calorie healthy foods in moderation. But let the rest of their nutrition labels—beyond calories—be your guide.