Most of our goals are set as per certain standards made by general public. We count success in terms of the number of zeros following our bank balance or the number of degrees following our name.
Similarly our perception of being healthy and looking attractive is losing or gaining weight.
What we miss out is that being healthy requires a healthy mind and healthy body. Just as for a healthy mind you need positive thoughts and need to work out mental muscles similarly for a healthy body you healthy nutritive food and exercise.
But we choose taste over nutrition. So that brings us to nutrient dense food and non nutritive foods. What lowers the nutritional content of non nutritive foods is a group of food items that are nothing but empty calories.
What are empty calories?
Empty calories apply to certain foods that provide energy but little or no nutrition. They lack vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibres and all they do is provide energy which in case of no or little exercise is deposited as fat.
The concept of empty calories originates from:
- Nutrient density: Proportion of nutrients with respect to the energy content of food
- Calorie density: Amount of energy relative to weight of the food
We should opt for nutrient dense foods-foods that provide large amount of nutrients in comparison to the calories and small portions of such food are enough to get you required nutrients. But we tend to go for empty calories because they simply add flavour and raise the palatability of the food.
Foods that contain empty calories are stripped of nutrients and contain added sugar, salt and fat. Highly processed foods are generally overeaten because of their high palatability and lack of promoting satiety.
A meal of fried foods, candy and sweetened soda may fill you up temporarily but it is likely to make you feel hungry again leading to vicious cycle.
Empty calorie beverages quickly add up to your daily calorie intake. Sugar sweetened juices and sodas are the main culprits behind obesity.
Average soft drink is around 20 ounces and it contains 250 calories that translates to 15 teaspoons of sugar. Average consumption is three to five such 20 ounce drinks which definitely tips the calorie scales to the wrong end.
When it comes to empty calories you have to exercise caution on the portion size of such foods and look for healthier alternatives.
Which foods are abundant in empty calories?
Highly processed foods or those that contain added sugar and fat provide a lot of empty calories.
A survey was carried out in 2010 to assess the dietary sources of total energy, added fat and sugar in children and adolescents in US. It was found that half of the empty calories came from: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk.
Top 3 empty calorie foods were:
- Grain desserts: 138 kcal/day
- Pizza: 136 kcal/day
- Soda: 118 kcal/day
Around 40% of total energy consumed originated from empty calories (433 kcal from solid fat and 365 kcal from added sugars).
Another survey examining the trend of empty calories consumed by children and adolescents in US since 1994-2010 observed that daily intake of energy from saturated fats and added sugars is decreasing but the mean intake is still way above the recommended value.
Foods that provide maximum empty calories include:
- Cakes, cookies, icecream, soft drinks and other foods containing added sugar
- Margarine, shortening, cheese and other foods containing solid fats
- Alcoholic beverages like beer and wine
What components contribute to empty calories in food?
The main components that make certain food items a source of empty calories are solid fats and added sugars.
Solid fats as the name suggests are fats that remain solid at room temperature for example- butter. They are mainly found in animal foods but can also be obtained from plants.
Most solid foods are high in saturated fats and trans fat. Some even contain cholesterol. All of these increase the risk for metabolic disease and heart diseases.
Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature. They have a balance of unsaturated fats and saturated fats. Certain oils like coconut oil, palm kernel oil contain high proportion of saturated fats which is why for nutritional purposes they are considered as solid fats. However these saturated fats are an exception since they are healthy.
Here is a list of different solid fats
- Milk fat
- Beef fat
- Chicken fat
- Pork fat
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
- Coconut oil
- Palm or palm kernel oil
Common foods that contain solid fats are:
- Cheese and cheese containing foods
- Sausages, bacon, ribs, hot dogs
- Ice cream
- Baked goods and desserts
- Fried foods if fried in solid fats or hydrogenated oils
- Regular ground beef or meat containing visible fat
The following chart can give you an idea of the number of calories present in solid fats and foods containing solid fats:
|Amount of food||Amount of solid fat||Calories from solid fat||Total calories|
|Coconut or palm kernel oil||1tbsp||14g||120||120|
|Whole milk||1 cup||8g||70||145|
|Cheddar cheese||1 ½ oz||14g||125||170|
|Chocolate Ice cream||1 cup||14g||125||285|
|Cooked bacon||2 slices||6g||55||85|
|Pork sausage||2 links||14g||120||165|
|Regular hamburger||3 ounces||14g||120||205|
|Prime rib roast lean and fat||3 ounces||29g||255||340|
|Chocolate crème pie||1/6 of 8’’ pie||22g||195||345|
For a more detailed version click here .
What does this mean?
Solid fats remain solid at room temperature. Apart from not providing nutrients they provide us with a lot of harmful fats. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil are considered as solid fats for nutritional purposes but they are quite healthy. Almost every next regular snack item is loaded with solid fats.
Added sugars are sugar and syrups that are added to foods or beverages during processing. They are different from naturally occurring sugars that are present in foods like milk and fruits. The recommended sugar consumption is 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men.
Basic sugars are glucose and fructose. In simple terms glucose is taken up as a source of energy by muscle and other cells and utilised completely.
However fructose isn’t utilised as energy and is converted into fat by the liver. Manufacturing and addition of high fructose corn syrup is cheap which is why it finds its way into every next food item and triggers obesity
If you find any of these ingredients on your food label, avoid it:
|Brown sugar||High fructose corn syrup||Nectars|
|Confectioner’s powdered sugar||Honey||Pancake syrup|
|Corn syrup||Invert sugar||Raw sugar|
|Corn syrup solids||Lactose||Sucrose|
|Dextrose||Malt syrup||Sugar/White granulated sugar|
Here is an approximate estimate of the percentage of added sugar you get from different food stuffs
Sugar sweetened beverages top the chart followed by snacks and sweets. You must be wondering why fruit drinks or juices (processed not homemade) are included in this category.
An 8 ounce glass of juice contains 8 teaspoons of sugar which is around 130 calories. You tend to drink a number of glasses and unlike fruits juices have no fibre to promote satiety. Choosing a whole fruit is better because you are likely to eat only one serving of the fruit.
All sweet foods are rich in added sugars, but nevertheless here is the list:
- Chocolates and candy
- Sugar sweetened beverages like fruit juices and soda
- Biscuits and baked goods
- Alcoholic drinks
- Dairy products
- Savoury food like tomato ketchup and sauces
What does this mean?
Added sugars are the biggest risk factors for weight gain. Recommended sugar consumption is 6 tsp for women and 9 tsp for men. When we exceed this limit the sugar gets deposited as fat. Sugar sweetened beverages are the biggest culprits belonging to this class.
What is the daily limit for empty calories?
USFDA describes the amount of empty calorie limit for different age/sex groups based on the idea that they have limited or no physical active. So this snapshot of the long version, the long version can be accessed here.
|Gender||Age||Total calorie limit||Empty calorie limit|
How can I keep a track of empty calories I consume?
USFDA again comes to our rescue by giving us details of the amount of empty calories consumed from different food sources. You can find the detailed list here.
|Food||Amount||Estimated total calories||Estimated empty calories|
|Fat free milk||1 cup||83||0|
|Whole milk||1 cup||149||63|
|Low fat chocolate milk||1 cup||158||64|
|Cheddar cheese||1 ½ ounces||171||113|
|Low fat frozen yogurt||1 cup||224||119|
|Vanilla ice cream||1 cup||275||210|
|Extra lean ground beef, 95% lean||3 oz., cooked||145||0|
|Roasted chicken breast (skinless)||3 oz., cooked||138||0|
|Fried chicken with skin & batter (fried in shortening, breaded)||3 medium wings||478||193|
|Beef sausage, pre-cooked (brown and serve)||3 oz., cooked||344||172|
|Pork sausage (brown and serve)||2 patties (2 oz.)||204||96|
|Whole wheat bread (100% ww)||1 regular slice (1 oz.)||69||13|
|White bread||1 regular slice (1 oz.)||69||4|
|Croissant||1 medium (2 oz.)||231||111|
|Biscuit, plain (fast food)||1 medium (2.5″ diameter)||186||71|
|Corn flakes cereal||1 cup||101||9|
|Chocolate cake (with icing, homemade or commercial)||1 slice of two-layer cake||408||315|
|Glazed doughnut, yeast type||1 medium, 3 ¾” diameter||255||170|
|Baked potato (no salt, peel included)||1 medium||159||0|
|French fries (fast food)||1 medium order||389||24|
|Onion rings||1 order (8 to 9 rings)||282||130|
|Unsweetened applesauce||1 cup||102||0|
|Sweetened applesauce (with sugar)||1 cup||173||56|
|Pepperoni pizza||1 slice (1/8th) of a 14″ pizza, regular crust||340||57|
|Regular soda (cola, fruit, or vanilla)||1 can (12 fluid oz.)||137||126|
|Fruit-flavored drink (made from mix, “Kool Aid” type)||1 cup||88||83|
|Wine, red||1 glass (5 fluid oz.)||125||109|
|Wine, white||1 glass (5 fluid oz.)||121||106|
|Beer (regular)||1 can ( 12 fluid oz.)||155||98|
|Distilled spirits (80 proof)||1 ½ fluid oz.||97||98|
Healthy alternatives to foods that have empty calories
Empty calories are unavoidable at times but you can always look for healthier alternatives like the ones mentioned below:
|Whole or reduced fat milk, flavoured milk||Low fat milk|
|Regular, full fat cheese and cheese containing foods||Low fat or fat free cheeses|
|Butter, stick margarine and shortening||Vegetable oil|
|Fried chicken||Roasted, grilled or baked chicken|
|French fries or potato||Boiled or baked potatoes or sweet potatoes|
|Tortilla or corn chips||Baked chips or whole grain crackers|
|Regular cuts of meat with visible fat||Lean cuts of meat|
|Icecream, frozen yogurt||Fat free or low fat plain yogurt|
|Sweetened cereals||Cereals with no added sugars or whole grain sugars|
|Cookies||Whole grain crackers|
|Doughnuts, pies, cakes||Fruits and fruit based desserts|
|Jam or jelly||100% fruit spread|
|Sugar sweetened beverages||Water, low fat milk and 100% fruit juice|
|White bread||Whole grain bread|
|White pasta||Whole wheat grain pasta|
|Artificial sweeteners||Honey, stevia|
Empty calories provide you with a lot of energy but zero nutrients. It adds a lot of flavour to foods making them unavoidable but it would be wise to limit their intake and look for healthier alternatives or else they will definitely show up on your waistline.