If you’re trying to eat healthier, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t consume too many empty calories. But, what are empty calories? Where are they found? And are certain foods truly empty of calories? Here are the facts you need to know.
What are empty calories?
The term “empty calories” is commonly used in the nutrition and fitness community; however, it has no true scientific meaning or definition. Generally speaking, the term empty calories refers to foods that have little to no nutritional value. Empty-calorie foods are typically high in calories from added sugar, fat, and/or alcohol, and contain limited amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
However, it’s important to understand that no calories are truly empty. The word “empty” literally means “contains nothing” and no calories contain absolutely nothing.
Calories come from macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and alcohol, and the macronutrient content of food determines its calorie content. Carbohydrates and protein provide 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9 calories per gram, and alcohol provides 7 calories per gram, and the balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and alcohol a food or beverage contains determines its calorie density.
Foods with a high-calorie density contain a lot of calories in a small amount of food (i.e. olive oil), while foods with a low-calorie density contain few calories in a large amount of food (i.e. lettuce).
While different foods have varying macronutrient profiles, which impacts their calorie density, different foods also have varying micronutrient profiles, which impact their nutrient density.
What is nutrient density?
Nutrient density refers to the ratio of nutrients to calories in food (1). Nutrient-dense foods are foods that provide a signification amount of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components.
Foods with a high nutrient density contain a lot of nutrients per calorie, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, lentils, lean meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy, while foods with a low nutrient density contain little to no nutrients per calorie, such as candy, chips, or alcohol.
Nutrient-dense foods are not only beneficial because they contain a lot of nutrients but they have been shown to be satiating as well. Many studies have shown that foods richer in nutrients (macro and micro) have a greater impact on satiety levels and feelings of fullness (2, 3).
For example, a 192 gram-portion of apple provides 100 calories and is filled with fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B6, riboflavin, potassium, manganese, and calcium (4). A 25 gram-portion of gummy bears also provides 100 calories, however, it is primarily composed of sugar and does not contain any fiber or micronutrients (5). Therefore, the apple is considered a nutrient-dense food, while the gummy bears are considered a calorie-dense food. It is best to consume calories from nutrient-dense foods the majority of the time.
The Problem with Empty Calories
While it is important to understand that some empty calories can be included in a healthy diet, when consumed in excess, they have the potential to negatively affect health. Some of the primary concerns with empty calories are:
As noted, empty-calorie foods lack nutritional value compared to their whole foods counterparts. Calorie per calorie, these foods contain little to no micronutrients compared to whole foods, which tend to contain many more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
While empty calories, or foods with low nutrient density, do provide calories to the body, the lack of protein, fiber, and micronutrients means that these calories tend to have a lesser impact on satiety signals.
Empty calories tend to be found in ultra-processed foods, and ultra-processed foods are designed to the hyper-palatable. Food manufacturers design hyper-palatable foods to have specific combinations of fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates – such as potato chips – that make them artificially rewarding to eat and harder to stop consuming (6). So, not only are empty-calorie foods lower in nutrients and higher in calories but they are easier to over-consume compared to nutrient-dense whole foods.
Lead to Overconsumption
Since many empty-calorie foods are hyper-palatable, they can easily lead to overconsumption of calories. These low-nutrient, calorie-rich foods can lead to passive overeating, which has the potential to cause weight gain. While an individual may be consuming enough or more than enough calories in their diet, the lack of nutrients in these foods can contribute to a state of being overfed and undernourished.
Examples of Empty Calories
All calories contain calories, however, some calories have a high nutrient density (contain a lot of nutrients), while others have a low nutrient density (contain little to no nutrients). Here are some examples of foods with a low nutrient density, also known as sources of empty calories:
- Refined sugars and syrups,
- Soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit juice with added sugar, fruit drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages,
- Milkshakes and sugary coffee drinks, such as Frappucinos,
- Solid fats, such as shortening,
- Alcohol, including beer, wine, and spirits,
- Candy and chocolate bars,
- Pastries, such as cookies, cakes, and donuts,
- Ultra-processed dairy products, such as American cheese slices and Cheese Whiz,
- Ultra-processed meats, such as hot dogs,
- Ultra-processed grain products, such as sugary cereals and potato chips.
Note: Not all processed foods are considered empty calories. The processing of foods occurs on a spectrum, from minimally processed to ultra-processed, and everything from frozen fruit to Pop-Tarts is considered processed food. It is the food’s nutrient density and level of processing that determines whether it would classify as “empty calories” and reading food labels, specifically the ingredient list and nutrition fact slabel, is the easiest way to determine the level to which a food is processed.
While you can lose weight on empty calories, given a calorie deficit is the only physiological requirement for weight loss to occur, weight loss should not come at the expense of health, and nutrients are required to support optimal health. For this reason, it is best to keep the intake of empty calories to a minimum when working toward a goal of weight loss.
Empty-calorie foods can be included in a healthy diet, however, it is best to limit them. As a rule of thumb, empty calories should make up no more than 20% of total calorie intake, while the other 80% of calories should come from nutrient-dense whole foods.
By solely consuming empty-calorie foods, your body will lack the essential nutrients it needs to function optimally. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to serious health issues.
How to Identify Empty-Calorie Foods
As noted above, food contains calories and no foods are truly empty of calories, however, some foods (especially ultra-processed foods) are less nutrient-dense than others, and reading food labels can help you determine this. Here is what to look for:
- Foods low in essential nutrients. Look at the nutrition facts label and refer to the column of % of Daily Value. Nutrient-dense food will have higher percentages, while foods with low nutrient density will have a small percentage or zeros.
- Foods high in added sugar. Read the ingredient list and look for sources of added sugar and refer to the nutrition facts labels to see exactly how much added sugar the food contains per serving.
- Foods low in fiber. Look at the nutrition facts label and refer to the number of grams of fiber the food contains per serving. Foods high in carbohydrates and high in sugar but low in fiber are typically less nutrient-dense options.
Although none of these metrics are individually direct indicators that a food should be considered unhealthy or a source of empty calories, combined or in conjunction with other factors, they may be an indication that the food in question is a less nutrient-dense choice.
What to Focus on Instead
When it comes to calories, food quality is important. To ensure that you’re reaching your calorie intake and consuming adequate nutrients, it’s best to prioritize whole foods in the form of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, lentils, meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy. The nutrient-rich nature of the foods ensures that they are filling, satiating, and nourishing at the same time, which supports the body’s essential needs.
With all of this said, it’s important to keep in mind that all food serves a purpose, even empty calories. Although food is fuel and the only source of nutrients for the body, food is also about pleasure, connection, celebration, and family. The objective is not to avoid empty-calorie foods completely, it’s to prioritize nutrient-dense whole foods most of the time and enjoy empty-calorie foods in moderation in a way that makes us feel food physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The Bottom Line
Empty calories are calories that contain little to no nutritional value. Empty-calorie foods are foods that contain far more calories than nutrients and are typically high in added sugar, fat, and/or alcohol. For optimal health, it is best to prioritize nutrient-dense whole foods in the diet and consume empty-calorie foods in limited amounts.
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