Empty Calories: Food Choices

Empty CaloriesEmpty Calories

Good food choice is the difference between weight loss and weight gain.

I have read a lot about food choices in dieting and weight loss.  One question that is commonly asked: Are there any key food types to avoid?  Food that makes the most sense to avoid is this that has limits for no nutritional value.  Some of these are referred to as empty calories.  This term, empty calories, refers to food such as solid fats or added sugars supplying food energy but little or no other nutrition.  There are many reasons why it is logical to reduce or avoid consulting of these types of food and drink.  

Ok, I have to admit these questions address a little pet-peeve I have.  I have had dietitians tell me in the past that “you can lose weight by eating x” with x being food I really crave.  If you crave it, you should probably not completely avoid it, but you must limit the portion size and probably not have it every day.  In most folks, if you completely avoid it, your craving will just get stronger with time.  You should probably limit foods that are “empty calories”.  If you have to have it every day, you probably should not have it for every meal unless of course, it is raw broccoli.

What are empty calorie foods?

Empty Calories

Empty calorie foods offer little or no fiber, vitamins, or minerals that our bodies need to feel satisfied and operate efficiently. Often during manufacturing, foods are stripped of nutrients and sugar, salt and fat are added to make them taste better. Your body needs nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and fiber to prevent diseases, promote a healthy weight and feel satisfied. If our diet consisted solely of soda, white bread, and candy, we would constantly feel hungry.

Remember eating white rice or Chinese food, you are hungry again an hour later. That is because white rice is highly processed and quickly converts to sugar when we digest it. Highly processed foods are often overeaten because they have no fiber or satiety. Fried foods, chips and candy may temporarily fill you up but just an hour or two later you will be hungry again because they offer little protein, fiber, and nutrients that the human body needs. It is a vicious cycle that leads to excess daily calories and weight gain.

Weight Gain Cycle
Weight Gain Cycle

Nutrient-dense foods that contain a higher level of fiber are the key to success.   These types of foods offer a lot of nutrient value for the number of calories they contain and if they contain higher levels of fiber, the calories are more slowly absorbed.  This can give you time to burn the calories before you store them as fat.  These are the types of foods we want to make up for the majority of our diets. Foods that are nutrient-dense are for the most part found naturally and go through little processing.

Sweet potatoes, berries, nuts, beans, plain yogurt, and brown rice are all examples of foods that are nutrient-dense. They provide a lot of vitamins and minerals with low amounts of fat, sugar, and salt. For comparison, a nutrient-dense snack could be one cup of strawberries that contains vitamin c and fiber for only 45 calories and 6 grams of sugar instead of a cup of Skittles which has 830 calories and 185g of sugar.  You can eat a lot more of nature’s candy and get more vitamins out of it.

Strawberries versus skittles

I do not like the word to avoid.  Let’s change that word to reduce.  You should reduce the amount of food that you eat that contain low amounts of vitamins and minerals.  Example, if you must have sweets such as serving of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans, eat them.  Cravings are tough to avoid, but you must have the will power to stop at 1/4 to 1 serving per day.  A serving of them has 160 calories. Personally, I love jelly beans as an addition to a diet as long as you can limit it to 4 or 5 per sitting and a couple of sittings per day. I have a 1 gallon can jar full of them on my bar. I eat 8-40 jelly beans per day but I set boundaries.

We recommend the following if you like jelly beans:

What items do I severely limit? I personally have a hard time limiting certain caramels or peanut butter candy. They do not come home with me. If I do have one, it is 1-2 miniature or bite size servings at work or on the way home. When I am depressed or stressed, I have a hard times stopping at one serving and this is not a good item to eat in large amounts. Jelly beans are one thing you can limit because they are high in favor and small in calories due to their size.

The bottom line: Empty calories are the enemy of weight loss. Even small amounts are going to add up. I recommend you keep them to a minimum. It is better to have a few to help with the sweet tooth and then stop.

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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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