The Trap of Empty Calories: a HealthCentral Explainer

SSuchy Editor
  • A report included with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 nutritional guidelines listed the top 25 sources of calories for Americans over the age of two.  And almost a third of those on the list qualified as “empty calorie” foods, meaning they boost calories without adding nutrients. 


    Given these findings, it should come as no surprise that the obesity rate in American is projected to balloon to 40 percent by 2030, and that the incidence of type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, even among children, is rapidly rising.


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    So, what do empty calories do to a diet?


    High in calories, low in nutrition


    Empty calories come primarily from solid fats or added sugars.  Both increase food’s caloric content without the benefit of additional nutrients. 


    Solid fats are fats that stay solid at room temperature, such as butter, animal fat and shortening.  They are found naturally in some foods that do have nutritional value, such as beef, but become empty calories when they’re added to foods. 


    Added sugars usually take the form of syrups that are added when foods and beverages are processed.  The most popular of those syrups is high fructose corn syrup, which is added to most full-calorie sodas and many processed foods.  


    According to the USDA, the most common sources of empty calories in the American diet are:


    1. Cakes, cookies, pastries and donuts – contain both solid fats and added sugars

    2. Sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks and fruit drinks – contain added sugars

    3. Cheese – contain solid fats

    4. Ice cream – contain both solids fats and added sugars

    5. Sausage, hot dogs, bacon and ribs – contain solid fats.


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    How empty calories hurt your diet


    Calories give the body fuel, and most of us need between 1,600 and 2,400 calories each day to function in a healthy way – the brain alone burns 20 percent of your body’s energy.  These numbers changes based on age, weight, activity level and gender, but one thing is clear:  We do need calories to live.


    But we also need nutrients.  For example, a healthy 50-year-old woman should eat 5 ounces of protein, three cups of dairy, 1.5 cups of fruit, 2.5 cups of vegetables and 3 ounces of grains every day.  Add to that the hundreds of milligrams of nutrients such as calcium, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin C and vitamin D.  And since it is best to get nutrients from foods rather than relying on vitamin supplements, meeting all of these requirements on a daily basis can require consuming a lot of calories. 


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    But when calories are consumed that do not contribute to the body’s nutritional needs, one of two things happen:  Either those empty calories need to be compensated for by consuming more than the 2,000 daily calories necessary for optimal health or the body will simply be depleted of nutrients.


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    Judging from the breakdown of calorie sources mentioned above, most Americans struggle with both imbalances; they consume too many calories and struggle to meet daily nutritional recommendations.


    Efficient eating


    So how can you do both?  How do you keep your daily calorie intake within a healthy range and consume enough nutrients for healthy body function?  Cutting out empty calories is the first place to start.  Reducing or even completely eliminating empty calories will leave room for higher quality more nutrition-dense calories


    The USDA has four recommendations:


    1. Increase intake of whole grains, vegetables and fruits – some evidence shows that adults who eat more whole grains, particularly those high in dietary fiber, have a lower body weight.
    2. Reduce intake of sugar-sweetened beverages – almost without exception, beverages with added sugar have no nutritional value at all, including vitamin water.  Whenever possible, drink water instead.
    3. Closely monitor intake of 100 percent fruit juice for children and adolescents – like the sports drinks and full-calorie sodas, fruit juices are often very high in sugar and should be avoided, especially in children who are already overweight or obese.
    4. Monitor calorie intake from alcohol – alcohol is another common source of empty calories, but is often not monitored as part of the diet. 


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    But the ultimate litmus test for any food you eat is to ask: will this make me healthier than I am right now?


    Happy eating!



    Works cited:


    U.S. Department of Agriculture, (2010) Dietary Guidelins for America. Retrieved from website:


    U.S Departmtne of Agriculture, Calories. Retreived from Choose My Plate website:


    U.S Department of Agriculture, Choose My Plate website:


Published On: May 22, 2012