What Are Empty Calories?

What are empty calories

Maybe you've heard of the term empty calories but you're not sure what foods fall under that definition. In this post I will share what the term means, what foods to avoid, and specific ingredients to look after.

Nutrition Basics

In order for your body to function properly it needs fuel to run and our body's source of fuel, of course, comes from our food. Now there are nutrients in our food that provide calories and these nutrients are turned into the fuel your body needs. A calorie is a unit of measurement used to calculate just how much energy your body can get from certain foods.

There are two main types of nutrients that we gain from food: macro and micronutrients. We only get calories from 3 macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) don't give us calories but they're incredibly important!

Think of your body like a car. We need gas to get it going. Without gas the car won't run. Your car also needs oil, brake fluid, and coolant. Without proper upkeep of these other "nutrients" your car will eventually break down and, even if it has a full tank of gas, it won't run.

Your body works the same way. Vitamins and minerals play a huge role in the proper functions of your body. The human body is a complicated machine and without the right working parts, things go wrong.

What are empty calories

So we've established that our body needs both fuel and nutrients and most of the time we can get both of those things in one go. Whole foods tend to hold more than just one nutrient at once but there are foods that only have a concentrated amount of carbohydrates or fats. These foods are often called "empty calories" because we still get calories from them but they don't have any other micronutrients in them. The United States Department of Agriculture defines Empty Calories as "calories from solid fats and/or added sugars. Solid fats and added sugars [that] add calories to the food but few or no nutrients." Eating empty calories isn't always a bad thing and in small amounts it doesn't affect our bodies as much as eating them all the time. The problem is that a lot of our food these days is filled with empty calories but we are not always aware of it.

Refined vs Unrefined

In its natural form, food, has to contain 1 or more nutrients. Fruit is high in carbohydrates (sugar) but it also has a lot of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Our body gains more than just calories for energy from a piece of fruit. When a food is eaten in its natural state, it is considered "unrefined" or "unprocessed". When a food is processed it, generally, loses some of the other nutrients it naturally carried. Ultra processed foods are foods that have been completely stripped to be just one pure ingredient or have been changed chemically to act differently. Examples of this would be:

  • White Wheat Flour

  • Table Sugar (Sucrose)

  • Corn Syrup

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

  • White Rice

  • Hydrogenated Oil (Trans fat)

These ingredients are then used to make other foods like bread, fried foods, pastries, pasta, syrups, cereals, sodas, etc. If we don't pay attention to the ingredients in our foods, we can end up eating a lot of these empty calories and lose out on a lot of naturally occurring nutrients that our bodies need.

Fortified and Enriched Foods

What a lot of food manufacturers do, in order to combat the fact that all the nutrients have been stripped from their food, is to add nutrients back into our food. An example of this is Vitamin D and Calcium Fortified milk, orange juice, or cereal. Although this is ensures that we are getting at least some of the nutrients back, it still means that we are not getting them in the most bio-available form and we are still eating high calorie foods that can affect our health negatively. For people who don't eat whole foods often, fortified and enriched foods, may be their only way to consume vital vitamins and minerals.

How to Avoid Empty Calories

Pay attention to the ingredients list and try to eat real whole food. Those are the two main ways to avoid unhealthy processed foods. Not all processed foods are bad and, in general, it's best to try and eat a varied diet that allows for many kinds of food and food products. Follow some of these tips:

  • Look for WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR - NOT wheat flour, enriched flour, or enriched wheat flour. It has to say WHOLE. You can also buy brown rice instead of white rice and other whole grains.

  • Learn to recognize names used for added SUGAR. It won't always be listed as sugar and can even be marketed as being healthy because it only has "real sugar" but, sugar is sugar. Check out this article that lists 61 names for different kinds of sugar that are added to food products. It's scary.

  • Avoid fried foods and opt for baked when possible. Not all baked food are healthy but they are most likely to have less solid fat and to be cooked without hydrogenated oils.

  • Choose whole foods like vegetables and fruit instead of juices, smoothies, or sodas. While both can still have abundant sources of sugar, the sugar is not isolated and you still get other good stuff like fiber.

  • Cook! Whenever possible, cook your own food. This will eliminate the uncertainty of ingredients because you are the one choosing the ingredients.

  • Choose smaller portions. Okay, so if you are not willing to give up your donuts or chips (I understand) then cut down on the amount and the frequency. That way you are not eating only empty calories and still giving your body what it needs!

I hope that this post helps you understand what empty calories are and how they come about. The struggle is real and with so much of our food being made in the least nutritios way possible, the best way to arm ourselves is with knowledge and decisions, as hard as it may be to avoid that delicious donut ;)

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Further Reading