As you try to have a healthy and well-balanced diet, you have probably heard that you should avoid empty calories, as they have little to zero nutritional value. But what are empty calories, and what effects do they have on your health? Once you know them, you need to know how to calculate empty calories in order to know the limit for having them in your food. Knowing the recommended maximum amount of empty calories is not enough, you also need to know the healthy foods that you can substitute them with so that you can keep on getting maximum nutrients from your food.
What are calories?
Calories are used to measure the amount of energy in food or drinks. Your body needs energy each day to function and allow you to do your daily activities. This energy comes from the food you eat in the form of calories. Since the body stores any extra calories in the form of fat, an excessive intake of empty calories more often than not results in weight gain, especially if you do not burn them off in your daily activities. The daily caloric requirement depends on various factors such as age, gender, and level of physical activities, but most doctors recommend an average of 2,000 calories per day in an adult.
How do calories work?
Of the six food classes, carbohydrates, proteins, and fat are what provide calories in the form of energy to the body.
These are the most important macronutrients that should form the bulk of your calories, since their primary purpose is to provide energy (1 gram=4 calories). When digested, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which provides energy for immediate use, and the surplus is stored in the form of glycogen for future use. Once all the glycogen stores in the body are filled, any remaining calories are stored as fat. There are two types of carbohydrates which provide different forms of energy:
- Simple carbs (sugar) – these provide quick bursts of energy. They include energy bars, candy bars, candy, and soft drinks.
- Complex carbs (starches) – these take longer to be broken down into glucose, and provide a sustained caloric release that provide sustained energy for longer periods. They include brown rice, whole grain pasta/bread, buckwheat, beans, lentils, vegetables, and oats.
Once the body depletes calories from carbohydrates, it turns to those provided by fat (1 gram=9 calories). This is because all the extra calories that are not stored as glycogen are stored as fat. Fat, however, is slow to digest, therefore it is not converted to quick energy. This is because the primary purpose of fat in the body is to provide cell structure, which requires the breaking down of fat and transporting it to the cells, and it can take several hours.
In as much as the calorie per weight in protein is same as that in a carbohydrate (1 gram=4 calories), only some of the amino acids in protein can be used for fuel. Since the primary role of protein in the body is the construction of DNA cells, it will only be used as a source of fuel when carbohydrates and fats are inadequate in the body. Protein is essential for maintaining muscles, skin, bone, hair, and other tissues, and forcing the body to use it as a source of fuel due to inadequate carbohydrates will limit your ability to build muscle and tissue.
These are found in foods or beverages that are comprised of sugars, fats, and alcohol, but have little in the way of nutrients. The calories contribute to the total caloric intake but are of little or no nutritional value to the body. Empty calories will still provide your body with energy, though it will not have the benefits of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
There are three classifications of empty calories:
- Solid fat
Fats have little nutritional value on the body, and are therefore considered as part of empty calories. The fats that are considered empty calories are saturated fats such as margarine and butter.
Fats with empty calories are usually found in foods such as:
- Baked goods such as cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits, and muffins
- Fast foods and takeout
- Whole milk
- Processed meats such as hamburgers, sausages, and bacon
While healthy fats such as in avocados, nuts and seeds, and olive oil, are vital in a balanced diet, excessive fat, especially from saturated fats, add calories to the body without providing the necessary nutrients for a healthy body.
Sugar is a major type of empty calories, alongside fats, as it is an ingredient in most foods we take. It is a popular ingredient in:
- Fruit and soft drinks
- Energy and sports drinks
- Baked goods
- Processed foods
- Dairy products
- Fast foods
Sugar in food only adds to the energy levels in the body, and has no other nutritional value. Once the body uses the amount of the calories it requires, the rest will be stored as fat, which may lead to weight gain and obesity.
While alcoholic drinks are a less popular source of empty calories compared to fats and sugar, they are unhealthy especially when consumed in large amounts. For instance, beer, which is brewed from grains, has lots of carbohydrates and very few nutrients, thereby adding more calories to the diet. Mixed alcoholic drinks and wine have excess sugar, which also adds unnecessary calories to the diet.
What are some of the empty calorie foods that you should avoid, and what should you replace them with?
Experts recommended that the average adult should get 30% of their daily calorie intake from fat, and consume at most nine teaspoons of added sugars each day. This means that you should be careful when choosing food in your local grocery store, and go for the unprocessed version of any food, as they are healthy and don’t contain any added fats and sugars.
x Sugar-sweetened drinks and beverages such as sodas, sweetened coffee drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruit drinks with added sugars.
√ Water, fresh fruit juices (blend them yourself), tomato juice, and other blended vegetable juices.
x Sweet and sugary treats such as packaged cookies, cakes, candies, and bagels, as they contain added sugars and solid fats. √ Bake your own cakes so that you can use healthier ingredients such as whole-wheat flour and honey as a sweetener. To satisfy the cravings for sweet foods, take fruits (apples, berries, oranges, bananas, and melons are good options), low-fat yogurt, or treats made with very little sugar.
x Processed or high-fat meats such as sausages, hot dogs, bacon, corned beef, luncheon meats, and ribs with solid fat. √ In their place, opt for skinless chicken, turkey breast, low-fat ground beef, lean beef cuts, and fish. For additional healthy proteins, eat eggs, beans, and nuts.
x Cheese and ice cream √ Reduce your intake of whole milk and dairy products that are made from whole milk such as cheese and ice cream to a bare minimum. Take 1% or fat-free milk and low-fat dairy products.
x Fast foods such as French fries, chips, burgers, pizzas, and milkshakes contain added sugars and solid fats and should be avoided as much as possible. √ Instead of frying your food, bake it, to make treats such as baked potato wedges instead of French fries. For snacks such as crackers, opt for the whole-grain ones. Opt for vegetables (can be fresh or frozen) such as carrots, broccoli, beets, and leafy greens whenever you are hungry and are tempted to eat fast foods.
x Any high-fat salad dressings such as the store-bought ones, and take yogurt-based or low-fat salad dressings. √ You could even make them at home so that you can balance the nutrients in the salad dressing.
x Bread and other pastries made using refined flour such as white, ciabatta, and sourdough bread. √ Eat bread that is made using whole grains such as whole wheat, sprouted wheat, and rye, as they have lots of fiber. Eat whole grains like brown rice and whole grain pasta.
How to calculate empty calories
It may be hard to spot empty calories if you do not know the foods that contain them, and how to properly calculate them. Read the labels whenever you are buying foods to know the nutritional information of the given food, to know whether it has empty calories or not. There are charts online that give specific food items and the empty calories in them, that help you choose the best foods to eat.
For foods that do not contain alcohol, you can easily calculate the empty calories in the given food. You first look at the food’s nutritional label to know how many grams of sugar contains in one serving. The total number of calories from sugars will be about four times the grams. Next, look at the number of calories from fat, then add them to the total calories from sugar to the total number of empty calories.
You can divide the total empty calories you get by the total number of calories to get the percentage of the food that is in the form of empty calories. As a rule of the thumb, ensure that the empty calories in your food are less than 10% of your total calorie intake.
The empty calories limits depend on your age, gender, and physical activities. For instance, those who are physically active need more calories, and therefore their empty calories limit is high.
Statistics for empty calories by age and gender:
|Estimated calories (those not physically active)|
|Total daily calorie needs||Empty calories limit|
Statistics for empty calories by food:
Below is a table that shows some foods in different categories and the number of empty calories in them.
|Food||Quantity||Estimated total calories||Estimated empty calories|
|Skim milk||1 cup||83||0|
|Whole milk||1 cup||149||63|
|Extra lean ground beef||3oz (cooked)||146||0|
|Regular ground beef||3oz (cooked)||229||64|
|Roasted chicken breast (skinless)||3oz (cooked)||138||0|
|Roasted chicken thigh (with skin)||3oz (cooked)||209||47|
|Whole wheat bread/white bread||1 slice||69||0|
|Chocolate chip cookies||2 large||161||109|
|French fries||1 medium serving||431||185|
|Onion rings||1 serving (8-9)||275||160|
|Regular soda||1 12oz can||136||136|
|Fruit-flavored drink||1 cup||128||128|
|Table wine||1 5oz glass||121||121|
|Regular beer||1 12oz can||155||155|
|Light beer||1 12oz can||104||104|
|Distilled spirits||1 standard drink||96||96|
To make most of the calories you eat, go for foods that are high in nutrients such as:
- Potassium – found in potatoes, bananas, and other fruits, in vegetables, and milk products. Remember to go for low-fat milk.
- Fiber – found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and peas.
- Magnesium – found in nuts, whole grains, seafood, and dark green vegetables.
- Calcium – found in milk and milk products like yogurt and cheese, in some green leafy vegetables like Swiss chard, collard greens, broccoli, spinach, and kale, in peas, beans, and some nuts.
- Vitamin D – found in egg yolk, saltwater fish, liver, among others.
When eating healthy and avoiding empty calorie foods, you could follow a method known as “eating the rainbow.” This is where each day you choose one color of the rainbow and make sure you eat healthy foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, that are of that color. Such as, if you choose red-orange, you should fill up on foods such as oranges, apples, and carrots. For the yellow-green day you go for green beans, kale, yellow and green bell peppers, and yellow squash. For the purple day, ensure blackberries, blueberries, and purple potatoes are a part of your diet. Foods like cauliflower, bananas, and parsnips are good for the white day. This will ensure that in each day you eat foods that are nutritious and do not contain empty calories.