Diet & Nutrition 6 MIN READ 75 VIEWS July 2, 2022

Empty Calories: How are They Harmful for Us?

Written By HealthKart
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Aarti Nehra

Empty calories
What are Empty Calories?
Why are Empty Calories Bad?
How to Identify Empty Calorie Foods?
List of Foods That Contain Empty Calories
How to Make Healthy Food Choices?
Conclusion

Different components of a balanced diet play different roles. For instance, proteins promote growth, carbohydrates provide energy, etc. But empty calorie foods, on the other hand, contain mostly calories with little or no nutritional value. While empty calories foods provide the energy to survive, their intake is detrimental to health. Read through to know more about empty calories and why they are a threat to our well-being.

What are Empty Calories?

In human nutrition, the term ‘empty calories’ is used to refer to foods that are high in calories but have little or no nutritional value. These energy-dense foods have the calories which are burnt to generate energy which fuels the day’s activities. But being poor or low in nutrients, they are grossly unhealthy. Overconsumption of empty calorie foods is largely responsible for weight gain. Furthermore, the nutritional deficiencies caused by such foods pave the way for graver health problems. 

Why are Empty Calories Bad?

Health experts and nutritionists are totally against the consumption of empty calorie foods. The reasons include:

1. Triggers You to Overeat

Empty calorie foods are typically high in sugar and fats, with no fibre content. It’s the fibre content in the foods that provide the feeling of fullness. As the sugars are digested quickly and there is no fibre content, one ends up feeling hungry soon. 

Moreover, the added sugar and solid fats make empty calorie foods taste good. Invariably, they are also easy to make. These aspects make them highly rewarding foods. The brain thus gets addicted to them easily, triggering food cravings which lead to overeating and weight gain. 

2. Promotes Weight Gain

The calories in the food are burned to produce energy. But eating beyond what is burned is stored in the body in the form of fats. Intake of refined sugars affects insulin levels and impairs mitochondrial functioning, contributing to inflammatory weight gain. A high intake of empty calorie foods is thus directly linked to weight gain.

3. Leads to Nutritional Deficiencies

Empty calorie foods are energy dense with little or no nutritional value. As a rule of thumb, if the calories from fats and sugar outweigh the nutrient value, the food is considered to be a source of empty calories. Relying too much on empty calorie foods thus leads to nutritional deficiencies which is a root cause of many health ailments.

4. Promotes Major Health Problems

One of the biggest problems with empty calories is that they are digested quickly and give a sudden spike in energy. These sudden and big variations are also witnessed in the blood sugar levels that cause organ inflammation and damage, leading to chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

How to Identify Empty Calorie Foods?

Empty calories are not just found in obvious foods like desserts and smoothies. At times, they are masked under everyday foods. So, how do you identify empty calorie foods?

Health experts suggest that food which does not contain adequate nutrients or if its calories from sugar and fats outweigh its nutrient value, the food may be termed an empty calorie food.

One can identify foods which contain empty calories by reading food labels carefully. Avoid foods that contain added sugar and solid fats.

List of Foods That Contain Empty Calories

Sugary foods and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are the items that commonly top the list of empty calorie foods. According to daily dietary recommendations, an average adult must get about 30 per cent of the daily calories from fats and 10 per cent from sugar. In terms of calories, per gram of sugar contains 4 calories. There are 9 calories per gram in fats and 7 calories per gram in pure alcohol.

Foods and drinks that usually contain empty calories include:

  1. Soft drinks and sodas
  2. Sports drinks and energy drinks
  3. Fresh fruit juice containing added sugar
  4. Sweetened tea
  5. Sweetened lemonade
  6. Alcohol
  7. Junk foods like pizza, burgers, wraps, rolls, French fries, etc.
  8. Fast foods like packaged cakes, cookies, doughnuts, etc.
  9. Candies and chocolates
  10. Ice creams, cheese and full-fat dairy products
  11. Hard candy and candy bars
  12. Meats like sausages, hot dogs, ribs, bacon, etc.
  13. Processed foods like breakfast cereals, packed cheese, tinned vegetables, etc.
  14. Snacks and condiments

How to Make Healthy Food Choices?

Making healthier food choices is a certain way to avoid empty calories. Thus, avoiding energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods is the key. Also, as some foods are a part of our daily dietary routine, swapping unhealthy, high-calorie foods with a low-calorie healthier alternative is recommended. This can be done by:

1. Watching Your Beverage

Beverages are loaded with empty calories. And they make up for the maximum empty calories we consume in a day. While a milk-based beverage confers a small portion of nutritional value, water-based and alcoholic beverages are pure empty calorie foods. So, rethink your beverage every time you grab a glass. Avoid sodas, sports drinks, and alcohol. Do not add sugar to tea, coffee, or lemonade. Try swapping sugary drinks with unsweetened sparkling water. 

2. Monitoring Your Sugar Intake

The daily dietary recommendations suggest restricting sugar intake to six to nine teaspoons per day. Also, the sugar intake must not exceed 10 per cent of the daily calorie intake. So, avoid adding that extra sugar to your daily meals. Research suggests that even small amounts of extra sugar add up, making it 16 per cent of the total daily calories; 6 per cent above the daily dietary recommendations daily. 

3. Observing Your Fat Intake

Processed oils and solid fats are unhealthy. Excessive intake of saturated fats and trans fats increases the buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. Thus, lowering the fat intake and switching to unsaturated fats can help avoid adding empty calories. Read the food labels carefully to know the amounts of saturated and unsaturated fats.

4. Reading Food Labels

Food labels contain the nutritional information of the packaged food. By checking the nutrition label, one can be aware of its sugar and fat components. Avoid foods that contain high amounts of added sugar and unhealthy fats. 

5. Preferring Whole Grains to Refined Grains

Foods prepared using whole grains instead of refined flour will enhance the nutritional value. Such foods contain essential nutrients like B vitamins, folate, iron, selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Whole grains are also rich in fibre and therefore confer a feeling of fullness. 

6. Going for Low-Fat Dairy Products 

Full-fat dairy products are standardised to 3.5 per cent of fat as compared to skimmed milk with less than 0.5 per cent fat. This contributes significantly to the daily fat intake. Switching to low-fat dairy products is a good and healthy way to limit your daily fat intake.

7. Being Mindful of Your Portion Size

Remember, the food labels provide nutritional information per serving or per 100 grams. Make sure you stick to the single serving size to avoid overeating and excess consumption of empty calorie foods.

8. Choosing to Eat Whole Fruits Over Drinking Juice

Fresh fruit juice may not be a complete fit in the list of empty calorie foods as it contains the required vitamins and minerals. But as it is without the fibre content, it does not fare as well as eating whole fruit. Fibre and roughage are important for the proper functioning of the body. Therefore, prefer eating whole fruits to drinking fresh fruit juices.

9. Saying No to Processed Items and Yes to Fresh Foods

Fresh fruits and vegetables are the way to go. While some fruits are high calorie fruits, they still contain the required vitamins and minerals required for optimal functioning of the body. On the other hand, processed foods are high in calories with no nutrient value.

10. Preparing Meals Ahead of Time 

Meal prepping is an important way to cut down on empty calories. Once a meal is prepared ahead of time, one has enough time to pick healthy food alternatives. On the other hand, you are more likely to grab junk food or fast food once you are hungry. Also, start embracing slow home-cooking alternatives to prepare food.

11. Abstaining from Alcohol 

Pure alcohol contains 7 calories per gram with no nutritional value. Avoiding alcohol is a great way to cut down on empty calories.

Conclusion

Everyone consumes empty calories. Consuming it once in a while to get that instant energy kick is acceptable but overdoing empty calorie foods over a prolonged period can have undesirable health implications. So, think twice before you eat to avoid consuming empty calories. Try swapping empty calorie foods with healthier choices. And as they say, moderation is the key; try to limit yourself to 75 or fewer empty calories per day. 

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