Taking in Calories

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If you and your healthcare provider are worried about weight gain, you should choose nutrient-dense foods. These foods give you lots of nutrients without a lot of extra calories.

On the other hand, foods that are high in calories for the amount of food are called calorie dense. They may or may not have nutrients. High-calorie foods with little nutritional value, like potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, candy, baked goods, and alcoholic beverages, are sometimes called "empty calories."

Can choosing a nutrient-dense food instead of a calorie-dense food really make a difference? Here are some examples of nutrient-dense choices side by side with similar foods that are not nutrient-dense, have more calories, or both (from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food-A-Pedia).

hamburger patty labeled 'extra lean', the word 'or', and a hamburger patty labeled 'regular'.

Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, extra lean ground beef
167 calories

Hamburger patty, 4 oz. precooked, regular ground beef
235 calories

an apple, the word 'or', and a slice of apple pie

Large apple, 8 oz.
110 calories

Apple pie, eighth of a 2-crust 9" pie
356 calories

two slices of bread, the word 'or', and a croissant

Two slices of 100% whole wheat bread, 1 oz. each
138 calories

Medium croissant, 2 oz.
231 calories

a baked potato with sour cream, the word 'or', and some french fries

Medium baked potato with peel, 2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream
203 calories

French fries, one medium fast-food order
457 calories

a cooked chicken breast, the word 'or', and some chicken wings

Roasted chicken breast, skinless (3 oz.)
141 calories

Fried chicken wings with skin and batter, (3 oz.)
479 calories

Another way to think about the idea of nutrient-dense and calorie-dense foods is to look at a variety of foods that all provide the same calories. Let’s say that you wanted to have a snack that contained about 100 calories. You might choose one of these:

  • 7- or 8-inch banana
  • two ounces baked chicken breast with no skin
  • three cups low-fat popcorn
  • two regular chocolate-sandwich cookies
  • half cup low-fat ice cream
  • one scrambled large egg cooked with fat
  • 20 peanuts
  • half of the average-size candy bar

some vegetables, crackers, and dip

Which would make a better snack for you? Although these examples all have about 100 calories, there are some big differences:

  • banana, chicken, peanuts, or egg are more nutrient dense
  • popcorn or chicken are likely to help you feel more satisfied
  • chicken, peanuts, or egg have more protein
  • cookies, candy, and ice cream have more added sugars

How Many Calories Do You Need?

If you are over age 50 and you want to stay at the weight you are now—not lose and not gain, how many calories do you need to eat each day? The Dietary Guidelines suggest:

not physically active Moderately active Active lifestyle
For a woman
1,600 calories 1,800 calories 2,000-2,200 calories
For a man
2,000-2,200 calories 2,200-2,400 calories 2,400-2800 calories
For examples, see Daily Calories Count Examples for the USDA Food Patterns

Physical activity refers to the voluntary movements you do that burn calories. Brisk walking, dancing, and swimming are examples of moderate activity. An active lifestyle might include jogging, singles tennis, or swimming laps.

What's On Your Plate? is based on the nutrition recommendations for older adults in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).