If our weight loss expert had to give you one tip to help you achieve your healthy eating goals, it would be this: Avoid empty calories.
That’s because empty calories come at a high price. They can take up a large portion of your daily caloric allowance, are likely to be stored as fat and may increase your risk for diseases like cancer.
“Empty calories come from foods that provide a lot of calories but lack many of the nutrients your body needs,” says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., professor of Behavioral Science.
Processed foods like cookies, cakes, chips and fries have loads of empty calories. Empty calories can also add up from sugar in items like bread, yogurt and sweetened drinks.
“These foods have a lot of fat and sugar — and not many vitamins, minerals, protein, antioxidants or fiber,” says Basen-Engquist. “It’s a double whammy. You get the stored fat and the weight gain. And you also don't support any of the systems in your body.”
Three reasons to avoid empty calories
Basen-Engquist says there are three good reasons to avoid foods with empty calories:
These foods don’t provide what your body needs. Every system in your body relies on what you eat. You need protein to help build muscle, you need calcium for your bones and you need fiber for healthy digestion. Foods that are high in sugar and fats often don’t have any of this. They also lack the vitamins and minerals used to support everything from your immune system to your DNA. When you fill up on empty calories and don’t take in more nutritious food, your body can’t function properly.
Empty calories can damage your body. Foods high in saturated fat and sugar are linked to many chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Some of this is because they cause weight gain. But even if you don’t gain weight, these foods cause problems like inflammation and insulin resistance. "If empty calories had a neutral effect, that would be one thing. But these foods don’t do you any good, and they may also cause harm,” says Basen-Engquist.
Empty calories can cause cravings. If you eat foods with a lot of empty calories, you will likely start to crave more of them. This can cause a downward spiral away from your healthy eating goals. Processed foods have a lot of salt and sugar because the manufacturer wants you to keep buying it, and they want you to eat a lot of it,” says Basen-Engquist. “These foods are not designed to make you healthy; they’re designed to hit on all those things that make our brains light up.
Eat for health
When you look at food labels, it’s important to see what the food you want to eat will do for you. Calories from whole foods and a plant-based diet made up of vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and fruit will provide more nutrients.
“You could get 500 calories from a cookie and a coke or from chicken and vegetables,” says Basen-Engquist. “At least if you eat too much of the chicken and vegetables, you are actually providing your body with some of the things that it needs.
The main benefit of empty calories is pleasure. So, if you choose to spend some calories on a treat, make sure it’s something you’ll really enjoy — and enjoy in moderation.