Empty calories are found in simple foods with little to no nutritional value, like chips, candy, or sugary sodas. Empty calories contain energy but are “empty” of nutrients that support our bodies — you may also hear this referred to as “low nutrient density.” Fluffy — like a marshmallow!
Many people also find that rather than quenching thirst or hunger, empty calories whet the appetite for more of the same. High-sugar products like soda and candy are highly stimulating — our brains are very interested in these foods — but they have little to none of the fiber that slows down our digestion or fat and protein that tell us “enough is enough.” So in addition to being empty, they can leave you feeling empty. This is part of the reason you hear people say “all I had to do was cut out refined sugar.” It’s drastic, but it’s a one-two punch of fewer calories + less cravings.
Salty snacks are similar: high calories (from the combination of fat and the simple carbohydrates that form their base, like potato chips) and little nutritional value. A baked potato, skin and all, has plenty of fiber and vitamins in it, but by the time a food processor gets done with the steps that turn a potato into a bag of chips, 2/3 of the calories are coming straight from fat, and the fiber has been largely processed away. That’s why you can’t eat just one!
Some people have to eliminate empty calories from their diets in order to control the tendency to binge, but as long as our nutrition is good — and we can exercise control over our portions — most of us can afford some treats. USDA’s MyPlate program suggests keeping it to around 10% of your total calories.
How Do I Choose “Fuller” Calories?
— As you choose your meals during the day, start with lean protein (that is, not deep-fried), such meats, fish, yogurt, and beans
— When buying bread or crackers, choose the options with higher fiber (look for more than 3g per serving), and avoid added sugars
— Make sugary sodas, candy, and chips a treat rather than a staple
— Don’t get too hung up on “low-fat foods” — and know that when a processed food is labeled this way, it usually has added sugar. In some cases, it IS sugar; Red Vines candy are labeled “Always Fat Free”!
It helps to aim for variety: have small servings of different foods during the day (a strawberry or two, a few whole-grain crackers, a half a dozen almonds — or try some recipes with fun combinations). And get lots of colors on your plate at meals — different vegetables, for example. These tricks can offer broader nutrition and keep food more interesting, while reducing the temptation to plow through large portions.
I took the photo above a few years ago after a run to Three Girls Bakery in Seattle. These are slightly salty shortbread cookies with a big dollop of frosting. Yum.