Sugars that provide calories but few nutrients are often referred to as “empty calories.” This term generally applies to added sugars like table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and syrups. Foods high in empty calories tend to be high in sugar but low in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other important nutrients. Consuming too many empty calories can lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. Moderation is key when it comes to empty calorie foods.
What are empty calories?
Empty calories refer to foods and drinks that are high in calories but low in nutritional value. The term “empty calorie” is used to describe calorie-containing foods and beverages that lack vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other important nutrients. Empty calories provide energy from sugar and/or fat but are nutritionally deficient in other areas.
Common sources of empty calories include:
- Added sugars like table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and syrups
- Refined grains like white bread, pasta, and white rice
- Fried foods and baked goods made with refined flour and added fats/sugars
- Sugary drinks like soda, fruit punch, sports drinks, and sweetened coffee/tea drinks
- Candy, desserts, and other sweets
Foods that are considered empty calories tend to be highly processed or refined. This processing removes fiber, vitamins, and minerals, leaving mainly just calories from sugar and/or fat.
Why are empty calories a concern?
Nutrition experts caution against consuming too many empty calorie foods because they can lead to:
- Weight gain – Since empty calorie foods are calorie-dense but nutrient-poor, it’s easy to consume a lot of calories without getting very full. This can lead to excess calorie intake and weight gain over time.
- Nutritional deficiencies – Relying too heavily on empty calorie foods means you may not get sufficient vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and other important nutrients. This can cause nutritional deficiencies.
- Increased disease risk – Diets high in empty calorie foods like added sugars and refined grains have been linked to increased risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
- Poor gut health – Empty calorie foods lack fiber, which is important for healthy digestion and gut microbiome balance.
Moderation and balance are key when incorporating empty calorie foods into an overall healthy diet. Avoid making empty calories a dietary staple.
Are all sugars empty calories?
Not all sugars are considered empty calories. Sugars found naturally in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy are accompanied by beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and antioxidants.
On the other hand, added sugars have been extracted from natural sources or highly processed and refined. These isolated sugars contain calories but minimal nutritional value beyond carbohydrates for energy.
Naturally occurring sugars
Sugars that occur naturally in whole foods are not classified as empty calories because they come packaged with various beneficial nutrients. Examples of naturally occurring sugars include:
- Fructose in fruits
- Lactose in dairy products
- Sucrose in carrots, beets, sweet potatoes
- Glucose in grains and starchy veggies
When consumed as part of a whole food, these sugars are accompanied by vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, antioxidants and more. The other nutrients help slow sugar absorption and provide health benefits.
Added sugars refer to any sugars or caloric sweeteners that are added to foods or beverages during processing, preparation, or at the table. Added sugars provide sweetness but lack nutritional value. Common types of added sugars include:
- Table sugar (sucrose)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Honey, maple syrup, and other syrups
- Nectars like agave and fruit nectar
- Dextrose, maltose, dextrin, and maltodextrin
Since these isolated sugars contain calories but minimal nutritional value, they are considered empty calories. Food manufacturers often add sugars to foods like breads, yogurts, cereals, sauces, and beverages to boost flavor and palatability. But this also spikes the calorie counts without adding any beneficial nutrients.
Should all added sugars be avoided?
While limiting added sugars is recommended, some sources are better than others. Small amounts of minimally processed sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar may have traces of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, they are still considered added sugars and should be consumed in moderation.
When possible, choose whole food options like fruits or small amounts of dark chocolate to satisfy a sweet craving. Be mindful of recommended daily limits on added sugars, which are around 25-30 grams or 6-9 teaspoons for adult women and 36-40 grams or 9-10 teaspoons for adult men.
Foods high in empty calories
Many processed and refined foods tend to be high in empty calories. Here are some common culprits along with lower calorie, more nutritious alternatives:
Beverages like soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, sweetened coffees and teas, milkshakes, and alcohol provide lots of calories from added sugar but little nutritional value.
- Unsweetened coffee or tea
- Sparkling water with a splash of juice
- Low-fat milk
- 100% fruit or vegetable juices in moderation
Candy and baked goods
Foods like candy, cookies, cake, pie, donuts, and pastries are low in nutrients but high in added sugars and unhealthy fats that add empty calories.
- Fresh fruit
- Greek yogurt
- Nuts and seeds
- Oatmeal cookies made with whole grains, nuts, and dried fruit
- Angel food cake
Chips, pretzels, and crackers
These refined grain snack foods pack in salt, unhealthy fats, and calories without much fiber or protein.
- Fresh vegetables with hummus
- Whole grain crackers
- Nuts and seeds
- Kale chips
Pizza and fast food
Greasy foods like pizza, fries, burgers, and fried chicken provide fat and calories without enough vitamins, minerals, fiber, or antioxidants.
- Salads with lean protein and vinaigrette dressing
- Veggie flatbread pizza with whole grain crust
- Grilled chicken sandwich
- Tacos with corn tortillas, veggies, beans, and salsa
Frozen meals and processed foods
Pre-packaged frozen meals, instant noodles, pre-made sandwiches and meatballs often contain excessive sodium, fat, and preservatives with few wholesome ingredients.
- Home-cooked meals
- Prepared meals from the grocer’s fresh/natural foods section
- Canned or frozen vegetables
- Plain frozen poultry, fish, and meat
Negative effects of empty calorie foods
Regularly consuming empty calorie foods can take a toll on your health and waistline. Here’s an overview of the potential risks and downsides:
Foods high in empty calories are often high in added sugars and unhealthy fats. Consuming excess calories from these nutrient-poor foods on a regular basis can easily lead to weight gain over time. Empty calories don’t fill you up, making it easy to overeat.
Blood sugar spikes
The added sugars in empty calorie foods cause blood sugar and insulin to spike then crash. This can lead to energy crashes and hunger, causing you to eat more empty calories. Over time, these blood sugar fluctuations increase the risk for insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.
Increased disease risk
A diet high in empty calorie foods like processed grains, sweetened beverages, and processed meats has been linked to increased inflammation and higher risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The excess calories, carbs, sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats promote oxidative stress and inflammation.
If empty calorie foods make up a large portion of your regular diet, you may become deficient in important vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients. This can impact immune function, energy levels, and overall health.
The lack of fiber in heavily processed empty calorie foods can impair digestion and gut health. Fiber feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome and promotes regular bowel movements and healthy stools. Without adequate fiber, gut balance suffers.
|Empty Calorie Food||Healthier Alternative|
|Soda||Sparkling water with lemon|
|White bread||Whole grain bread|
|Pizza||Veggie pizza with thin whole grain crust|
Tips for reducing empty calorie intake
Here are some tips to help curb empty calorie consumption:
Read nutrition labels
Get in the habit of reading nutrition labels to identify sources of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats. Look for foods low in sugar and sodium and high in fiber and protein.
Watch your beverage choices
Cut back on sugary drinks like soda, lemonade, and sweetened coffee and tea. Stick with water, unsweetened teas, sparkling water, milk, or 100% fruit juice in moderation.
Eat more whole foods
Focus on whole foods that are minimally processed like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils. Cook at home more often.
Limit sweets and refined grains
Reduce your intake of cookies, cakes, candy, white bread, pasta, and white rice. Always pair sweets with protein and healthy fats to minimize blood sugar spikes.
Don’t drink your calories
Stick with water or unsweetened beverages with meals to avoid excess calorie intake from sugary drinks. Stay hydrated with water between meals as well.
Be mindful of overeating empty calorie foods by controlling portions and avoiding going back for seconds. Dish out proper servings to avoid overeating.
The bottom line
Empty calories provide calories but lack the vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and other nutrients your body needs. Limiting foods high in empty calories can help control calorie intake, manage weight, stabilize blood sugar, and ensure adequate nutrition. Aim for a balanced, wholesome diet based on whole foods. Moderation and variety are key when incorporating occasional empty calorie treats.