March 2012

What are Empty Calories?

You probably already know that large amounts of soda and sweets can wreak havoc on your health, but do you know one of the main reasons why? Empty calories. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), empty calories are calories from solid fats and/or added sugars. These ingredients add calories to food, but few or no nutrients. By learning about empty calories, you can make better food and drink choices.
 
The USDA defines solid fats as fats that are solid at room temperature such as butter, beef fat and shortening (unlike the more healthy fats like olive and canola oils, which are liquid at room temperature). Solid fats can be found naturally in foods or added when foods are processed or prepared. Added sugars can take many forms (sucrose, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, for example) and are added when foods or beverages are processed or prepared.
 
Robert D. Sheeler, MD, medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, points out that empty calories are, unfortunately, a major part of many people’s diets in America. “Americans tend to eat vast quantities of empty calories. While we run from soccer games to basketball practices with our children, or work long hours at the office, we often grab whatever is at hand in the machines or at convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.” According to Sheeler, foods and drinks containing large amounts of empty calories keep us from getting valuable vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. These nutrients, such as iodine and iron, help maximize human growth and development. Here are some foods and drinks that Dr. Sheeler recommends avoiding:
  • White bread and most pasta: Most of the nutrients and fiber are processed out of these products, or sometimes artificially added back in. Opt instead for whole-wheat pasta and whole-grain bread (with at least two to four grams of fiber per slice)
  • Hard candy: Usually pure sugar with zero nutrients
  • Cookies and ice cream: High sugar, high fat – very little nutrition
  • Soda (regular): Very high sugar content, zero nutrients
  • Fried potatoes: Baked and roasted potatoes are good in moderation, thanks to their potassium content, but potatoes fried in oil are bad news for your body
The USDA also suggests avoiding these foods, as well as products like sausages, hot dogs, bacon and ribs (due to high volumes of solid fat). The good news, however, is that many of these items come in varieties with little or no solid fat and/or added sugar. Try chicken or turkey sausage, or low-fat hot dogs, for a healthier indulgence.
 
For more information about empty calories and how to eat your way to good health, visit the USDA at www.ChooseMyPlate.gov, or the Mayo Clinic at www.mayoclinic.com.