Simply put, empty calories are calories in your foods that are – for the most part – empty of significant nutritional value, and these empty calories can add up quickly. Most fats and added sugars are considered “empty” because they don’t offer your body much in the way of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients or fibre.
To make matters even more confusing, foods containing “empty calories” are sometimes called “energy-dense” – which sounds a lot better than it actually is. Despite how it sounds, “energy-dense” is simply a gentler way of saying “high-calorie”, as the calories in the foods are converted into energy that fuels the body.
So, an energy-dense food is one that contains a lot of calories in a relatively small volume. An easy example is the 300+ calories you get from a handful of potato chips – a lot of calories with little nutritional value.
Common Sources Of Empty Calories
Sometimes you know when you’re taking in empty calories – sugar is hardly hidden in a fizzy drink or a chocolate bar. But empty calories aren’t always quite so obvious, such as the 5 teaspoons of fat hiding in your blueberry muffin, or the 8 teaspoons of sugar lurking in a fancy coffee drink.
Sugary drinks are a big contributor to empty calories– not just fizzy drinks and coffee, but also heavily sweetened teas and fruit drinks such as some fruit juice drinks . The same is true for sugary sweets, pancake syrup, honey and preserves. Fatty foods such as crisps, French fries and salad dressings are mostly empty calories, as are desserts - most cakes, cookies and pastries pack an unhealthy punch of both sugar and fat.
Swap Empty Calorie Foods For Nutrient-dense Foods
Consuming unnecessary calories is just one of the problems with empty calorie foods – there’s another equally important issue. When you fill up on fatty, sugary foods, they take up space in your stomach – taking up room for all those good-for-you foods that provide the healthy nutrients your body needs.
So here’s the solution: since empty calorie foods have lots of calories and very little nutrition, you want to shift your focus towards foods that are exactly the opposite. You want to eat more foods with an abundance of nutrients and a relatively low-calorie cost. These “nutrient-dense” foods – like vegetables, fruits and lean proteins – deliver plenty of nutrition and are filling, but won’t break your calorie bank.
Nutrient-dense foods are pretty easy to spot. Since fats are so calorie dense (there’s about 40 calories in a tiny amount of butter), swapping high fat items for low fat ones is an easy way to increase your nutrient density and cut empty calories. Simple swaps such as replacing whole milk with semi-skimmed, or cooking with turkey breast instead of beef are a great way to start.
Another clue to nutrient-dense foods is their water content. Water adds volume (but no calories) to foods like fruits and vegetables, which makes them filling yet relatively low in calories, plus they have an abundance of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre. So why not start your meal with a leafy green salad or vegetable soup – and begin filling your stomach with low-calorie items. Snack on whole fruits, and add vegetables to as many foods as you can – including soups, stews, casseroles and pasta sauces – to up the nutrition.
Why Nutrient Density is So Important
I encourage everyone to use their calories wisely and spend them on the most nutritious foods they can – but this is particularly important for those who have relatively low-calorie needs. A woman who maintains her weight on 1400 calories a day will have to choose her foods carefully if she’s going to try to pack in all her nutrient needs without gaining weight. However, even those with high-calorie requirements shouldn’t assume they’ve got plenty of calories to spare; it’s still wise to eat as many nutrient-dense foods as you can.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.