Empty Calories: Food Choices

Empty CaloriesEmpty Calories

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 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 the food I 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
Figure 1: 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 the human body needs. It is a vicious cycle that leads to excess daily calories and weight gain.

Weight Gain Cycle
Figure 2: Weight Gain Cycle

Nutrient-dense foods that contain a higher fiber level are the key to success.   These foods offer a lot of nutrient value for the 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 the majority of our diets. Nutrient-dense foods 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 which 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 more of nature’s candy and get more vitamins.

Strawberries vs. Skittles
Figure 3:  Strawberries vs Skittles

I do not as the word avoid.  Let’s change that word to reduce.  You should reduce the amount of food you eat that contains low amounts of vitamins and minerals.  For example, if you must have sweets such as a serving of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans, eat them.  Cravings are tough to avoid, but you must have the willpower 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 daily, but I set boundaries.

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 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 difficulty stopping at one serving, which is not a good item to eat in large amounts.

The Bottom Line: You can eat anything and lose weight if you limit your calories, but cutting empty calories can make it easier.

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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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