All you need to know about empty calories

Lots of modern foods and beverages contain empty calories. These are calories from foods which have little to no nutritional value.

Knowing how to recognize empty calories can help a person make healthier choices regarding food.

This article discusses what are empty calories, what foods and drinks they contain, and how to eat for better nutritional value.

What are empty calories?

What are empty calories?
Carbohydrate-based desserts are a rich source of empty calories.

Foods and drinks that do not contain significant nutrients but are high in calories are said to have “empty calories.” These are primarily foods and drinks with a high content of sugar, fat or alcohol with little or no other nutritional value.

Empty calories, like some refined oils, are those that come from added sugars and strong fats. Including:

  • carbohydrate-based desserts, such as cakes, cookies, biscuits, donuts, muffins, granola bars, and more
  • sugary drinks, including soda, energy drinks, and fruit juice
  • candy bars, chocolate bars, and hard candies
  • some meats, including bacon, sausages, and hotdogs
  • some full fat products, such as butter, shortening, and ice-cream
  • processed oils, such as soybean and canola oil
  • condiments, such as ketchup and barbecue sauce
  • fast food, including burgers, wraps, pizza, and more
  • alcohol

2012 research found male adults eat 923 empty calories a day on average. The average intake of empty calories for females has been 624 calories per day.

The added fats and sugars make the taste good of these empty calories which can cause people to crave them.

Sugar has 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories per gram and pure alcohol has 7 calories per gram.

Consuming a lot of empty calorie foods and drinks can lead to weight gain and deficiencies in nutrition. For example, a person may not get enough of eating lots of empty calories:

  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • protein
  • essential fatty acids
  • fiber

Empty calories and children

An older study, from 2010, found that around 40 percent of the total calories consumed in the United States by children aged 2–18 are empty calories.

Half of the empty calories come from only six different types of products:

  • soda
  • fruit juice
  • dairy desserts, such as ice-cream
  • grain desserts, such as muffins and cookies
  • pizza
  • whole milk

However, parents and carers need not rule out whole milk, since it can be a good source of calcium and protein. Studies have found that whole milk doesn’t increase children’s risk of obesity.

According to a 2020 study, the latest introduction of new nutrient requirements for school meals has significantly improved meal quality and consistency with the Dietary Guidelines For Americans.

How to make more healthful choices

People will follow a healthier diet by making sure that most of their meals are whole foods unprocessed, and by looking for empty calories.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that snacks provide approximately one-third of the daily empty calorie intake in a individual (32 percent for women and 31 percent for men).

By -snacks and eating meals that contain enough protein, whole grain carbohydrates, and fibre, a person can reduce their empty calorie intake.

In addition, when snacking, combining proteins with carbohydrates can help a person feel more fuller.

While fruits contain vitamins and minerals, and therefore are not empty calories, people should be aware of how much sugar they consume in juice.

For instance, a 12-ounce (0.35 litre) orange juice serving includes 7.5 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories. Alternatively, eating fresh fruit means that a person eats fibre as well.

Often, sweet foods such as cakes and sodas consist entirely of empty calories from sugar and solid fats. Empty calories, however, can also be found in other foods which contain important nutrients.

Instead of empty calories people should substitute healthier foods. The following table contains some suggestions:

Foods with empty caloriesGood substitutes
Sweetened applesauceUnsweetened applesauce
Regular ground beef (75% lean), which contains solid fatsExtra lean ground beef (95% or more lean)
Sugar sweetened cerealsPlain oatmeal
Processed oilsExtra virgin olive oil
Fried chickenBaked chicken breast without skin
Soda, fruit juice, and sports drinksWater, black coffee, and herbal teas
Candy, cakes, and cookiesFresh fruits

Summary

Empty calories can add up quickly and take over a person’s daily calorie recommendations. Eating a great deal of solid fat and adding sugars in the diet will lead to weight gain and some health outcomes.

By checking food labels for sugar and fat content, as well as making healthier choices where possible, people can become more conscious of empty calories. It may also be helpful to reduce snacking, and avoid sweetened drinks.

In particular, children are at risk of eating lots of empty calories at home, school, and out and about. In addition, several food and beverage firms market high calorie products specifically to children.

Focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole foods while avoiding packaged foods will help a person cut back on empty calorie intake.

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