In This Article
In This Article
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 foods have lycopene, which improves heart health. Some good sources of it are:
These foods are typically rich in carotenoids, which support eye health. Examples of these foods are:
Green foods have indoles and isothiocyanates, which help lower the risk of cancers. Good sources of these healthy substances are:
They usually have flavonoids and allicin, known for their anti-tumor properties. Examples of food rich in them are:
These deeply colored foods are rich in anthocyanins and antioxidants, which are linked to brain health and memory. Some good sources are:
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
According to Dr. Mira, these health recommendations were issued by the AHA due to the surging obesity epidemic worldwide.
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: