WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

Empty Calories: What Are They & Which Foods Are They Hiding In?

Jan. 21, 2021 - Katie McCallum

The first time I heard the term "empty" calorie, I naively hoped it meant a type of calorie that somehow didn't have...calories. A food item I could indulge in completely guilt-free. This, of course, is impossible.

"All foods contain calories, and all calories are either used by your body for immediate energy, stored away as glycogen as a source of future energy or turned into fat — depending on how many calories you eat during a period of time," explains Leslie Ramirez, clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist. "Foods can be very low in calories, such as certain vegetables and fruits, but, aside from water and artificial sweeteners, nothing you eat is completely calorie-free."

So if not calorie-free calories, what does "empty calories" mean exactly?

What is an empty calorie?

There's more to what we eat than just the calories within.

Sure, we need these calories (which our body turns into energy) to survive. But, the whole foods that make up a healthy diet — including non-starchy carbohydrates, protein, fiber and healthy fats — provide health benefits beyond just energy.

"Vegetables include important vitamins, minerals and nutrients your body needs to function. Lean meats and fish are great sources of protein, which is important for your body's repair, growth and development processes. Fiber helps control your blood sugar levels, promote a sense of fullness and encourage normal bowel movements. And healthy fats help your body absorb certain vitamins and also promote a sense of fullness," explains Ramirez.

Foods containing mostly empty calories, on the other hand? Put simply, these are foods that have calories, but that's it.

"Empty calories can provide some immediate energy, but they can't be used to build muscle, supply vitamins, promote a sense of fullness or provide any other nutritional benefits," says Ramirez. "And any empty calories not used for energy will be stored as fat."

As a rule of thumb, if a food does not contain nutrients or if the calories from sugar and fats outweigh the nutrients found in the food, it's considered to be a source of empty calories.

Foods and drinks that contain mostly empty calories include:

  • Soft drinks, sports drinks, sweet tea, lemonade and energy drinks
  • Alcohol
  • Junk food and fast food
  • Candy, including hard candies and sweet or sour chews
  • Cakes and donuts

What makes empty calories bad?

"One of the big problems with empty calories is that oftentimes they're consumed in excess without a person even knowing it," warns Ramirez. "They're not just found in the obvious places, like desserts. Empty calories are also hiding in everyday foods, like drinks, breakfast items, snacks and condiments. I often refer to empty calories as stealth calories."

Overeating any type of food can, of course, be unhealthy over time, but overeating foods that provide no health benefits...well, there can be implications.

"Just by virtue of the types of foods they're found in, when you're eating empty calories, you're typically eating a lot of them. This can easily derail weight loss or cause weight gain," says Ramirez.

Add to that the fact that empty calories, specifically sugars, are very quickly digested by your body, which means they don't help you feel full for very long.

"Eating foods that don't help you feel full is an easy way to consume more calories per day than you're body actually needs — which leads to weight gain. If all you need is a quick energy boost and you eat a few empty calories, that's one thing. But this often isn't how we consume these types of foods," adds Ramirez.

Then there's the issue of food cravings. You know the ones — when you're thirsty but the only thing you want to drink is a big glass of sweet tea. Or when you're hungry and that bag of Doritos in your pantry is the only thing that sounds good.

"Food cravings may be rooted in your brain becoming addicted to these highly rewarding foods. But, if you're eating mostly empty calories, these cravings might also be your body asking for food that actually provides the important nutrients you need to survive, which empty calories neglect to provide you. Regardless of the reason, these cravings also encourage overeating and weight gain," warns Ramirez.

Lastly, eating empty calories in excess can lead to blood sugar spikes and increase inflammation — which, in turn, can lead to chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

Eat this, not that — empty calorie edition

Given our fast-paced lives and the style of diet common today, avoiding empty calories is certainly easier said than done. But, Ramirez has tips for swapping those foods full of empty calories for healthier alternatives:

  • Rethink your drink. Liquid empty calories are by far the most stealthy. A single 12 oz. can of soda contains almost 40 grams of added sugar. And while a sports drink can help you replenish electrolytes after a particularly sweaty workout, your body may not need the whole bottle. Try swapping sugary drinks for unsweetened sparkling water or the diet version of your favorite soda.

  • Know how sugar much is too much. Small amounts of added sugars (less than 10% of your daily calories) are okay, but many children and adults exceed this amount. According to the CDC, added sugars account for 16% of the total daily calories for both boys and girls, on average.

  • Get familiar with reading labels. Empty calories are often hiding in plain sight, which means you may need to get in the habit of checking the nutrition label — even for foods items you think are healthy. The new food labels make identifying when sugar has been added to a product even easier. Under the total grams of sugar, look for a line item indicating the amount of added sugar. The nutrition label is also an important part of ensuring you're sticking to eating a single serving size.

  • Embrace slow cooking and meal prepping. Eating mostly processed foods is an easy way to overdo it on empty calories. Cooking meals at home is a great alternative, as well as a way to ensure that your meals are healthier overall. If you're short on time in the evenings, try cooking with a slow cooker. If your short on time at lunch, try meal prepping simple, healthy lunches ahead of time.

  • Avoid overindulging on alcohol. Limiting alcohol is an important component of a healthy lifestyle, and it's also a good way to cut empty calories. There are no beneficial calories in alcohol, and each gram of alcohol carries seven calories with it.

"We want the majority of what we eat to not only provide the calories we need for energy, but also the nutrients, vitamins and minerals we need to survive. This means it's important to focus on whole foods and try to avoid overdoing it on processed or empty calories," adds Ramirez.

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