What are Empty Calories?

Sheri Cyprus

Empty calories are what foods with poor nutritional value are considered to have. For example, a candy bar is said to be an empty calorie food, as its calories are mostly from refined sugar and saturated fat. Refined sugar refers to highly processed white sugars, while saturated fat is mostly animal fats that remain solid at room temperature. A bowl of fresh fruits cut into pieces to form a salad may have as many or more calories than a candy bar, but offers the body a lot more nutrition since fruit is abundant in vitamins.

Candy contains empty calories, since it provides little or no nutritional value.
Candy contains empty calories, since it provides little or no nutritional value.

Some foods and beverages may at first appear to be nutritious but have added ingredients that makes the choice high in empty calories. For instance, fruit punch or juice with added sugar may feature juices from real fruits, which give vitamins to the product. However, the sweet syrup added to it takes away from the drink's nutritional value. Natural fruit juice without added sugar is a more nutrient-dense choice.

A high-fat cheeseburger provides a lot of empty calories.
A high-fat cheeseburger provides a lot of empty calories.

Although steak and ground beef both come from a cow, their nutritional worth can be quite different. A small lean steak is a good source of iron and protein; it's considered a healthy meat serving. But a fast-food hamburger made with fatty ground beef and sandwiched in a white bun with high-fat cheese and mayonnaise is considered as mostly empty calories. The fact that the meat also has protein and iron is overshadowed by the other unhealthy ingredients.

A fast-food hamburger might be mostly empty calories.
A fast-food hamburger might be mostly empty calories.

Even though it may sound healthy, enriched flour is one of the most common sources of empty calories in foods. The nutritious parts of the wheat, which are the bran and kernel sections, are stripped away to create easier processing and a longer grocery store shelf life. Therefore, much of the fiber, minerals and vitamins are no longer in the resulting white enriched flour. The flour is “enriched” with only some of what was removed from it. Whole grain breads and cereals have their natural nutrients intact and are much healthier.

Refined sugar and saturated fat are the main ingredients in candy bars.
Refined sugar and saturated fat are the main ingredients in candy bars.

Although empty calorie foods still provide the body with energy due to their calories, that's basically all they give the body. Since bodies need vitamins, minerals and protein daily to function properly, people eventually feel sick or unwell if they eat mainly empty calories. Long-term poor nutritional eating can lead to many health problems that could be avoided through a steady consumption of nutritious calorie foods.

Though a popular condiment, mayonnaise is considered to be a product with empty calories.
Though a popular condiment, mayonnaise is considered to be a product with empty calories.
Potato chips usually have a lot of empty calories.
Potato chips usually have a lot of empty calories.
Fruit salad may have more calories than a candy bar, but it is packed with nutrition.
Fruit salad may have more calories than a candy bar, but it is packed with nutrition.
Junk foods contain empty calories.
Junk foods contain empty calories.

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