Looking to eat a healthy diet? You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t fill up on empty calories.
Many of the packaged foods you’ll find at the grocery store contain empty calories. This means they have little nutritional value. Instead, they give your body mostly solid fats and added sugars, which can lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies.
Identifying empty calories
To figure out which foods contain empty calories, you need to read labels. What you’re looking for are solid fats and added sugars.
Solid fats are fats that stay solid even at room temperature. They include things like butter and shortening.
Added sugars are sugars, often syrups, that are added to foods as they’re processed. These ingredients can make food taste good — very good, in fact.
The problem is that even if food tastes great, it may not give your body what it needs to thrive.
“Empty” literally means “containing nothing.” When it comes to food, empty means that that food contains little or no essential vitamins or minerals. In other words, these foods provide nothing of value to your body beyond calories that create excess pounds.
- Treats like packaged cakes, cookies, and donuts contain both added sugars and solid fats.
- Beverages like soda, sports, and energy drinks, and fruit drinks contain added sugars.
- Cheese, ice cream, and other full-fat dairy contain a good amount of solid fat.
- Meats like sausage, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs contain solid fat.
- Fast food — like pizza, burgers, french fries, milkshakes, etc. — often contains both added sugars and solid fats.
- Hard candy and candy bars may contain both added sugars and solid fats.
Still not sure if you’re eating too many empty calories? Take a look around your local grocery store. Many of the foods with empty calories are found in the center aisles of the store. They’re often packaged foods that have been processed in facilities that add sugar and fat.
Foods to eat instead
Experts recommend that people get about 30 percent of their daily calories from fat and consume no more than six to nine teaspoons of added sugars.
The foods that make up a healthy diet are mostly found on the perimeter of your grocery store. Many of them have no packaging because they come from the ground or are otherwise not processed. As a result, they don’t contain added fats and sugars.
- fresh fruits — apples, oranges, berries, bananas, melons
- vegetables, fresh or frozen — carrots, leafy greens, broccoli, beets
- whole grains — whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain pastas
- lean protein — eggs, beans, fish, nuts, poultry, and other lean meats
- legumes – beans and lentils
- dairy — low-fat milks, cheeses, and yogurt
Some of these foods, like fresh produce, don’t come with labels. For those that do, you may want to look for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) terms like “no sugar added” or “low fat” or “a low-calorie food.” To bear these labels, the food has to meet certain guidelines that mean it doesn’t have any special processing, alteration, or reformulation.
A strategy some people find useful when trying to eat more healthy foods is to “eat the rainbow.” It really is as simple as it sounds. Try making today a red-orange day and filling up on foods like apples, oranges, and carrots. Tomorrow consider yellow peppers, yellow squash, green beans, and kale. Blueberries, purple potatoes, and blackberries are good choices for the other end of the color spectrum. Don’t forget white — foods like bananas, cauliflower, and parsnips are also full of nutrients and flavor.
If your grocery store is tempting you with empty calorie-laden packaged foods, consider heading to a local farm stand or farmers market to stock up on healthy, whole foods that are in season.
You probably have empty calories in your pantry right now. The United States Department of Agriculture explains that some empty calories in your diet are OK. How much exactly? Moderation is key. Try limiting yourself to 75 calories or fewer of these foods per day. At the very least, you may want to start eating these foods less often, like once a week, or in smaller portions.
You may also try swapping empty calories for healthier choices:
- eat low-fat cheese instead of full-fat varieties
- try plain yogurt with fruit instead of sweetened yogurt
- grab no-added sugar cereal versus sweetened kinds
- sip plain water instead of sugary sodas and fruit drinks
- munch on high-fiber popcorn instead of cookies
- grab dehydrated vegetables, crunchy beans, or dried seaweed instead of potato chips
Making smart — and tasty — swaps can also help you fill up on nutrients and satisfy your cravings. For example, you may love the taste of a strawberry milkshake. This food contains both solid fat and added sugar. To get a similar indulgence, consider switching to a fruit smoothie made with healthy ingredients.