"Empty calories." You may have already heard of this term (what will they come up with next?). Sounds like one big confusing contradiction, right? After all, calories fuel our bodies with energy. So, how can they be empty?
Pick one whole food. Any whole food. One of your favorite whole foods. Perhaps, it's blueberries. In it's natural state, the calories from whole foods are accompanied by thousands upon thousands of other nutrients in addition to fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Think: vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and antioxidants. All these micronutrients found in whole foods nourish you at the cellular level. Your cells need them to function, to repair, to build, to maintain, to produce, to clean up, to metabolize, to transport, and to communicate. They help fight disease or prevent it. They help build muscle, bone, and skin. They help detoxify your body, heal wounds, and strengthen immunity. Doesn't it make sense to try and FILL the calories you eat with as many micronutrients as possible?
Yet, some foods do the exact opposite. Take that whole food with "x" amount of calories. Separate those calories from their constituent nutrients and you have EMPTY calories. We are talking about foods that are nutritional wastelands. They supply calories (often more than enough) with little to no nutritional benefit.
No fiber. No vitamins A, B, C, D, E, or K. No minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iodine, zinc, iron, or copper. The food is stripped of nutrients (or disappointingly low in them) and loaded with excessive amounts of sugar, salt, and solid fat.
Yep, foods with empty calories are much like empty promises - they promise to nourish you but prove to be worthless. They are "empty" in nutrition so they cannot nourish your body. They fool your body into thinking it's nourished, but with no healthy fats, healthy proteins, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to provide, the body really ends up malnourished. Overweight and malnourished. Or, in the case of 78.6 million Americans, obese and malnourished.
Behold one of the main reasons our nation is riddled with chronic, preventable, lifestyle diseases. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer, hypertension, inflammation, premature aging, and behavioral problems have all been linked to the surge in empty calorie intake.
How can I spot empty calories?
Two of the biggest sources of empty calories are added sugars and solid fats (or foods that contain both of them). Solid fats refers to fats that are solid at room temperature, such as butter, shortening, or beef fat. Solid fats can be found naturally in foods, such as in sausage, ribs, bacon, or hot dogs. They also refer to foods that have solid fats added during preparation or processing, such as in pizza or chips.
Added sugars refer to sugars and syrups that don't naturally occur in foods but are added, such as in sodas, sugary sport or energy drinks, and fruit drinks. We find a combination of both solid fats and added sugars in cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, doughnuts, and ice cream.
In general, foods that get further from their natural state are also rich in empty claories.
Highly processed foods like store-bought desserts or sweetened fruit drinks.
These foods are convenient. They're easy. They may even be cheaper in price. But they're definitely cheaper in nutrition and that is harmful to your health. Empty calories can promote disease - they don't prevent or fight it.
Added sugars: Look out for added sugars or hidden sugars. Become a savvy label reader! Any "ose" on the label will indicate a type of sugar - dextrose, glucose, fructose, lactose and maltose. Other sweeteners include invert sugar, cane juice, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, molasses, brown sugar, honey, beet sugar, honey, evaporated cane juice, or sorghum syrup.
True, fruits and dairy products will have naturally occurring sugars in them. Remember, NATURALLY OCCURRING sugars are okay. Blueberries, apples, bananas, you name it - they'll have sugar. But they haven't been stripped of their fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. They aren't empty calories. The problem is when ADDED sugars are thrown in.
Does this mean I need a ZERO-EMPTY CALORIE Policy?
You can enjoy empty calorie foods now and then in small amounts. The key is to eat them less often and in less amounts.
You'll find that life with little to no empty calories is not a life of restriction and deprivation at all. Gradually swap empty calorie options with nutrient-dense substitutions and you'll slowly learn to love all the nourishing whole foods nature has to offer you.
A diet rich in nutrients and low in empty calories is anything but bland. In fact, many foods with empty calories have healthier counterparts that limit or remove the added sugars and solid fats.
For example, take:
|Noncarbonated and carbonated soft drinks||Water - you just can't go wrong with filtered water or an unsweetened (or naturally sweetened with Stevia green drink such as Greenergy)|
|(fruit drinks, punches and beverages, ades, soda)||water or an unsweetened (or naturally sweetened with Stevia green drink such as Greenergy)|
|Tea drinks and sweetened iced tea||Freshly brewed tea or unsweetened iced tea (throw some frozen fruit inside your unsweetened iced tea for more flavor)|
|Sweetened yogurt||Unsweetened yogurt (throw in a pinch of powdered ginger, cocoa, or fresh fruits for a flavor twist)|
|Flavored or full fat milk||Regular, unflavored, low-fat or skim milk|
|Buttered or caramel popcorn||Plain popcorn (sprinkle some garlic powder or herbs like thyme, rosemary, or sage, paprika, or herbs de provence and a drizzle of olive oil)|
|Candied nuts or salted nuts||Unsalted, raw nuts|
|Fried chicken with skin||Go skinless and roast the chicken (that’s a double cutback on solid fats from frying and from the skin that saves you 150 calories!)|
|French fries or onion rings||Baked potato (you save almost 70 calories with this simple swap!)|
|Fruit muffins, croissants, biscuits, cookies, sweet rolls, doughnuts, frosted cereal, cornbread, white hamburger bun||Whole grains, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, cornmeal|
|Full fat cheese||Low-fat cheese (For example, if you choose a nonfat mozarella instead of a full-fat mozarella, you cut out 76 empty calories.)|
|Regular ground beef (only 80% lean)||Extra lean ground beef (95% or more lean). The difference is an extra 64 empty calories.|
Get the picture?
There are so many tasty, natural foods that are just plain awesome and need little to no processing. Not only are they nutrient-dense but they're less dense in calories. That means you run less risk of consuming excess calories and gaining weight. What are they?
Fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, and even lowfat dairy products (including fermented ones) are all great examples. Let's face it, it's quite intuitive that a cup of strawberries is going to provide much more nutrition and much less calories than a cup of Starburst candy. Plant-based foods have the highest ratio of nutrients per calorie.
Nutrient-dense foods help your body function at its best and prolong optimal health. So make the most of the calories you eat. Make them nutrient-packed, disease-punching, health-promoting FULL calories. There's no room for empty ones.