No matter how much protein you choose to include in your diet, it’s important to remember that most high-protein foods also contain fat, which provides a lot of calories. To get the most protein per calorie, therefore, it’s best to choose leaner cuts of meat and poultry and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. Getting more protein from dried beans and legumes can also help keep your fat and calorie intake low while raising your fiber intake — but don’t forget to count the carbohydrate. For a look at how many calories are in some common protein sources, see “Choosing Leaner Proteins.”
Fat is found in oils, meat, poultry, fish and other seafood, dairy products, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and a few fruits such as coconuts and avocados. Grains also naturally contain small amounts of fat. Fat plays many important roles in the body, including providing energy and essential fatty acids, which are necessary for good health. Dietary fat aids in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and it may help satisfy your appetite by making you feel full after eating.
Because fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrate or protein, raising or lowering the amount of fat in your diet can have a dramatic effect on the overall number of calories in your diet. At any calorie level, however, minimizing the amount of saturated and trans fat in your diet and choosing fats that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids is recommended for heart health.
Saturated fat raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels in the blood, which raises the risk of developing heart disease. Trans fat both raises LDL cholesterol and lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels. Foods high in saturated fat include meat, poultry, dairy products, coconut and coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. Foods high in trans fat include any product made with or cooked in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 fatty acids, appear to be good for heart health when they are consumed in place of saturated and trans fat. Foods high in monounsaturated fat include most nuts, canola oil, and olive oil. Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include walnuts, soybean oil, and corn oil. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include fatty, cold-water fish and flaxseed.
Even as you choose healthy fats, however, keep in mind that eating too many trans-fat–free chips, handfuls of almonds, or servings of salmon can still add up to weight gain if you consume more calories than your body needs.
Getting enough calcium
Getting enough calcium in your diet while also limiting your calorie intake can be a challenge. The body can only absorb about 300–500 milligrams of calcium at a time, so calcium-rich foods must be spread out over the day. Also, not all of the calcium in food is absorbed; some is always lost through digestion, so consuming a total of, say, 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium may not actually result in your body getting 1,000 mg of calcium a day. (Men and women aged 19–50 are advised to get 1,000 mg of calcium per day; those over 50 are advised to get 1,200 mg.)
While calcium supplements are a possibility, calcium from food appears to have some advantages, including maintaining higher bone mineral density. So to get your calcium without overdoing the calories, choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products or calcium-fortified soy products, and eat more broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, and okra. Dried figs, dried beans, almonds, and fish with edible bones such as sardines and canned salmon are also sources of calcium.