Empty Calories Taste Good but Have No Nutrients

Empty calories are calories that don’t give us the nutrients we need. Here is what MyPlate.gov. a division of the Dept. of Agriculture, has to say about foods that taste good, but contain empty calories.

picture of sweet treats that have empty caloriesMany of the foods and beverages Americans eat and drink contain empty calories. These are calories that come from solid fats and/or added sugars. Solid fats and added sugars add calories to the food but few or no nutrients. For this reason, the calories from solid fats and added sugars in a food are often called empty calories. Learning more about solid fats and added sugars can help you make better food and drink choices.

Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, beef fat, and shortening. Some solid fats are found naturally in foods. They can also be added when foods are processed by food companies or when they are prepared. Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added when foods or beverages are processed or prepared.
Solid fats and added sugars can make a food or beverage more appealing, but they also can add a lot of calories. The foods and beverages that provide the most empty calories for Americans are:

  • Cakes, cookies, pastries, and donuts (contain both solid fat and added sugars)
  • Sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruit drinks (contain added sugars)
  • Cheese (contains solid fat)
  • Pizza (contains solid fat)
  • Ice cream (contains both solid fat and added sugars)
  • Sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs (contain solid fat)

These foods and beverages are the major sources of empty calories, but many can be found in forms with less or no solid fat or added sugars. For example, low-fat cheese and low-fat hot dogs can be purchased. You can choose water, milk, or sugar-free soda instead of drinks with sugar. Check that the calories in these products are less than in the regular product.

In some foods, like most candies and sodas, all the calories are empty calories. These foods are often called “empty calorie foods.” However, empty calories from solid fats and added sugars can also be found in some other foods that contain important nutrients. Some examples of foods that provide nutrients, shown in forms with and without empty calories are:

Food with some empty calories Food with few or no empty calories
Sweetened applesauce (contains added sugars) Unsweetened applesauce
Regular ground beef (75% lean) (contains solid fats) Extra lean ground beef (96% or more lean)
Fried chicken (contains solid fats from frying and skin) Baked chicken breast without skin
Sugar-sweetened cereals (contain added sugars) Unsweetened cereals
Whole milk (contains solid fats) Fat-free milk

Making better choices, like unsweetened applesauce or extra lean ground beef, can help keep your intake of added sugars and solid fats low.

A small amount of empty calories is okay, but most people eat far more than is healthy.

It is important to limit empty calories to the amount that fits your calorie and nutrient needs. You can lower your intake by eating and drinking foods and beverages containing empty calories less often or by decreasing the amount you eat or drink.


Foods for Before Practice and Before the Big Game

What foods do you need to be feeding your young athlete before a practice? What about before a big game?

According to Dr. Henry A. Stiene, MD, a  board certified  physician and practitioner of Sports Medicine and Co-Medical Director and Team Physician for Xavier University in Cincinnati, parents can actually use nutrition to help their sons and daughters compete or practice with more energy and effort.

Dr. Stiene shares that carbohydrates are the foods that fuel muscles. This is the food group that is utilized when the large muscles of the body are involved in physical activity.

While proteins and fats are essential to the physical development of young athletes, they provide no direct energy for exercise or athletics.

Carbohydrates are stored in muscles in the form of glycogen, which can remain in the muscles for 12-24 hours. Carbohydrates are easily digestible compared to foods high in proteins and fats that can sometimes take 12 hours to be completely digested, especially in growing children.

This is why one can feel so lethargic after eating a meal high in protein and fat; these foods become an energy drain in the sense that is takes much metabolic effort to digest these foods. This is energy that could otherwise be used for exercising muscles.

Examples of carbohydrates are well known to our young athletes. They have learned the food pyramid and know this food group includes breads, cereals, pasta, grains, fruits and juices, dairy products such as milk and yogurt, and sports drinks.

When planning what to feed your young athlete before practice or a game, know that his or her meal needs to be mainly carbohydrates. Kids all have different eating patterns. Some may not want to eat at all before practice. You can remedy this by having them eat a bigger lunch or breakfast and having them take sports drinks to practice and provide a well-balanced meal after practice or games. The best time to eat a pre-game or pre-practice meal should be 1-3 hours before competition depending on how much the athlete eats.

A bagel or muffin with some peanut butter and jelly about 1-3 hours before practice will get most athletes through practices
and games. Avoid a large amount of high fat and protein snacks in the hours before competition- it won’t provide much energy and may actually make the athlete feel tired. A small amount of protein or fat (such as peanut butter) is OK as it can also keep the athlete from getting hungry during practice. Save larger amounts of proteins and fats for after practice or provide some at breakfast and lunch.

Other good choices before practice would be cereals, pasta or rice without heavy sauces, fruit and yogurt, granola, honey, jams or jellies on bread or muffins. Give all these foods at least a good hour to digest. Popcorn and pretzels are also good choices as they are high in carbohydrates and have some added salt, which can stimulate thirst-enhancing intake of the most vital nutrient-water.

Having kids eat during a homework break after school and before practice is a good idea as it gives food time to digest and also
can get them back in focus to complete their homework. If your not sure about the nutritional content of a given food, the label
will provide this information for you in great detail.

What about tournaments and multiple games or competitions on the same day? Most of what is offered at concession stands is pretty high in protein and fat such as hot dogs, candy, and nachos. Good choices for between games are pretzels, popcorn, and sports drinks. If your son or daughter has a favorite snack such as bagels or peanut butter and jelly, have then bring some along.

If the game is early on Saturday or Sunday, have your son or daughter load up on carbohydrates the night before by feeding them pasta or pizza, especially if they are not big breakfast eaters. A bowl of cereal or juice with toast or a muffin will usually get them through the game.

Save the wings, burgers, fries, dogs, and chicken strips for after the games and avoid high amounts of protein and fat with breakfast for those early morning games. While it is true that soda pop and candy are mostly sugars (which is what carbohydrates are in a more complex form), pop and candy can cause wide fluctuations in blood sugar, also draining and wasting energy that would otherwise be used during practices and games.

Source: Henry A. Stiene, MD,board certified in Sports Medicine and practices Sports and Orthopaedic
Medicine with Beacon Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.


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