Empty calories are found in foods that have high caloric
value but little nutritional value.
This means the body will be able to use the food for energy,
but will be provided with little of the nutrients and minerals
it needs to keep strong and healthy. Any leftover calories will
be stored in the form of fat.
Empty calories are typically divided
into three categories:
• solid fat
The most common sources of empty calories are highly
processed or refined foods. These foods usually contain a
high amount of fat and sugar or other carbohydrates. They
include most fast foods, processed snacks, and sweets such
as cakes, cookies, ice cream, and candy.
Sugar is considered one of the most common types of
empty calories. It is found in:
• soft drinks
• fruit drinks
• baked goods
• dairy products
• processed foods
• fast food
Adding sugar to the diet adds energy without adding any
other nutrients. This means there is little the body can do
with those calories but use them or store them as fat.
Many fats are considered empty calories, as they provide
few additional nutrients to the body.
Empty calorie fats are typically fats that are solid at room
temperature, also called saturated fats. They include butter,
margarine, and vegetable shortening, but exclude certain
healthy fats, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Excess fats are found in or added to:
• cakes and pies
• cookies,muffins, and biscuits
• chips and crackers
• fast food and take out
• whole milk
• processed meat products, such as hot dogs,
bacon, and hamburgers
It is true that healthy fats are an important part of a
balanced diet. Healthy fats include avocados, nuts and
seeds, and olive oil.
However, excessive fat content, particularly from saturated
and trans fats, adds unnecessary calories while providing
little of the necessary building blocks to sustain life.
Empty calories are most often thought to come from
processed foods and sweets, but many extra calories can be
acquired by drinking alcohol.
Beer is a grain-based alcoholic beverage that is typically
rich in carbohydrates and little else. This can quickly add
unnecessary calories to the diet.
Mixed drinks are usually made with syrups, fruit drinks, or
drink mixes, all of which contain excess sugar. Wine also has
a high sugar content.
How to avoid empty calories
Planning meals in advance, as well as ensuring available
snacks are nutritious, may help to reduce the number of
empty calories in a diet.
Limiting empty calories can be as simple as a change in
diet. Moving away from a heavily processed diet has helped
many people lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Helping children make this switch may lead them to
healthier choices in the future.
Eliminating or limiting empty calories starts with eating
more nutrient-dense foods. These are foods that provide
a lot of nutrients or minerals compared to their caloric
content. In general, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans,
legumes, and lean proteins are more nutrient-dense than
other food choices.
There are some simple steps that may be helpful for both
adults and children who want to avoid empty calories and
aim for a healthier lifestyle.
Cut out processed foods
For some people, reducing the intake of empty calories
may be as simple as cutting out processed foods. Packaged
foods and fast food are typically processed and have high
calorie content when compared to their nutritional value.
A simple way to achieve healthy lifestyle goals is to cut
back on these processed foods and replace them with home-cooked options. Planning out a number of meals to cook at
home each week can turn this into a long-term habit.
Look for nutrients
It may also help to actively seek out foods that are rich in
specific nutrients while shopping. This may help a person
change their approach to food in general.
Some of the most basic nutrients to look out for while food
• amino acids
• vitamins, such as vitamin A, B vitamins, or vitamin C
• minerals, such as calcium,
magnesium, and potassium
Plan meals in advance
Meal planning may also help a person avoid empty
calories. While there may not be spare time every day to cook
each meal, most people can find 1 day a week to plan out
and cook their meals at home.
Having a healthy option ready for every meal can help
avoid unnecessary snacking and high-calorie foods.
Change drinking habits
Many empty calories are found in drink choices. Sweetened
tea and coffee, soft drinks, and fruit-based drinks can add a
surprising amount of calories to the diet. Replacing these
with water, unsweetened tea or coffee, or sparkling water
can regularly cut out empty calories.
This may also mean reducing alcohol intake. Regularly
drinking alcoholic beverages can add many unnecessary
calories to the diet.
Limiting the amount of alcoholic drinks or eliminating
them altogether may help some people reduce their intake
of empty calories, and improve their overall health.
Have nutritious snacks on hand
Another great way to avoid high-calorie snacking is to
prepare ahead of time and buy or make nutrient-rich snacks.
This way, when a hunger craving kicks in, a more nutritious
option is at the ready.
For salty snacks, home-baked vegetable chips or a few
salted nuts are better options than standard potato chips.
For sweet cravings, a fruit salad or fruit smoothie may keep
some people from reaching for the candy bars.