10 Best Low-Calorie Foods for Body Builders

December 2, 2020 by  
Filed under Weight Lifting

When you’re trying to stay lean while building muscle, finding protein-rich, low calorie foods is a must. While it’s important to give yourself adequate fuel when you’re bodybuilding, if you don’t watch what you eat, you’ll just get fat instead of muscular! In this world of high fructose corn syrup and saturated fat, finding healthy food with the right nutrients might seem hard at first. Luckily, you can get what you need from some very basic low-calorie foods you can find in any grocery store.

Low Calorie Foods FAQ

Before we dive into what specific foods you should look for at the supermarket, let’s go over some of the basic aspects of nutrition that you should consider when bodybuilding.

1. Why Choose Low-Calorie Foods?

If you’re like most people, you like to eat. One of the challenges of staying fit is to not overindulge in food. We have a very extensive snacking culture in most developed countries, and this sneaks a lot of hidden calories into our diets. We can easily end up eating more calories than we burn and storing those calories as bubbling fat.

What’s the point of bodybuilding if you’re just going to end up covering all that muscle definition in a layer of fat?

There are a few ways to tackle this problem: One of them is to simply put less food into your mouth. All things being equal, you will probably eat fewer calories if you have fewer meals. This isn’t feasible for many people, though, especially if eating is a hobby.

Instead of depriving yourself, you can simply switch out some of the food that you eat with low calorie foods instead. These alternatives can keep your stomach feeling full and give you some protein, but will be less likely to put you over your caloric limits.

2. What Should I Look For in Body Building Food?

Foods that are good to eat when you’re bodybuilding have a few things in common:

  • They have adequate protein
  • The protein ideally contains a good mix of amino acids
  • They have a lot of micro nutrients, such as vitamins
  • They are not unreasonably high in calories
  • They don’t have a ridiculous amount of refined sugar

You should look for foods that have complete proteins especially since these are the ones that your body can most easily turn into muscle. “Complete” means that the protein contains all of the essential amino acids. You can also combine foods to get this effect.

Some bodybuilders may tell you not to worry about the specifics and to just stuff your face with whatever food will make you “big.” This might work temporarily, especially if you’ve never lifted before, but it’s not a good long-term strategy. There’s no point in having bulging muscles if the food you’re eating is going to lead to health problems down the road. Eat food that will help you stay healthy enough to lift for years to come.

3. When Should You Not Eat Low Calorie Foods?

Now, low calorie foods are a good idea for most people, but they might not be for everyone. There may actually be circumstances where you should not concentrate on eating low calorie foods. Take a more calorie-dense approach if:

  • You don’t like to eat
  • You often forget to eat or have very few meals per day
  • You have a very fast metabolism

Most people have the opposite of the above problems, but if you’re a “hard gainer” because you burn through calories like crazy and don’t like to eat, then you’ll need to focus on very caloric foods. If you eat high-calorie foods, then you can get the energy you need with fewer meals. Otherwise, you may find it hard to gain muscle.

This doesn’t mean that you should eat junk, of course. There are plenty of healthy foods that you can incorporate in your diet that are also calorie-dense. Nuts, legumes, and grains are just a few examples.

4. Are Healthy Foods and Low Calorie Foods the Same Thing?

No! There are plenty of foods that are extremely calorie-dense, so you will have to limit your intake. For instance, avocados are healthy, but they are also very high in calories, and you shouldn’t go crazy with them if you’re trying to keep your intake low. They have a lot of good fats in them, but fat molecules are very caloric.

The reverse is also true: not all low calorie foods are healthy, either. For example, many popsicles are actually low in calories (because they’re just frozen, flavored sugar water), but they aren’t exactly great for you. They’re just empty calories, basically.

To know if something is good for you, check the label.

5. Do Protein Powders Count as Low Calorie Foods?

Protein powers may be called a “supplement,” but actually they’re really just food. Protein is food, the same way fat and carbs are. Whether your protein powder counts as a low calorie food or not depends on how caloric the protein powder is.

If the powder is pure protein with nothing else, then that’s as low calorie as it gets, really. If there are a bunch of additives, like sugar, to make it taste a certain way, then it might have some extra empty calories. Again, check the label.

How We Reviewed

We determined which foods work best on a bodybuilding diet using a number of factors. The main concern was the protein-to-calorie ratio. Since protein is a macronutrient, and it contains four calories per gram, anything with protein is going to have some calories. We focused on finding healthy, natural low calorie foods with few additives that are easy to find at the store.

What We Reviewed

  • Chicken Breast
  • Eggs
  • Watercress
  • Greek Yogurt
  • Tuna
  • Frozen Greek Yogurt
  • Celery
  • Shrimp
  • Zucchini
  • Halibut

Chicken Breast

H.F.'s Outstanding All Natural Skinless Boneless Chicken Breast, 40 Ounce
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The most popular kind of poultry by far, chicken is tasty, easy to make, and absorbs flavors well when it’s cooked with seasoning. Chicken breast is some of the leanest meat on the chicken, meaning that it has less fat than other parts. This makes it less caloric, as well. If you cut out the fat, you can cut out a lot of the calories, since fat—at 9 calories per gram—is by far the most caloric macronutrient.

Pros

  •  Easy to find at any supermarket
  •  Some of the cheapest meat you can get
  •  Easy to prepare
  •  Easy to use as a substitute for more caloric meats in many dishes
  •  Can be prepared in a variety of ways
  •  Contains all the essential amino acids

Cons

  •  A bit bland on its own sometimes, especially since the breast has little fat
  • Can be a bit dry if not prepared correctly
  • Since it comes from an animal, it is not vegetarian- or vegan-friendly

Eggs

It's Just - Whole Egg Protein Powder, Made in USA, Non-GMO (20oz)
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Eggs are the go-to breakfast staple for a lot of people because they’re so easy to prepare. If you’re a busy person on the run, you can simply boil a few eggs before your workout and scarf them down when you’re done. They’re also one of the least expensive sources of amino acid-complete protein.

You can buy dried, powdered, fresh, or freeze-dried eggs.

Pros

  • Fairly low in calories for the amount of protein you get
  • Protein contains all the essential amino acids
  • Extremely inexpensive
  •  Easy to prepare

Cons

  • High in cholesterol
  • Contains some saturated fat
  • Not vegan

Watercress

Micro Greens - Watercress - 4 x 4 oz
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Watercress is one of those low-calorie foods that is almost too good to be true. Its 0.8 grams of protein per chopped cup may not seem impressive at first, but it is when you take into account that this same amount only contains 4 calories! In other words, the largest source of calories in watercress is its protein.

Pros

  • Extremely low-calorie food for the amount of protein
  • Goes well in a fresh salad and is easy to prepare
  • Contains tons of micronutrients, including vitamin A and vitamin K
  • Works for vegans and vegetarians

Cons

  • Because it has so few calories, it may not be as satisfying as other foods
  • A bit expensive when taking into account how many calories one gets
  • Since it is seasonal, it may cost more out of season
  • Amino acid profile not as ideal as that of eggs, dairy, or meat

Where to Buy

Greek Yogurt


Greek yogurt is one of the least expensive sources of complete animal protein. It is also fairly low in calories for the protein punch that it packs. Since it is fermented, it may have some added benefits for your gut bacteria, too.

Pros

  •  Contains a lot of protein per serving
  • Ready to eat; does not require preparation
  • Can be made easily into parfaits or other healthy deserts
  • Possibly offers probiotics that aid digestion

Cons

  •  Not appropriate for people who are sensitive to dairy products
  • May contain a lot of sugar
  • Not vegan

Tuna

StarKist Chunk Light Tuna in Water - 5 oz Can (Pack of 4)
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Fish has a lot of advantages over land animal meat. For one, it contains a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health. It also tends to be leaner than other meats, with more protein and fewer calories.

Pros

  •  Full of micronutrients, such as omega-3’s
  • Comes in many formats that are easy to prepare, including from cans
  • Can be worked into many different meals or even eaten raw in some cases
  •  Easy choice for pescatarians

Cons

  •  Not appropriate for people who are sensitive or allergic to seafood
  •  Like almost all seafood, tuna contains some mercury
  •  Not vegan

Frozen Greek Yogurt

When you have a sweet tooth, you’re going to need to find alternatives if you want to stick to low calorie foods. Frozen Greek yogurt makes for a nice dessert that doesn’t have nearly the amount of calories that ice cream does. It can also be easier to digest for some.

Pros

  • Lower in calories than other sweets like ice cream
  • Goes well with fresh fruit
  • Contains more protein than most other deserts

Cons

  • Can contain a lot of sugar
  • Might be hard to find at some conventional grocery stores
  • Not vegan
  • Not appropriate for those who are sensitive to dairy

Celery

CELERY FRESH PRODUCE LARGE FRUIT VEGETABLES PER BUNDLE (1)
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Celery is a common snack for people on a diet because it hardly contains calories at all. It is made mostly of water and micronutrients, so it gives you something to munch on that won’t add to your waistline.

Pros

  •  Very, very low in calories
  •  Contains lots of vitamins, like vitamin K, vitamin A, and folate
  •  Goes well in soups and salads

Cons

  •  Not as protein dense as watercress
  •  Since there’s hardly anything to it, it’s not very satisfying for most people
  •  The taste is too bitter for some people, though cooking can help with this

Shrimp

Sea Best 41/50 EZ Peel Shrimp, 2 Pound
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Shrimp is a great source of protein and fat for seafood lovers. It can be prepared in different ways and is fairly low in calories for the nutrients that you get.

Pros

  •  Easy to make and can even be eaten raw
  •  Less mercury than fish
  •  90% of its calories come from protein
  •  Contains no carbs, so it’s perfect for those on a low carb diet
  •  Contains an abundance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

Cons

  •  High in cholesterol
  •  Not appropriate for those who are allergic to shellfish
  •  Not vegan or vegetarian

Zucchini

ZUCCHINI SQUASH GREEN FRESH PRODUCE FRUIT VEGETABLES PER POUND
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Zucchini is a versatile vegetable that can be used as a substitute for grains when you’re on a low-carb diet. Regardless, it is low in calories and high in vitamins, which makes it a great food to add to your menu.

Pros

  •  Contains a lot of vitamins, such as vitamin C
  •  Can be used as a substitute for pasta or rice in many dishes
  •  Contains almost no fat
  •  Great for vegans and vegetarians

Cons

  •  Contains a higher amount of sugar than protein
  •  Not a complete protein

Halibut

Today Gourmet Foods of NC - Halibut Fillets - Alaskan Wild Caught 12-6/7oz Portions (5lb Pkg)
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Halibut is another fish that is worth considering if you’re on a bodybuilding diet. It is one of those low calorie foods that still manages to include plenty of protein. Like a fish, it also contains those essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Pros

  •  High in protein
  •  High in omega-3 fatty acids
  •  No carbs or sugars

Cons

  •  Since it’s fish, it may contain mercury
  •  Won’t work for you if you have a seafood allergy
  •  Contains cholesterol

The Verdict

Finding food that works for you when you’re on a bodybuilding diet doesn’t have to be complicated. Low calorie foods are actually really common, and you can find them at most grocery stores.

So, which one of these low calorie foods should you eat? Ideally, all of them!

Of course, not all low calorie foods will be for you. For instance, if you’re vegan or you’re just trying to lower your meat intake, you should focus on plants foods like watercress and celery. If you’re on a low-carb diet, then focusing on the meat and seafood would suit you better, since these foods are low in sugar and high in fat and protein.

Regardless, all these low calorie foods are natural, healthy, full of muscle-building protein, and make a great addition to any bodybuilding diet.

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