Research: Weight Gain linked to Empty Calorie Intake

Research - Boggle LettersResearch - Boggle Letters

Consumption of empty calories is tied to weight gain.  


For many years, I have read diet book after diet book that has advocated for one method or another to lose weight.  Some suggest that a balanced diet with counting calories and exercising more is the key to success.  A few suggest limiting particular foods or groups of foods such as carbohydrates.   Some even go as far as advocating eating certain groups such as meat or vegetables.  Diet quality is based on the degree of processing.  Sugar is an example of a highly processed food in which much of the nutrition is removed and only the calories remain.  The real question is whether food quality matters or if the only thing that matters is calories?  

A 2017 study performed at Ohio State University looked at this very question[1].  The study is a cross-sectional analysis of data from the 2007-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES).  The subjects were over 3400 American adults that reported intentional weight loss.  The subjects were divided into three groups based on weight change.  The groups were weight loss (5% or more bodyweight loss), weight maintained (less than 5% body weight change), and weight gain (5% or more body weight gain). Macronutrient intake was analyzed between the three groups to look for links to their weight change.  The analysis revealed that the dietary quality was poor across all groups but the weight gain group has a significantly higher intake of empty calories and the weight loss group took in fewer carbohydrates and more protein.  

The bottom line:  Weight gain in American adults is associated with higher empty calorie consumption.  Avoiding low-quality foods that only add empty calories only makes sense as a potential cause of weight gain because they easily pass into the body and do not keep you full for very long.  The basic rule that you must eat fewer calories than you burn to lose weight still holds true, but if you are hungry and absorption and digestion are rapid, you will be more likely to eat sooner because satiety will not last long.  Quality is essential to provide the vitamins, minerals, and fiber you need to function.  If you overeat high-quality healthy foods, you can still gain weight, but it is a lot hard to overeat if they are full of fiber and vegetables.  The research is far from definitive, but it is promising.  Further research is needed prior to a recommendation as a method for successful weight management.

[1]Davidson, “Title The Relationship between Intentional Weight Loss, Food Sourcing, and Dietary Intake/Quality.”


  1. Davidson, Garret. “Title The Relationship between Intentional Weight Loss, Food Sourcing, and Dietary Intake/Quality.” OhioLINK, 2017. [Source]
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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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