Empty Calories: Guidelines and Examples

1
What Are Empty Calories?

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Empty calories are calories (energy) in food that provide little or no nutritional benefit. Empty calorie foods provide energy primarily in the form of added sugar and unhealthy solid fats such as saturated fat or trans fat. Many empty calorie foods also provide high levels of sodium.

Nutritionists sometimes use the term "SoFAS" to refer to empty calories or empty calorie foods. SoFAS stands for solid fats and added sugars. 

  • Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature. This includes shortening, most saturated fat in meat and dairy products and trans fat. Trans fats are liquid fats that have been manufactured to be solid at room temperature.
  • Added sugars. Some sugar occurs naturally in food. For example, most whole fruit contains sugar (fructose) naturally. Added sugars are sweeteners that are added to food in the manufacturing process to improve flavor or texture.

There is no official list of SoFAS or empty calorie foods, but government health experts identify certain types of foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition.  They recommend that you limit your intake of these foods to keep your weight and your health on track.

2
Empty Calorie Guidelines

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So how many empty calories can you consume each day? In a perfect world, you wouldn't consume any. You'd eat only fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables and lean meats prepared without high-fat sauces or spreads. But for many of us, that isn't likely to happen.

So the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) has set standards to help you limit the number of empty calories you consume each day. The limits are based on age and your gender.

  • Children (2-8 years old): 120 calories per day
  • Children (9-13 years old): 120-250 calories per day 
  • Girls (14-18 years old): 120-250 calories per day
  • Boys (14-18 years old): 160-330 calories per day
  • Adult women: 120-250 calories per day
  • Adult men: 160-330 calories per day

Each recommendation assumes that empty calories are extra calories consumed after you've reached your recommended intake of other important nutrients and food groups. And empty calories should still be included as part of your total recommended calorie intake.

Confused? This example might help. If you are an adult woman trying to lose weight on a 1,200 calorie per day diet, you can eat up to 250 empty calories per day. But you should make sure that the rest of the food you eat helps you to meet healthy nutrition guidelines and does not exceed 950 calories.

Unfortunately, most of us consume way too many empty calories. The USDA estimates that 90% of Americans consume too many empty calories.

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Empty Calorie Recommendations for Dieters

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Dieters need to be especially careful about empty calories and may want to eat less than the recommended guidelines. Why? Because when you are trying to lose weight, every calorie counts. You'll be more likely to stay satisfied, eat proper portions and maintain your energy throughout the day if you choose foods that are packed with nutrition. Empty calorie foods don't provide enough good nutrition to be worth their high caloric value.

Unfortunately, it's very easy for empty calorie foods to sneak into your diet - especially when you're trying to slim down. Many empty calorie foods look healthy and are packaged in a way that makes you think you're eating something good for you.

So before you head to the grocery store or to the cafeteria at work or school, check this list of common empty calorie foods. Try to limit your intake of these foods and choose healthier foods for weight loss instead.

4
Sugary Cereal

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Breakfast cereal and flavored oatmeal can be full of added sugar and sometimes even unhealthy fats. Kid-friendly, sugar-sweetened cereals are the worst culprits, but even some products that look healthy are full of empty calories.  Check the ingredients list for added sugar and fat before you buy. Try to choose brands that are high in fiber and low in sugar.

5
Soda or Diet Soda

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Sweetened sodas are very high in calories and generally provide no nutritional benefit at all. Even fruit flavored sodas are full of empty calories. Diet sodas may contain fewer calories but still provide no nutritional benefit. Try to drink water instead. If you need flavor just add fruit or herbs to make it taste better.

6
Chips

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Fried potato chips and corn chips are a common source of empty calories. Many are fried in saturated oils. But even the baked chips aimed at dieters may contain empty calories. Some contain added sugar and most provide very little nutritional value.

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Pretzels

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Pretzels are often lower in calories than fried foods like potato chips so dieters often choose them as a healthy snack food. But they still can add a lot of calories to your daily total when you eat too much of them. They offer very little nutrition and are often high in sodium. Crisp chopped vegetables are a much better choice for dieters because they provide crunch and nutrition for just a few calories.

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Muffins

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Many convenience store muffins or baked breakfast goods that you buy at the coffee shop are full of sugar, unhealthy refined grains and trans fat. Avoid them if you want to decrease your intake of empty-calorie foods. Grab a hard boiled egg or make a healthy smoothie if you need to eat on the go.

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Coffee Drinks

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Those delicious coffee drinks that you use for a burst of energy are a common source of empty calories. In addition to the saturated fat in whole milk, many of the drinks contain sweetened syrups, added sugar and candy toppings. Make your own healthier coffee drinks at home, drink lemon water or brew a cup of tea for a quick pick-me-up.

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Baked Desserts

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Cookies, cakes, pies  and other yummy after-dinner delights are often full of empty calories. In fact, grain-based desserts are one of the most common empty calorie foods identified by the USDA. And sometimes they are labeled to make you think that they are healthier than they are. For example, organic non-GMO, gluten-free cookies are still cookies. And they are usually still full of sugar and fat (empty) calories.

11
Candy

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That bowl of hard candies, chewy taffy treats or chocolate minis on your kitchen counter or office desk may seem like no big deal when you're dieting. But candy is one of the most common empty calorie foods. And the mini candy treats are easy to overeat. Ditch the bowl of treats - they simply aren't worth it.

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Sweetened Tea Drinks

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Those bottled tea drinks that you find in the refrigerator section of the store are often no better for your body than high-calorie soft drinks. Even if the label looks healthy and natural, many contain added sugar and other sweeteners. Check the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts label before you buy. Or save your money and brew your own tea at home without the added sweetener.

13
Juice Drinks

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Fruit-flavored drinks (like fruit punch) are often called out by nutritionists because of their high sugar content and low nutritional value. You'll help your child limit his or her intake of empty calories if you avoid them. If you or your little one wants a sweet treat, grab fresh fruit and water.

14
French Fries

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French fries are one of the worst empty calorie foods. Why? Because just a few fries are loaded with calories and fat. A single serving of fries provides nearly 400 calories and very little nutrition. For this reason, the USDA recommends that you make your own oven-baked fries instead. Or you can choose salad or chopped veggies as a side dish.

15
Applesauce

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If your applesauce is homemade with real apples, it may not contain too much sugar. But some commercially prepared cups and jars of apple sauce have plenty of added sugar. So this healthy-sounding side dish may be full of empty calories.

Choose fresh fruit whenever possible because it provides fiber along with natural sugar. If you love applesauce, make your own and skip the excess sugar.

16
High Fat Milk and Dairy Products

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Nutritionists often include whole milk and whole milk dairy products like cheese, butter and ice cream in their lists of empty calorie foods. These foods do provide some nutritional benefit, but they also contain a lot of saturated fat and some contain added sugar. Experts generally recommend that you choose skim or low-fat dairy products instead.

17
Pizza

empty calories in pizza
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Pizza is almost always listed among the top empty calorie foods because of the saturated fat content of most popular brands. Some pizza brands even add sugar to the tomato sauce. If you're a die-hard pizza fan, try to find a whole-wheat pizza at your local grocer and top it with lots of veggies, or better yet, make your own whole grain veggie pizza at home.

18
Margarine

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Margarine often sounds like it is healthier than butter. But in many cases, it's not. Some margarine brands contain trans fat. If you can limit your consumption of butter, the real dairy product is sometimes a better choice. Or you can look for a tub margarine that contains no hydrogenated oils (trans fat). But in many cases, avocado (sometimes called "poor man's butter) is a better alternative because it is a good source of healthy polyunsaturated fat.

19
Jelly

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You might love to slather jelly on your bread in the morning, but it may be a source of empty calories. Many commercial jelly brands contain added sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. Choose a whole fruit spread instead...or just eat whole fruit!

20
Sausage and Processed Meats

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Many dietitians include sausage (and other highly processed meats) in their lists of foods that provide empty calories. Even chicken or turkey sausage can contain too much saturated fat when it is made with skin and other high-fat parts of the animal. You can make your own healthy sausage at home, or check nutrition labels carefully when you buy sausage products at the store.

21
Breakfast or Snack Bars

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The calories in some breakfast bars or snack bars are often not as healthy as you'd think. In fact, some provide no more nutritional value than a standard candy bar. Many contain added sugar, refined grains, and unhealthy fat. Choose a healthier snack bar with fiber and protein to fill you up and look for brands with less sugar.

22
Frozen Yogurt

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Many dieters think that frozen yogurt, or "fro-yo" as it is often called, is healthier than full-fat ice cream. But many times, this empty calorie food contains too much-added sugar and very little nutrition. But ice cream isn't necessarily a great alternative. Both treats are usually listed as empty calories foods.

If you choose to indulge, watch your portion size. A single serving is just 1/2 cup and often provides hundreds of calories. You can also choose a creamy low-calorie ice cream to lower the calorie count.

23
Reduce Empty Calories

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Now that you know more about empty calorie foods, you'll be more equipped to spot them in the store, at restaurants, and on your plate. Choose more nutritious foods instead and you'll be able to eat more food for fewer calories and reach your weight loss goal with greater ease.

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