Empty calories are found in foods that have high caloric value but little nutritional value.
This means the body will be able to use the food for energy, but will be provided with little of the nutrients and minerals it needs to keep strong and healthy. Any leftover calories will be stored in the form of fat.
Empty calories are typically divided into three categories:
- solid fat
The most common sources of empty calories are highly processed or refined foods. These foods usually contain a high amount of fat and sugar or other carbohydrates. They include most fast foods, processed snacks, and sweets such as cakes, cookies, ice cream, and candy.
Limiting empty calories can be as simple as a change in diet. Moving away from a heavily processed diet has helped many people lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Helping children make this switch may lead them to healthier choices in the future.
Eliminating or limiting empty calories starts with eating more nutrient-dense foods. These are foods that provide a lot of nutrients or minerals compared to their caloric content. In general, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, and lean proteins are more nutrient-dense than other food choices.
There are some simple steps that may be helpful for both adults and children who want to avoid empty calories and aim for a healthier lifestyle.
Cut out processed foods
For some people, reducing the intake of empty calories may be as simple as cutting out processed foods. Packaged foods and fast food are typically processed and have high calorie content when compared to their nutritional value.
A simple way to achieve healthy lifestyle goals is to cut back on these processed foods and replace them with home-cooked options. Planning out a number of meals to cook at home each week can turn this into a long-term habit.
Look for nutrients
It may also help to actively seek out foods that are rich in specific nutrients while shopping. This may help a person change their approach to food in general.
Some of the most basic nutrients to look out for while food shopping include:
- amino acids
- vitamins, such as vitamin A, B vitamins, or vitamin C
- minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium
Plan meals in advance
Meal planning may also help a person avoid empty calories. While there may not be spare time every day to cook each meal, most people can find 1 day a week to plan out and cook their meals at home.
Having a healthy option ready for every meal can help avoid unnecessary snacking and high-calorie foods.
Change drinking habits
Many empty calories are found in drink choices. Sweetened tea and coffee, soft drinks, and fruit-based drinks can add a surprising amount of calories to the diet. Replacing these with water, unsweetened tea or coffee, or sparkling water can regularly cut out empty calories.
This may also mean reducing alcohol intake. Regularly drinking alcoholic beverages can add many unnecessary calories to the diet.
Limiting the amount of alcoholic drinks or eliminating them altogether may help some people reduce their intake of empty calories, and improve their overall health.
Have nutritious snacks on hand
Another great way to avoid high-calorie snacking is to prepare ahead of time and buy or make nutrient-rich snacks. This way, when a hunger craving kicks in, a more nutritious option is at the ready.
For salty snacks, home-baked vegetable chips or a few salted nuts are better options than standard potato chips. For sweet cravings, a fruit salad or fruit smoothie may keep some people from reaching for the candy bars.
A healthy diet can be a daily habit. Limiting the amount of empty calories a person eats each day may help them maintain their ideal weight and achieve their health goals over time.
Replacing empty calories with nutrient-dense foods and hydrating, sugar-free beverages can contribute to a person’s overall health and well-being.
Teaching children to avoid empty calories will also help them choose their own nutritious foods later in life.