What are empty calories?

Empty calories are those that provide you with very little or no nutritional value. This means that the food that provides the empty calories does not have a lot of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or fiber.

As an example, consider a can of cola. It provides 136 calories, but apart from a tiny bit of phosphorus and iron, it contains virtually no other vitamins or minerals. It is therefore a source of empty calories.

On the other hand, a large banana has only slightly fewer calories than the can of cola does but it is bursting in nutrients.

It provides 20% of your daily value (DV) of vitamin C, 25% DV of vitamin B6, 18% DV of manganese, 14% DV of potassium, 9% DV of magnesium and 14% DV of dietary fiber. It also has small amounts of various other vitamins and minerals. This means that it is a source of nutrient dense calories, the opposite of empty calories.

In general, a lot of processed foods tend to be nutritionally inferior to unprocessed foods. Processed foods that have large amounts of added sugar and fat are usually the ones that are sources of empty calories. Examples of these include:

  • Sodas and sugar sweetened beverages – as seen from the example above, these beverages provide very little nutritional value. However they are very energy dense, extremely high in sugar and are thought to be a leading cause of obesity and other health problems. Some types of store bought fruit juice are also sources of empty calories and are nowhere near as nutrient rich as homemade fruit juice.
  • Cakes, cookies, pastries and chips – these foods tend to be very high in calories because of the large amount of added fat that they have. Fat is the most calorie dense out of all the macro-nutrients, providing 9 calories per gram. But for the amount of energy that they provide, they have little nutritional value.
  • Alcoholic beverages – beers, spirits and other alcoholic drinks are sources of empty calories. A can of beer for example has 153 calories, but very small amounts of nutrients.

Eating foods that have empty calories every now and then is fine. The problem arises when they form a staple part of ones diet and are eaten on a regular basis. Not only do they promote weight gain, they also increase the persons risk of becoming deficient in a number of key nutrients.

It is therefore a better idea to enjoy these nutrient lacking foods as a treat once in a while, but to focus on making nutrient dense foods a large part of your diet. This is easy to do because there are lots of foods packed with nutrition. They include:

  • Vegetables: carrots, kale, beetroot, potatoes and pumpkin to name a few. All of these vegetables are bursting with nutrients. For example, a medium sized carrot provides you with more than double your daily value of vitamin A and a cup of kale has 134% DV of vitamin C.
  • Fruits: not only are they a source of natural sugars, like vegetables they are nutritional powerhouses. Some of my favourite ones include mangoes, strawberries, cherries, avocados and papaya. Fruit is very handy because it can help satisfy a sweet tooth for very few calories and is a better option than many processed desserts.
  • Nuts & seeds: whilst these tend to be high in calories, they are also some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. Some popular ones are almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chia seeds, pecans, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. They are especially high in vitamin E, zinc, phosphorus & fiber. Nuts & seeds shouldn’t be considered boring because they can be eaten in many different ways.
  • Eggs, meat & seafood: these foods have large amounts of protein but also some vitamins and minerals that you can’t get from other foods. One good example is the vitamin B12 which is mainly found in foods obtained from animals. Another one is vitamin D, which is abundant in fish.

Eating these natural wholesome foods will reduce your risk of becoming deficient in some essential nutrients including vitamins A, C, D, E, K, the B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium & magnesium.

It is recommended that you get adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats so it is a good idea to eat a large variety of these foods.

If you are trying to lose weight, swapping empty calorie foods for nutrient dense ones can be very beneficial.

One of the reasons for this is because foods that have empty calories tend to be high in sugar. Eating processed sugar causes your blood sugar and insulin levels to spike and then fall rapidly, resulting in a feeling of “crashing”. This in turn can lead to overeating.

Another reason is because empty calorie foods are not as filling as those that are high in protein and fiber. Soda is a big culprit of this; when you drink it, your brain doesn’t register the calories in it as efficiently as those from solid foods. So you end up consuming more calories than you ordinarily would.

If you don’t already, it is a good idea to keep a food journal, where you make a note of everything that you eat in a given day. You can then find the nutritional information of those foods using a website such as nutritiondata.self.com or an app like myfitnesspal. If a food is very high in calories but lacking in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, it should be swapped for something healthier.

When buying foods from stores, make it a point to read nutrition labels and avoid those that have excessive amounts of added sugar & fat. Instead, opt for natural foods like the ones listed above.