What are Empty Calories?

MyPlate.gov., a division of the Dept. of Agriculture offers the following information about foods we eat, and really enjoy, that really don’t give us the nutrients we need but do give us what are referred to as “empty calories.”

caloriesMany of the foods and beverages Americans eat and drink contain empty calories –- calories 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.

Healthy Foods…Healthy Moods

The web site, Fruit&Veggies More Matters at http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org, recently carried the following message about what foods we eat and how it can impact on our moods, even to the point of depression.

foodsA recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that individuals eating a diet rich in whole foods were less likely to report feelings of depression than those who ate lots of desserts, fried foods, processed meats, refined grains and high-fat dairy products.

After five (5) years, the study determined that a processed food dietary eating pattern is a risk factor for depression, whereas a whole food eating pattern is a protective measure for depression.

Another article published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet of foods that include high intakes of fruits, vegetables, and soy products was associated with fewer depressive symptoms.

The study contributed these results to a cumulative effort of the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables as well as the omega-3 fatty acids in fish.

We’ve all turned to food after a bad day but instead of reaching for whatever seems soothing, eat food that may actually lift your spirits! A diet that promotes a healthy lifestyle is going to promote a positive outlook on life too! Your clothes are going to fit better, you’ll have more energy, and you won’t feel guilty about what you’re eating.

Leading a healthy lifestyle equipped with a healthy diet (rich in fruits and vegetables) and being physically active is just another aspect of your life you can be proud of!

So while more studies need to be done to determine if it is the foods themselves that enhance moods or the results of a certain eating pattern, we do know a healthy diet has many benefits to offer!

Source: Akbaraly, TN, et al. “Dietary Patterns and Depressive Symptoms in Middle Age.” British Journal of Psychiatry 2009; 195(5):

Nanri, A, et al. “Dietary Patterns and Depressive Symptoms Among Japanese Men and Women.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010; doi:10.1038/ejcn.2010.86.



The Gracious Pantry

Tiffany McCauley started The Gracious Pantry in August, 2008 as a means of keeping track of not only her recipes, but her attempts at losing weight. To her surprise, clean eating, as she calls it, did the trick when all other eating plans  failed her.Tiffany describes cleaning eating as,”The consumption of simple foods in their natural states. The avoidance of processed, boxed or otherwise “tampered with” foods.”

Down 40 lbs. to date, Tiffany is committed to a clean eating lifestyle and to sharing clean eating recipes with her readers.

Tiffany’s recipes are not only healthy, they are kid friendly! She shares one such recipe, “Clean Eating Pizzadias” in our Recipes section of the navigation bar above. As Tiffany puts it, “Hands down, this is my son’s favorite recipe.”

Visit the Gracious Pantry for recipes that are healthier, yet flavorful adaptations of some favorite foods such as eggnog and chili to name just a few at http://www.thegraciouspantry.com