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Empty Calories
Updated on October 3, 2022
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Diet / Weight Loss
Empty Calories

All foods give us calories — or the energy that fuels our body. We use calories immediately after we consume them. Anything in excess is stored for future use.

Some foods can have a few calories, like vegetables and fruits. But nothing is truly ever calorie-free, besides artificial sweeteners and water.

If you plan to eat healthier, you may have read that you shouldn’t indulge in empty calories. They are not the same as zero-calorie foods and are far from guilt-free.

We asked Dr. Rizza Mira to share her insights on the subject. She's a medical doctor who specializes in nutrition and dietetics.

Empty Calories 2

What Are Empty Calories?

There’s more to the foods we eat than just calories. For example, most fruits and vegetables are high in nutrients like vitamins A, C, and E; and minerals like iron and zinc.

However, foods with empty calories have none of these. They have no nutritional value besides the energy they provide.

They can supply you with fuel, but not essential nutrients. In addition, your body can’t use them to build muscles. Unused empty calories are stored as fats.

How to Tell Which Foods Have Empty Calories

You can usually tell empty calories by looking at the food’s packaging. Empty calories give you energy from added sugar and solid fats, which you should see on the nutrition label.1

  • Added sugars — sugars and syrups mixed into beverages or foods while being prepared or processed.
  • Solid fats — fats that remain solid at room temperatures, such as butter, shortening, and beef fat. Some foods contain them naturally. But they can also be added.

Dr. Mira cautions readers that not all fatty oils are good for you: 

“While some oils are healthy, oils that are labeled as trans fat or saturated fats are considered to have empty calories.”

These ingredients make empty-calorie foods taste great. Unfortunately, they add unnecessary calories. A lot of packaged foods in your local grocery store have empty calories.

What Are Examples of Empty Calorie Foods

Foods that have no nutrients, or contain fewer nutrients than calories from sugar and fats, contain empty calories. Examples of the low calorie-foods are:

  • Pastries such as cakes, cookies, and donuts
  • Sweetened drinks like sodas, energy or sports drinks, and fruit drinks
  • Fast food such as pizzas, burgers, french fries
  • Processed meat like sausages, bacon, and hot dogs
  • Full-fat ice cream and dairy products
  • Sweets like hard candies and chocolate bars

Why Empty Calories Are Bad For You

One of the biggest problems with empty calories is that you may eat too much of them. Overeating is unhealthy, especially if you binge on foods with very little or no nutritional quality.

Empty calories are easily digested. They don't make you feel full for longer periods. As a result, you may eat more calories than usual just to satisfy your hunger. 

The unused calories will be converted into fats. This can lead to weight gain.

Empty calorie foods may provide energy, but not the important nutrients you need. It can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Finally, empty-calorie foods are high in saturated fats and added sugars. Studies show they can cause chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease.2

“Sugars in cakes and pastries will likely cause you to crave more. It's because your brain enjoys the dopamine release that comes with eating them. This often results in addiction to added sugars," says Dr. Mira.

Healthy Foods That You Should Eat Instead Of Empty Calories

You can find healthy food choices at your local grocery store. However, they may not have any nutrition labels since they're mostly fresh produce or unprocessed foods.

These naturally healthy foods don’t have added sugars or solid fats.

  • Fresh fruits — apples, oranges, berries, bananas, melons
  • Fresh or frozen vegetables — carrots, leafy greens, broccoli, beets
  • Whole grains — plain whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta
  • Lean protein sources — eggs, beans, fish, nuts, poultry, and other lean meats
  • Legumes – beans, peas, and lentils
  • Low-fat dairy — low-fat kinds of milk, cheese, yogurt, and whole milk

Many of these whole foods don’t have labels. If there are any, check for terms like no sugar added, low-fat, and low-calorie.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets guidelines to ensure that foods don't have any special processing, alteration, and reformulation before they can have these labels. 

How To Add More Nutritious Foods To Your Diet

Some people find it helpful to follow the “rainbow” method when adding nutritious foods to their diet. The strategy is simple — choose different colors of fruits and vegetables.

Plants have phytochemicals or nutrients that give them their colors and aroma.3 Phytonutrients in different-colored plants have their specific health benefits.

"Foods with red, orange, and green colors tend to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. They also have the added benefit of being heart-healthy," says Dr. Mira.

Red Colored Foods

Red foods have lycopene, which improves heart health. Some good sources of it are:

  • Apples
  • Tomatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Radishes
  • Red peppers

Orange-Yellow Colored Foods

These foods are typically rich in carotenoids, which support eye health. Examples of these foods are:

  • Carrots
  • Bananas
  • Pineapple
  • Mangoes
  • Pumpkins
  • Oranges

Green Colored Foods

Green foods have indoles and isothiocyanates, which help lower the risk of cancers. Good sources of these healthy substances are:

  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Avocadoes
  • Kiwis
  • Green tea
  • Kale 

White & Brown Colored Foods

They usually have flavonoids and allicin, known for their anti-tumor properties. Examples of food rich in them are:

  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Cauliflower
  • Garlic
  • Leeks

Blue & Purple Colored Foods

These deeply colored foods are rich in anthocyanins and antioxidants, which are linked to brain health and memory. Some good sources are:

  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Eggplant
  • Plums
  • Figs

Should You Stop Eating Empty Calories?

Not really. Eating some empty calories now and then is okay. But remember, you must not have more than what is healthy. 

You should learn how much sugar and fats are too much.

Nutrition experts suggest that your total fat intake should be 25% to 35% of your daily calories.4

That’s roughly 80 grams of fat per day or less if you’re eating 2,000 calories.

On the other hand, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends this daily limit for sugar consumption:5

  • 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams for adult women
  • 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar for men

According to Dr. Mira, these health recommendations were issued by the AHA due to the surging obesity epidemic worldwide.

4 Tips On Limiting Your Empty Calories

Lowering your empty calories consumption is essential. It helps you fit your nutritional needs within your recommended daily calorie intake. It’s also helpful in maintaining a healthy weight.

Here’s how you can avoid eating too many empty calories:

  • Empty calories are often right under your nose, so you must check the food labels. Always look for added sugar or solid fats, even on food items you think are healthy.
  • Replace empty-calorie foods or drinks with more nutritious options, like whole foods. When it comes to drinks, it’s better to choose water or your favorite soda’s diet version.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption — this is vital in changing to a healthier lifestyle. It’s also a good way of cutting empty calories since each gram of alcohol has 7 calories.6
  • Plan and cook your meals instead of eating take-out. This way, you can ensure that you’re eating healthier choices. You can use meal-planning apps to get you started.

Resources

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  1. Empty Calories.” Michigan Medicine.
  2. Chapter 6: Fats, Cholesterol, And Chronic Diseases.” Eat for Life: The Food and Nutrition Board’s Guide To Reducing Your Risk of Chronic Disease.
  3. Role of Food and Nutrition in Cancer.” Science Direct.
  4. Fat and Calories.” Cleveland Clinic.
  5. Added Sugar.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
  6. Calories in alcohol.” NHS.
Dr. Rizza Mira
Dr. Rizza Mira
Medical Reviewer
Dr. Rizza Mira is a medical doctor and a general practitioner who specializes in pediatrics, nutrition, dietetics, and public health.

As a pediatrician, she is dedicated to the general health and well-being of children and expecting parents. She believes that good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, and prevention of illness are key to ensuring the health of children and their families.

When she’s not in the hospital, Rizza advocates and mobilizes causes like breastfeeding, vaccination drives, and initiatives to prevent illness in the community.
Cristine Santander
Cristine Santander
Content Contributor
Cristine Santander is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. She has a B.S. in Psychology and enjoys writing about health and wellness.
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