Choosing Fresh Over Processed Foods Is The Best Way To Avoid Empty Calories

You know getting the right mix of macronutrients (that is, carbs, fat, and protein) can make or break your health and fitness goals, whether you're trying to lose weight or looking to bulk up your muscles. The same can be said of calories too, since not all calories are equal—some are better for you than others. The type you should watch out for is empty calories.

All calories fuel you with energy, but some also provide important nutrients to keep your body functioning properly. "Empty calories are foods that have more calories than nutrients," says nutritionist Amanda Sauceda, RDN.

These are generally "foods and beverages that have a lot of added sugar and fat, or alcohol content, making them high in calories but provide little else in terms of good-for-you nutrients, like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals," says Charlotte Martin, RDN, the owner of Nutrition Daily. Think: sodas, pizzas, cookies, and brownies.

Since empty calories supply little to no filling nutrients, they leave you hungry again soon after you eat. That could lead you to consume way more calories than you want.

Meet the experts: Amanda Sauceda, RDN, is a nutritionist with a special focus on gut health. Charlotte Martin, RDN, is the owner of Nutrition Daily and author of The Plant-Forward Solution. Samantha Podob, RD, is a New York City-based nutritionist who specializes in condition and weight management.

A diet high in empty calories is also not ideal for your health because many parts of your body, from your immune system to digestive tract, rely on the essential nutrients you get from food to function. Worth noting: Consuming a diet full of whole grains and fruits and veggies (the opposite of empty calories) is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to a 2020 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

That said, it can be hard to tell which foods contain tons of empty calories because you can't exactly find those exact words on a product. Here, experts share handy tips on how you can do that and foods that are common sources of empty calories.

How To Identify Empty Calories

As mentioned, it's not as simple as locating the words "empty calories," but the nutrition label and list of ingredients, specifically in order of the list, will give you an idea of whether a food contains a lot of empty calories or not.

"When looking at a nutrition label, you want to look for specific words as well as numbers to identify if a food is considered an empty calories," says Samantha Podob, RD, the owner of Podob Nutrition.

You should pay attention to the following ingredients specifically, according to Podob.

  • Added sugars, such as corn syrup, cane sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin.

  • Saturated and trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils and trans fat.

  • Refined carbs, such as enriched flour and refined grains. ("Foods that are made with refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and white rice, are often considered empty calories because they are low in fiber and other important nutrients," she says.)

  • Artificial flavors and colors.

  • Zero-calorie sweeteners, such as sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol, and maltitol.

Other indicators that the food you chose is full of empty calories include the following:

  • Small amounts of essential nutrients. "Look at the column that says '% Daily Value' on the nutrition facts label," adds Sauceda. "If those numbers are below five percent for vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium, then that food is lacking key nutrients that a lot of people can easily be lacking." This doesn't automatically mean that food is empty calories, but it’s a clue that it may not be as nutritious as other choices.

  • High amounts of added sugars and total fat. "If these numbers are high, especially when combined with a high calorie count, that can be a sign of an empty calorie," says Sauceda. The same can be said for foods that have a lot of fat and little else.

  • Low fiber content. "If fiber is low and carbs are high, that is another sign of empty calories because it signals the food is a simple carbohydrate," says Sauceda. "Simple carbohydrates are usually snack-type foods that can be a source of empty calories."

Top Empty-Calorie Foods

Here are some of the most common empty-calorie foods, according to dietitians:

  • Flavored oatmeal

  • Frozen meals

  • Bottled fruit juices

  • White bread and bagels

  • Pastries

  • High-sugar, low-fiber breakfast cereals

  • Fries

  • Pizza

  • Fried chicken

  • Chips

  • Candy

  • Soda

  • Alcohol

  • Sweetened teas and coffee drinks

Looking to fill your diet with healthier picks? Here are the foods you should replace empty calories with, according to dietitians.

  • Fresh fruits and veggies

  • Nuts

  • Whole-grain bread and pasta

  • Smoothies made with fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables

  • Nut butter

  • Yogurt

  • High-fiber breakfast cereals

  • Grilled or roasted lean protein like chicken, fish, tofu

  • Seeded crackers or rye crisp crackers

How Empty Calories Affect Your Weight

When you consume foods and beverages that are high in calories but low in filling nutrients like protein and fiber, you won't feel as satiated and may be more likely to snack throughout the day. So you may end up consuming way more calories than if you have filled up on nutrient-dense foods and "your body will store excess calories as fat, says Podob.

Plus, when you consume empty calories, you're eating high-sugar and high-fat foods like soda, candy, and fried foods, which are typically high in calories.

This doesn’t mean you can (or should) never eat foods that are empty calories. Sometimes you want a cookie or a slice of white bread because that is feels sounds good, and that's totally okay. Just make sure your overall diet consists of well-rounded meals that include a wide variety of fruits and veggies, lean protein, and whole grains. "Consistently eating nutritious foods matters more than having an empty calorie every now and again," notes Sauceda.

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