What Are Empty Calories?

By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Food is fuel, and no one could survive without it. But with the obesity epidemic in the United States, it's no wonder why people are constantly talking about calories. How many should you be eating? What are good calories? What are empty calories? We hear these phrases so often that it's easy to become desensitized to them, but do we really know what they mean? In this article, we’ll discuss the meaning of empty calories and how to make healthier choices in your diet.

What Are empty calories?

The nutrients contained in the calories that people eat are vitally important to our health. For example, the iron and fiber contained in spinach pack a huge nutritional punch within a small number of calories. However, sometimes foods can have a high number of calories and have little nutritional value at all. These are called empty calories. Unfortunately these foods are often the ones that people have the hardest time staying away from.

[Related: How Calories Are Measured]

According to one shocking statistic from the National Institute of Health, nearly 40 percent of the calories consumed by children ages 2-18 are empty calories, and half of those calories come in the form of sugary drinks, desserts and processed junk food. Experts recommend that no more than 8-20 percent of a child's total caloric intake come from these sources, though even 20 percent is on the high side for some.

A small amount of empty calories are fine, but most people consume far too many without even knowing it. Processed foods are a huge culprit. Often times, their freshly prepared counterparts don't contain these empty calories making them much healthier options. Take pizza for example. A frozen pizza can be loaded with empty calories and a number of unhealthy additives, but a pizza made at home with simple, fresh ingredients, like more vegetables and fresh tomato sauce, and less processed meat and cheese is a much healthier choice.

Foods Full Of Empty Calories

The two sources of empty calories are added sugar and solid fat. So what types of food contain empty calories? There are many, including:

  • Soda
  • Sugary sports drinks
  • Deep fried food
  • Candy
  • Pastries, such as doughnuts, cakes and cookies
  • Pizza
  • Cheese
  • Ice Cream
  • Fatty meat like sausage, hot dogs, bacon and ribs
  • Processed snack foods

[See: 10 Surprising Foods With Trans Fats]

While some people may scratch their heads at things like cheese being on the list, the reasoning is the fat content. There are options that are much more nutritionally sound than eating cheese because they contain fewer empty calories.

There are many foods that fall into a gray area between a healthy calorie and an empty calorie. Take for example those little cups of applesauce that are so popular with children. While applesauce itself is good for kids, if it is overly sweetened or flavored, then it loses some of its nutritional bang for its caloric buck.

Making Healthier Choices

Since the two culprits of empty calories are fat and sugar, choosing foods that contain less fat and sugar will almost always be better choices. That being said, most people will benefit from making food choices that are lower in fat and sugar, such as:

  • Low-fat cheese
  • Low-fat turkey bacon
  • Sugar-free desserts such as gelatin or pudding
  • Sugar-free drinks such as water, tea or sodas

It’s also important to choose fresh fruits and vegetables as much as possible. By making better food choices and sticking to whole, unprocessed foods, people can cut down on empty calories while reducing their risk of obesity and all the health problems that come with it.


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