Put simply, empty calories are calories that come from foods or drinks that have little or no nutritional value. There are many common sources of empty calories. People may choose to limit or eliminate these foods and drinks from their diets to stay healthy and within their ideal weight range. Helping children limit empty calories can set them up for a healthy life in the future. It can also help stabilize their energy and decrease mood swings. Avoiding or limiting empty calories is a simple step toward a healthier diet and lifestyle.
What are calories?
Calories are units of energy. Scientifically, a gram calorie (cal) is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 gram (g) of water by 1° C. From a scientific perspective, what is typically called a "calorie" is actually a kilogram calorie (kCal). This is a unit of energy made up of thousands of "small calories" equal to the large calorie often used to measure the energy in food.
Calories are an essential part of the diet. The body needs to burn calories to do the simplest tasks, such as breathing or blinking. When physical exercise is thrown into the mix, even more calories are required to stay healthy and alert.
The amount of calories a person needs every day can vary widely. Most recommendations are based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day. However, this number may be higher or lower depending on the individual and their habits.
A registered dietitian can help determine a person's ideal caloric intake based on activity level, age, sex, metabolism, and height.
What are empty calories?
Empty calories are found in foods that have high caloric value but little nutritional value. Processed foods and foods high in sugar are often considered to be "empty calories. 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.
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.
Empty calories are typically divided into three categories - sugar, solid fat, and alcohol.
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 high sugar content.
How to avoid empty calories
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 shopping includes:
- 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 number of alcoholic drinks or eliminating them altogether may help some people reduce their intake of empty calories, and improve their overall health.
Having 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.
A healthy diet can be a daily habit. Limiting the amount of empty calories a person eats each day may help them maintain their ideal weight and achieve their health goals over time. Replacing empty calories with nutrient-dense foods and hydrating, sugar-free beverages can contribute to a person's overall health and well-being. Teaching children to avoid empty calories will also help them choose their own nutritious foods later in life.