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an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

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Recognizing and Avoiding Empty Calories

Everything you need to know about empty calories

Many modern foods and drinks contain empty calories. These are calories that come from foods with little to no nutritional value.

Learning about how to recognize empty calories can help a person make more healthful food choices.

This article looks at what empty calories are, which foods and drinks contain them, and how to eat for better nutritional value.

Empty calories

In human nutrition, the term empty calories refer to calories found in both beverages (including alcoholic) and foods composed primarily or solely of sugars and/or certain fats and oils that provide little to no nutrition such as protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals, or essential fatty acids. Foods composed mostly of empty calories have low nutrient density, meaning few nutrients relative to their energy content. The consumption of large amounts of empty calories can have negative health consequences.
an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains
an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

What are empty calories?

Foods and drinks that contain no significant nutrients but are high in calories are said to have “empty calories.” These are mainly foods and drinks that have a high sugar, fat, or alcohol content, but little or no other nutritional value.

Empty calories are those that come fromTrusted Source added sugars and solid fats, as well as some processed oils. These include:

  • carbohydrate-based desserts, such as cakes, cookies, biscuits, donuts, muffins, granola bars, and more
  • sugary drinks, including soda, energy drinks, and fruit juice
  • candy bars, chocolate bars, and hard candies
  • some meats, including bacon, sausages, and hotdogs
  • some full fat products, such as butter, shortening, and ice-cream
  • processed oils, such as soybean and canola oil
  • condiments, such as ketchup and barbecue sauce
  • fast food, including burgers, wraps, pizza, and more
  • alcohol


Research from 2012 found that male adults ate an average of 923 empty calories per day. For females, the average intake of empty calories was 624 calories per day.

The added fats and sugars make these empty calories taste good, which can cause people to crave them.

There are 4 calories per gram in sugar, 9 calories per gram in fats, and 7 calories per gram in pure alcohol.

Consuming a lot of foods and drinks with empty calories can lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. For example, a person eating lots of empty calories may not get enough:

  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • protein
  • essential fatty acids
  • fiber

Empty calories and children

An older study, from 2010, found that around 40%Trusted Source of the total calories that children aged 2–18 in the United States consume are empty calories.

Half of those empty calories come from just six different product types:

  • soda
  • fruit juice
  • dairy desserts, such as ice-cream
  • grain desserts, such as muffins and cookies
  • pizza
  • whole milk

Parents and caregivers do not need to rule out whole milk, however, as it can be a good source of calcium and protein. StudiesTrusted Source have found that whole milk does not increase the risk of obesity in children.

The recent implementation of updated nutrition standards for school meals has significantly improved the quality of meals and their consistency with the Dietary Guidelines For Americans, according to a 2020 reviewTrusted Source.

an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains
an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

Eating a healthy diet

Looking to eat a healthy diet? You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t fill up on empty calories.

Many of the packaged foods you’ll find at the grocery store contain empty calories. This means they have little nutritional value. Instead, they give your body mostly solid fats and added sugars, which can lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies.

Here’s more about how you can find foods with the best nutrition to fuel your day.

Identifying empty calories

To figure out which foods contain empty calories, you need to read labels. What you’re looking for are solid fats and added sugars.

Solid fats are fats that stay solid even at room temperature. They include things like butter and shortening.

Added sugars are sugars, often syrups, that are added to foods as they’re processed. These ingredients can make food taste good — very good, in fact.

The problem is that even if a food tastes great, it may not give your body what it needs to thrive.

“Empty” literally means “containing nothing.” When it comes to food, empty means that that food contains little or no essential vitamins or minerals. In other words, these foods provide nothing of value to your body beyond calories that create excess pounds.


  • Treats like packaged cakes, cookies, and donuts contain both added sugars and solid fats.
  • Beverages like soda, sports and energy drinks, and fruit drinks contain added sugars.
  • Cheese, ice cream, and other full-fat dairy contain a good amount of solid fat.
  • Meats like sausage, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs contain solid fat.
  • Fast food — like pizza, burgers, french fries, milkshakes, etc. — often contains both added sugars and solid fats.
  • Hard candy and candy bars may contain both added sugars and solid fats.

Still not sure if you’re eating too many empty calories? Take a look around your local grocery store. Many of the foods with empty calories are found in the center aisles of the store. They’re often packaged foods that have been processed in facilities that add sugar and fat. Learn the best ways to stop eating junk food.

What makes empty calories bad?

“One of the big problems with empty calories is that oftentimes they’re consumed in excess without a person even knowing it,” warns Ramirez. “They’re not just found in the obvious places, like desserts. Empty calories are also hiding in everyday foods, like drinks, breakfast items, snacks and condiments. I often refer to empty calories as stealth calories.”

Overeating any type of food can, of course, be unhealthy over time, but overeating foods that provide no health benefits…well, there can be implications.

“Just by virtue of the types of foods they’re found in, when you’re eating empty calories, you’re typically eating a lot of them. This can easily derail weight loss or cause weight gain,” says Ramirez.

Add to that the fact that empty calories, specifically sugars, are very quickly digested by your body, which means they don’t help you feel full for very long.

Ramirez says

“Eating foods that don’t help you feel full is an easy way to consume more calories per day than you’re body actually needs — which leads to weight gain. If all you need is a quick energy boost and you eat a few empty calories, that’s one thing. But this often isn’t how we consume these types of foods,” adds Ramirez.

Then there’s the issue of food cravings. You know the ones — when you’re thirsty but the only thing you want to drink is a big glass of sweet tea. Or when you’re hungry and that bag of Doritos in your pantry is the only thing that sounds good.

“Food cravings may be rooted in your brain becoming addicted to these highly rewarding foods. But, if you’re eating mostly empty calories, these cravings might also be your body asking for food that actually provides the important nutrients you need to survive, which empty calories neglect to provide you. Regardless of the reason, these cravings also encourage overeating and weight gain,” warns Ramirez.

Lastly, eating empty calories in excess can lead to blood sugar spikes and increase inflammation — which, in turn, can lead to chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains
an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

Eat this, not that — empty calorie edition

an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

Given our fast-paced lives and the style of diet common today, avoiding empty calories is certainly easier said than done. But, Ramirez has tips for swapping those foods full of empty calories for healthier alternatives:

  • Rethink your drink. Liquid empty calories are by far the most stealthy. A single 12 oz. can of soda contains almost 40 grams of added sugar. And while a sports drink can help you replenish electrolytes after a particularly sweaty workout, your body may not need the whole bottle. Try swapping sugary drinks for unsweetened sparkling water or the diet version of your favorite soda.
  • Know how sugar much is too much. Small amounts of added sugars (less than 10% of your daily calories) are okay, but many children and adults exceed this amount. According to the CDC, added sugars account for 16% of the total daily calories for both boys and girls, on average.
  • Get familiar with reading labels.

  • Empty calories are often hiding in plain sight, which means you may need to get in the habit of checking the nutrition label — even for foods items you think are healthy. The new food labels make identifying when sugar has been added to a product even easier. Under the total grams of sugar, look for a line item indicating the amount of added sugar. The nutrition label is also an important part of ensuring you’re sticking to eating a single serving size.
  • Embrace slow cooking and meal prepping. Eating mostly processed foods is an easy way to overdo it on empty calories. Cooking meals at home is a great alternative, as well as a way to ensure that your meals are healthier overall. If you’re short on time in the evenings, try cooking with a slow cooker. If your short on time at lunch, try meal prepping simple, healthy lunches ahead of time.
  • Avoid overindulging on alcohol. Limiting alcohol is an important component of a healthy lifestyle, and it’s also a good way to cut empty calories. There are no beneficial calories in alcohol, and each gram of alcohol carries seven calories with it.

“We want the majority of what we eat to not only provide the calories we need for energy, but also the nutrients, vitamins and minerals we need to survive. This means it’s important to focus on whole foods and try to avoid overdoing it on processed or empty calories,” adds Ramirez.

The takeaway

You probably have empty calories in your pantry right now. The United States Department of Agriculture explains that some empty calories in your diet are OK. How much exactly? Moderation is key. Try limiting yourself to 75 calories or fewer of these foods per day. At the very least, you may want to start eating these foods less often, like once a week, or in smaller portions.

You may also try swapping empty calories for healthier choices:

  • eat low-fat cheese instead of full-fat varieties
  • try plain yogurt with fruit instead of sweetened yogurt
  • grab no-added sugar cereal versus sweetened kinds
  • sip plain water instead of sugary sodas and fruit drinks
  • munch on high-fiber popcorn instead of cookies
  • grab dehydrated vegetables, crunchy beans, or dried seaweed instead of potato chips
an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains
an empty-kcalorie food is one that contains

Smart exchanges

Making smart — and tasty — swaps can also help you fill up on nutrients and satisfy your cravings. For example, you may love the taste of a strawberry milkshake. This food contains both solid fat and added sugar. To get a similar indulgence, consider switching to a fruit smoothie made with healthy ingredients.

This strawberry-banana milkshake recipe contains just 200 calories per serving. It also boasts 7 grams of protein, 7 grams of dietary fiber, and only 1 gram of fat. While it does contain 18 grams of sugars, they come from a natural source versus being added with syrups.

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