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Mac and cheese is a rich and creamy dish consisting of macaroni pasta mixed with a cheesy sauce. It’s particularly popular in the United States.

It’s typically high in calories because it’s made with pasta, cheese, cream, and butter, although the calorie content varies significantly between brands, ingredients, and serving size.

Traditional calorie-rich mac and cheese can be enjoyed in moderation, but there are many healthy swaps you can make to improve the nutrient content of the dish.

This article reviews the calorie content of different types of mac and cheese, suggests how to lower it, and provides a recipe for healthier mac and cheese.

Nutrition info for different types of mac and cheese

The calorie content of macaroni and cheese varies depending on the brand, ingredients, and serving size.

This table lists the nutrient content of a 1-cup (approximately 150–250-gram) serving of the most common mac and cheese brands, along with a homemade version (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7):

CaloriesFatProteinCarbsFiberSodium
Panera Bread47031 grams17 grams33 grams1 gram1040 mg
Chick-fil-A44027 grams19 grams29 grams8 grams1200 mg
Kraft37616 grams10 grams47 grams2 grams669 mg
Velveeta3109 grams13 grams44 grams2 grams869 mg
Daiya 3009 grams5 grams48 grams2 grams580 mg
Annie’s Homegrown3604 grams9 grams51 grams2 grams720 mg
Homemade, regular or gluten-free50624 grams20 grams53 grams3 grams837 mg

Mac and cheese contains large amounts of fat and refined carbs, both of which contribute to its high calorie count. Eating more calories than you burn, regardless of which foods they come from, can lead to weight gain.

Additionally, mac and cheese is high in sodium. It’s recommended that most people don’t exceed around 2,300 mg per day of this mineral, as excessive intake may cause high blood pressure in some individuals (8, 9)

Daiya “Cheezy Mac” — a dairy-free brand — has the lowest calorie count with only 300 calories per 1/3 package (100 grams), which equates to about a 1-cup serving. It also contains the least sodium.

Meanwhile, homemade mac and cheese — both regular and gluten-free — has the highest calorie count, as this version is typically made with large amounts of cheese, milk, cream cheese, or butter. In return, you have the option to omit adding extra sodium.

As all of these options are relatively high in calories and sodium for 1 cup (about 150–250 grams) of food, you should only eat mac and cheese in moderation or as an occasional treat as part of a healthy diet.

Summary

Macaroni and cheese is typically high in calories, containing 300–500 calories per serving. It’s also high in sodium with 600–1,200 mg per serving.

How to reduce the calorie count of mac and cheese

Mac and cheese is typically made with rich, high calorie ingredients like pasta, cheese, and milk or cream. Some versions also include cream cheese or butter, which provide additional fat and calories.

These rich ingredients make mac and cheese a tasty dish to enjoy in moderation, but thankfully, there are easy swaps you can make to reduce the calorie content or make the dish healthier.

Here are a few healthier swaps for your macaroni and cheese:

  • Use high protein, high fiber pasta made from beans or chickpeas instead of plain macaroni to increase its protein and fiber contents.
  • Use cauliflower or broccoli florets instead of plain macaroni to reduce carbs and calories.
  • Follow the directions for “light preparation” on boxed mac and cheese products, as they require less butter and milk.
  • Add vegetables to your mac and cheese to increase the fiber and nutrient contents and decrease the calories per serving.
  • Halve the amount of cheese used and add herbs and spices to flavor the dish instead.
  • Swap cream and milk for unsweetened nut milk, which may reduce calories.
  • Use Neufchâtel cheese instead of cream cheese, which provides the same tangy flavor and creamy texture in fewer calories.
  • Add diced chicken breast or other lean protein sources, such as tuna or beans, to make the dish more filling and higher in protein.

Also, keep in mind that because mac and cheese is typically rich and calorie-laden, you should enjoy it in moderation and limit your serving size to no more than 1 cup (approximately 150–250 grams) per serving.

Summary

There are several ways to lower the calorie count of your mac and cheese, as well as make it healthier. Also, make sure to limit yourself to no more than 1 cup (150–250 grams) per serving.

A recipe for healthier mac and cheese

Here is a healthier recipe for traditional mac and cheese that still results in a rich, creamy side dish.

You will need:

  • 12 ounces (340 grams) of chickpea pasta elbows, dry
  • 1/8 cup (28 grams) of butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) of xanthan gum
  • 1 1/2 cup (360 ml) of unsweetened almond milk
  • 1 1/2 cup (360 ml) of chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 cup (125 grams) of shredded cheddar cheese

The steps are:

  1. Prepare the chickpea macaroni according to the package instructions and set aside.
  2. In a large pot, melt the butter until it’s slightly bubbly. Add the xanthan gum and mix it with the butter well.
  3. Mix in the unsweetened almond milk, broth, and salt and simmer for 5–6 minutes, stirring regularly, until the sauce has thickened slightly.
  4. Stir in the shredded cheese until it melts.
  5. Add the cooked pasta and mix it well to evenly distribute the sauce.

This recipe makes approximately six 1-cup servings. One serving contains:

  • Calories: 314
  • Fat: 14 grams
  • Protein: 19 grams
  • Carbs: 34 grams
  • Fiber: 8 grams
  • Sodium: 583 mg

Chickpea pasta contains more protein and fiber than regular macaroni, and swapping white milk for unsweetened almond milk cuts some fat and calories.

Instead of using refined white flour as a thickening agent, this cheese sauce employs a small amount of xanthan gum, a powerful thickener that can be bought online or at natural grocers.

Additionally, this recipe is gluten-free and can easily be made vegetarian- or vegan-friendly by replacing the butter with olive oil and the cheese with a non-dairy cheese substitute. For a low carb alternative, replace the pasta with broccoli or cauliflower florets.

You can keep the leftovers for up to 5 days in your refrigerator. Feel free to take any of the suggestions listed above to make this mac and cheese even lower in calories or richer in nutrients.

Summary

The above mac and cheese recipe includes some healthier swaps that make it lower in calories and higher in protein and fiber than traditional mac and cheese.

The bottom line

Mac and cheese is typically rich, creamy, and high in calories. However, the calorie and nutrient content depends on the brand, ingredients, and serving size.

The dish can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet, but there are also several ways to reduce the calorie content and improve the nutrient content.

By following this recipe or making some of the swaps listed above, you can enjoy a healthier mac and cheese that is still decadent and delicious.