The “empty” in empty calories literally means “containing nothing”. Now imagine that: eating something that has quite literally no benefit to you other than providing a quick boost of energy (and a quick crash later one). They don’t even provide satiety so you still have to eat to feel full afterward, which encourages overeating and a higher intake of calories as a whole. This explains why empty calories have been linked to causing weight gain, spikes in blood sugar, increased inflammation and many other potential risks. So, in this article we are going to give you the scoop on empty calories and some simple ways you can start lowering how many you consume.
What Are Empty Calories?
Empty calories are quite literally calories that contain no significant nutrients. They’re commonly found in foods and drinks that are high in sugar, fat or alcohol content but are also sometimes snuck into other items, such as meat, oils, condiments and more. Although these calories are much more delicious than they are nutritious, they do provide you with a quick energy just like other calories. This helps fuel your daily activity and keep the body functioning properly. However, the boost of energy from empty calories is almost always followed with an energy crash and any empty calories not used for energy get stored as fat.
Additionally, since empty calories don’t have any or very little nutritional content, they don’t fill you up, so you still feel hungry after eating them. As a result, consuming a diet high in empty calories can lead to many potential risks, including weight gain, overeating, spikes in blood sugar levels and increased inflammation. Over time these can lead to more serious health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Unfortunately, most people consume far more empty calories than they should. In fact, studies found that 40% of total calories that children between the ages of 2 – 18 consume in the United States are empty calories. This is significantly higher than the daily limit set out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Here is an estimated daily limit for empty calories based on one’s age and gender:
- Children (2–8 years old): 120 calories per day
- Children (9–13 years old): 120–250 calories per day
- Girls (14–18 years old): 120–250 calories per day
- Boys (14–18 years old): 160–330 calories per day
- Adult women: 120–250 calories per day
- Adult men: 160–330 calories per day
Examples of Empty Calories
Many packaged foods contain empty calories, so the best way to identify empty calories in food is to read the nutritional label on the packaging. This will provide you with detailed information about the nutritional value in the food. To find empty calories, you’ll want to look for solid fats and added sugars.
Here are some examples of foods that are known to have empty calories:
- Cakes and other sugary baked goodies like muffins,
- Coffee drinks with sugar-sweeteners
- Condiments such as ketchup and barbecue sauce
- Fast food
- French Fries
- Fruit drinks
- Full-fat dairy products such as cheese and milk
- Granola bars
- Ice cream
- Meats such as bacon, sausages and hot dogs
- Sports drinks
Tips for Limiting Your Intake of Empty Calories
Most of us know that food is essential to life, as it provides the body with the energy needed to function properly and to grow and repair, but many of us still consume an unnecessarily large number of empty calories that have no nutritional value. To make more healthy choices with your diet to avoid potential risks associated with empty calories and to ensure you get all the nutrients your body needs to thrive, here are some tips:
Be Mindful of Your Snacks
Studies show that snacks provide almost 1/3rd of a person’s daily consumption of calories (31% for men and 32% for women). So, being mindful of your snack choices can help you limit the number of empty calories you eat each day.
Avoid Foods Known to Have Empty Calories
This tip goes without saying: avoiding foods that are known for their empty calories will help lower your daily intake. Refer to the list above to see what kind of foods you’ll want to eliminate from your diet.
Eat More Nutrient-Dense Foods
Choosing more nutrient-dense food will help curb those cravings and give you the satiety that you don’t get from empty calories. Some foods to enjoy more often include:
- Fresh fruits like apples, berries, bananas, oranges and melons
- Vegetables (frozen or fresh) such as carrots, broccoli, beets and leafy greens
- Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat bread and whole grain pasta
- Lean protein such as eggs, beans, fish, poultry and nuts
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Low-fat dairy products, such as milk, cheeses and yogurts
Make Simple Swaps to Satisfy Cravings
Empty calories are often sweet, delicious treats that everyone enjoys from time-to-time, but there are many simple swaps you can make to satisfy your sweet tooth, limit your consumption of empty calories and get the nutrients you need. Here are some ideas:
- Switch milkshakes into smoothies
- Enjoy fruit for dessert
- Add fruit into your yogurt instead of purchasing already-sweetened versions
- Eat low-fat dairy products instead of full-fat varieties
- Look for cereals that have no added sugar
- Drink more water
- Add fruit or tea infusions into your water to flavor them instead of drinking juice and sugary sodas
- Snack on low-fat popcorn instead of sweets and candies
- Crunch on nuts and seeds instead of chips and treats
- Opt for unsweetened varieties, such as unsweetened applesauce
- Use healthier cooking oils, such as extra virgin olive oil
- Eat extra lean ground beef instead of regular ground beef
Consuming a small amount of empty calories is deemed okay, but the problem is that most people eat far more than what is considered healthy. Implement the tips from this article to help reduce your consumption of empty calories, boost your health and even encourage weight loss.