<> <>
Health Hub

Empty calories: What are they and how do they impact your health?

If you're on a weight loss or health journey, you might've heard the term 'empty calories'.

What Are Empty Calories? | Juniper

Not all calories are created equal. We instinctively know that different foods provide different nutritional benefits — for example, that fresh fruits are healthier than, say, french fries.

If you're on a weight loss or health journey you might've heard the term 'empty calories'. A calorie is a unit of energy that an item of food or a drink provides, and its origin can be traced back to France in 1825 [1].

Your daily calories, sometimes known as a 'calorie budget', refers to the amount of energy needed to maintain your weight. To gain weight, you must exceed this budget and to lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories per day than you use).

Let's start by dispelling some diet myths. Calories are not good or bad, in the same way that foods are not good or bad. However, foods can be more calorie-dense with essential nutrients or contain empty calories with less nutritional value, which might label them as mostly empty calories.

But what exactly are empty calories? Should you avoid them to have a healthy diet? What is too many empty calories? Read as we answer these commonly asked questions below.

What are empty calories?

Empty calories refer to foods with little to no nutritional benefits. Typically, empty-calorie foods have little fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It's almost an oxymoron, as empty calories most definitely contain calories.

Empty-calorie foods are often ultra-processed or packaged foods, with labels that might contain a lot of artificial flavours or additives.

It's worth noting that almost every food is processed, which simply means it's been changed from its original state. Processed isn't an inherently bad thing, but most empty-calorie foods are ultra-processed with almost no nutritional value.

Do empty calories cause weight gain?

Kind of. Empty calories are often calorically dense with low nutritional value. In other words, it's pretty easy to eat (or drink) a large amount of empty calories per day because they lack the protein and fibre that helps us feel full after eating.

Think how easy it is to eat a large bag of potato chips or large fries as a snack, and how soon after you feel hungry. Many empty-calorie foods contain high levels of salt, fats, and added sugars which hit our brain's reward centres making us crave them. This can also be a sign of nutritional deficiencies, and your body asking for more calories containing important nutrients.

The real trouble with this is that other foods with empty calories contribute to your total calories needed each day which can affect your total energy expenditure (sometimes known as metabolism). Eating an excess of empty calorie foods leads our bodies to store additional calories as fat, leading to weight gain [2].

Note that eating empty calories as part of a balanced or overall healthy eating approach will not cause spontaneous weight gain. Rather, an excess of empty calories most days over a long period where you consistently exceed your daily calories and miss out on key nutritional benefits from whole foods will likely lead to weight gain.

Empty-calorie food examples

The quickest way to identify empty-calorie foods is by checking food labels for solid fats and added sugars. Food with empty calories and added fats may also have a high glycemic index which is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity [3].

Some examples of foods with empty calories might be white bread, processed oils like vegetable oil, potato chips, french fries, hot dogs, ice cream, refined flour bakery goods, candy bars, lollies, and hard candies. Seemingly healthy foods like granola bars can also sometimes contain empty calories if they include added sugars that exceed the average intake.

Sweetened drinks are often a major source of empty calories. Think energy drinks, sugary drinks, soft drinks, fruit drinks like juice, and even electrolyte sports drinks which often have added sugars. Adding one of these drinks to a meal can easily lead to increased calories and even too many empty calories per day.

Is alcohol an empty calorie?

Alcohol can also be a hidden source of empty calories. The ethanol in alcohol comes from fermented sugars from grains or fruits and is a highly concentrated form of empty calories.

Alcohol consumption can be a sizeable risk factor for weight gain [4][5]. Drinking 2 small glasses of wine or 2 full-strength beers equals 3 standard drinks or almost 10% of your total daily energy.

A few extra drinks with dinner or after work is one of the fastest ways to exceed your total calories per day. That's without considering all the calories in alcoholic fruit drinks or cocktails which often have much more sugar than you might realise.

What are nutrient-dense foods?

Nutrient-dense foods are critical to a healthy diet. They contain important nutrients your body needs to function efficiently, such as vitamins and minerals [4]. A balanced meal of nutrient-dense foods is typically very low in added sugars and should make up the majority of your food intake.

Nutrient-dense food examples

A healthy lifestyle encompasses a wide range of nutrient-dense foods that include:

A balanced diet includes a mix of fibre, carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats. Each of these helps contribute to satiety which keeps you feeling full and helps you reach your nutritional goals. Food that is higher in fibre such as leafy greens can help you feel fuller for longer on fewer calories.

Make some simple swaps

You don't need to deprive yourself of all processed or packaged foods to maintain a healthy weight.

By substituting most empty-calorie foods with more nutrient-dense and lower-calorie foods you can feel good about boosting the nutritional value of your meals.

Swapping ice cream for frozen yogurt, or replacing half of your ice cream with fresh fruit is a relatively small change with a big impact. Even something as small as swapping added sugar into your tea drinks with a small dash of honey or other sweeteners can help lower your caloric intake. You could also try swapping whole milk black tea for green tea which is rich in antioxidants.

Look at the big picture

Embracing a healthier lifestyle is about taking a step back and looking at your health as a whole. That's where the scientifically backed Juniper’s Weight Reset Programme can help you pursue a healthy sustainable lifestyle.

Juniper takes a holistic and medical approach to weight loss by targeting your metabolism to sustainably lose an average of 13% of body weight in a year. Combining dietitian-led coaching and support with a medical pathway for long-term weight loss, Juniper is specifically designed by clinicians and dietitians to help women in the UK reach their weight goals.

You also don't need to obsessively count calories or stress over a few empty calories every now and again. Studies show that by simply being aware of the calories you are consuming each day, people tend to consume fewer calories per day.

It's easier to add nutritional benefits than deprive yourself. You don't need to completely cut out packaged foods or fast food. Instead, focus on what you can add to your meals to boost the overall nutritional content without adding too many extra calories. By making healthier choices with your food you can reap the health benefits for years to come.