Updated: October 13, 2022
It’s a piece of weight loss advice we’ve all probably heard before: “Avoid empty calories.” But what are empty calories, exactly, and why are they bad?
Empty calorie foods lack nutritional value, but contain high amounts of calories from unhealthy sources, including sugar and fat. If you’re building healthy habits, eating fewer of these foods is a goal you might work toward. And it's a great goal to have! Here’s how to easily identify empty calories, plus healthier nutrient-dense foods to enjoy instead.
What are calories and how do they work?
Let's start with the basics. Calories are a unit of measurement: They measure the amount of heat that’s needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.1
So, how does this relate to your body and weight loss?
When you eat and drink foods and beverages containing calories, your body breaks them down and turns them into energy.
Different types of food contain varying amounts of calories, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) explains:2
- Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
Everyone has different daily calorie requirements. For example, individuals who live a more active lifestyle may need a higher calorie intake than those who are less active because their bodies use more energy. (Here’s how many calories a day you should eat to lose weight, according to an R.D.)
Your body needs to burn about 3,500 more calories than you consume to lose one pound.1 To do this, it’s best to enjoy a balanced diet and participate in regular physical activity. It’s a common misconception that exercise alone will help you burn those extra calories — your diet actually plays a large part. Consider the 80/20 rule for weight loss, where you focus 80% of your efforts on reducing your calories through diet and burning 20% through exercise.
Losing 1-2 pounds per week is generally considered a safe, gradual rate of weight loss, according to the USDA.1 Eating fewer empty calorie foods is a great first step toward losing weight, too.
What are empty calories?
Empty calories are defined as "calories derived from foods containing no nutrients," according to the Oxford English dictionary. You can usually find empty calories in foods that are already unhealthy, with a high content of saturated fat and/or added sugars. Typically, empty calorie foods contain fewer nutrients compared to other types of food. While empty calorie foods will still provide you with energy, they may not offer the benefits of vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber that you’ll find in healthier options. They’re also not great options if you find yourself wondering how to stay full longer.
Excess calories, especially from not-so-healthy options, can be stored as body fat. As a result, excess empty calories combined with a lack of exercise can influence weight gain.
Conversely, eating foods high in nutrients can help support your weight loss efforts. But it’s still important to be mindful of your portions, since overeating regularly can lead to weight gain. (If you do happen to overeat — don’t be too hard on yourself — it happens! Here’s how to get back on track after overindulging.)
A short list of empty-calorie foods
While not a complete list, here are some examples of empty-calorie foods. It’s best to avoid these foods (especially if your goals include weight loss) or eat/drink them infrequently in small amounts.
- Pastries (doughnuts, cakes, and croissants)
- Fried foods (fried chicken, French fries, potato chips)
- Sugar-laden drinks (sport beverages, soda, juices, specialty coffee drinks)
- Fast food
- Alcoholic beverages
Empty-calorie foods: Avoiding solid fats & added sugars
What do the above empty-calorie foods have in common? They’re high in solid fats and added sugars, and they’re typically higher in calories than more nutritious foods. Here’s why regularly consuming foods high in solid fat and added sugars isn’t beneficial for your health or weight loss.
What are solid fats?
Solid fats are a type of fat that retain their shape, even at room temperature. Foods containing solid fats can be high in saturated fats and/or trans fats. Consuming trans fats has been linked to a higher risk of developing heart disease and stroke and can raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol levels.3
Try to eat smaller amounts of food that contain saturated fats, including:
Similarly, try to avoid foods that contain trans fats, including:
- Deep fried foods
For healthier, lower-calorie options, try these instead:
- Poultry, with the skin removed
- Lean cuts of meat
- Nuts and nut butter
- Nonfat or low-fat dairy products
What are added sugars?
A surprising number of foods include added sugars. Although sweet foods can be enjoyable to eat, they are often filled with empty calories that your body doesn't need. Sugar is naturally found in certain foods like fresh fruits and milk, but eating excess added sugar may lead to weight gain, obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report.4
To avoid added sugars and empty calories, check the Nutrition Facts and the ingredient labels. Some common examples of added sugars are:4
- Corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
"Good" calories vs. "bad" calories
Although some foods may be considered high-calorie or high-fat, it doesn’t mean they’re full of empty calories. Learning which foods contain empty calories could help you make better choices in the future.
Foods have different kinds of calories that come from fat, carbohydrates, and protein, which are the three macronutrients that your body needs to thrive.
An avocado and a doughnut are both high in fat, but it’s the type of fat they contain that matters. While avocados are rich in monounsaturated fat (which may help to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke7), doughnuts are typically fried in oil and can contain a large amount of trans fat – much more unhealthy. Additional empty calories from the refined sugar and flour used to make a doughnut and its icing lack the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your body needs.
In this case, an avocado is a healthier source of fat that provides more nutrients, including calcium, potassium and vitamin C.5 But because it’s high in fat, it’s also high in calories. Aim for about ¼ avocado per serving to stay on track with your weight loss goals.
Many nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins vary in the number of calories they contain. But because they’re great sources of fiber, protein and healthy fat, they’re low in empty calories and often more satisfying than options that aren’t as good for you, like deep-fried foods, sugar-sweetened beverages and candies.
How to calculate empty calories
Empty calories can be hard to spot if you don't know where to find them.
Take a closer look at the Nutrition Facts label. Can you find added sugar, trans fat or saturated fat on the label?
Add up the percentages. Look under the “% Daily Value” column to find the percentages of added sugars and saturated fats in the product.
If the total adds up to 10% or more, consider reducing the amounts of these foods in your diet, or reach for healthier options instead.
Did you know? Less than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugars and saturated fats, advises National Dietary Guidelines for Americans.8
How many calories can I have?
Your body needs a certain number of calories to remain healthy and active. However, everyone’s calorie needs will vary. The calorie amount someone needs differs based on factors such as age, height, sex and activity level. The more physically active a person is, the more calories their body may need to maintain their lifestyle.
Empty calories count toward your daily calorie amount, so to get the most nutritional bang for your buck, opt for plenty of non-starchy vegetables and smaller amounts of fruits, lean proteins, whole grains and healthy fats.
A 2,000-calorie diet is typical for most adults, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To lose 1-1.5 pounds per week, the Dietary Guidelines suggest reducing the daily calorie intake by 500-750 calories,8 but this can vary from person to person.
To find out the number of calories you should be consuming each day, consult your doctor or a health care professional.
Swapping empty-calorie foods for nutrient-dense foods
To fuel your body properly, try to reduce the number of empty calories you consume and make sure you're eating plenty of nutrient-dense food. Nutrient-dense foods include healthy fats (here’s the difference between healthy fats vs. bad fats), lean proteins, and carbohydrates (primarily from fruits, vegetables and whole grains), and contain crucial vitamins and minerals that your body needs. The more nutrients a food contains per calorie, the more nutrient-dense it is. Here are a few examples:
Non-starchy vegetables and fruit. Not only are they good sources of fiber, but fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and are relatively low in calories. Vegetables may offer a variety of health benefits, from maintaining gut health to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.9 Similarly, eating fruit has been associated with a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and a reduced risk of hypertension (high blood pressure).10
Whole grains. Refined grains, like white rice and white flour, have certain parts of the grain removed, which contain most of the nutrients. Whole grains are left intact, preserving B vitamins, iron, vitamin E, antioxidants, and more.11
Try this: Brown rice, barley and oats are all whole grains that don't contain added sugar or solid fat.
Incorporating some of these nutrient dense foods into your diet along with other wholesome, foods is a great way to supply your body with the vitamins and nutrients it needs.
Fatty fish. Fish are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which help with many of the body’s functions.12 The body can’t naturally produce a substantial amount of omega-3s on its own, so it’s important to include foods, like fish, in your diet. Eating fatty fish may be linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis relief.9 Fish are also considered a lean protein, making them a nutritious choice for healthy fats and protein.
Try this: Salmon, anchovies, sardines and mackerel are all great sources of omega-3s.
The final word on empty calories & weight loss
Try to avoid or limit empty calories by enjoying a balanced diet that includes good sources of carbohydrates, protein and fat that may benefit your weight loss efforts. It's important to read food labels when deciding which products to buy.
A good rule of thumb: Try to stay away from foods containing high amounts of saturated fats and added sugars.
When you’re looking for nutritious foods to add to your meals, you don’t have to sacrifice the dishes you love. Jenny Craig’s delicious entrées, snacks and shakes are perfectly portioned to support healthy weight loss, offering American comfort food classics, Italian and Asian-inspired dishes, and so much more. Plus, you’ll never have to worry about counting calories — the menus you’ll follow on the program are carefully designed a nutrition team and paired with one-on-one, personalized support from a dedicated weight loss consultant. Make sure to check out our resource center for anything from a weight loss tracker to intermittent fasting meal plans.
Get started by choosing your weight loss meal plan today!
Stephanie Eng-Aponte is a copywriter for Jenny Craig and has written for the health and wellness, tech, and environmental industries. Stephanie graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Media Studies. They employ an “eat first, write later” approach to food blogging and enjoy the occasional Oxford comma. Outside of writing, you can find them photographing a muttley crew of rescue pups, brewing kombucha, or exploring San Diego.
Favorite healthy snack: green apple slices with sunflower butter
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
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