Empty calories are calories which provide very little nutritional value. Over 23 million children in the United States, including adolescents, are either overweight or obese. Researchers report in an article published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that over half of all calories consumed by American kids are empty calories. The main reason is the excess consumption of high-calorie drinks and junk food.

Jill Reedy, PhD, MPH, RD, and Susan M. Krebs-Smith, PhD, MPH, RD, of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD., said:

The epidemic of obesity among children and adolescents is now widely regarded as one of the most important public health problems in the US. Most experts agree that the solution will involve changes in both diet and physical activity, in order to affect energy balance. For diet, this means a reduction in energy from current consumption levels.. This paper identifies the major sources of overall energy and empty calories, providing context for dietary guidance that could specifically focus on limiting calories from these sources and for changes in the food environment. Product reformulation alone is not sufficient – “the flow of empty calories into the food supply must be reduced.

The authors reveal that the main sources of energy for American children – aged 2 to 18 years – consist of:

  • grain desserts
  • pizzas
  • sodas – sugar-sweetened drinks, including sodas and fruit drinks account for 10% of total calorie consumption

Out of every ten calories consumed by American kids, 4 of them come from solid fat and added sugars – in other words, empty calories, devoid of nutrients. Half of all the empty calories come from fruit drinks without much fruit in them but lots of sugar, grain desserts, whole milk, pizza, and soda.

In this study, investigators looked at information contained in NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), which is considered a nationally representative survey with a complex multistage, stratified probability sample.

The researchers found that African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans mainly drank soda and juice, while those with Latin American ancestry, especially Mexican-Americans consumed a significantly higher amount of whole milk.

Rae-Ellen W. Kavey, MD, MPH, University of Rochester Medical Center, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Cardiology, Rochester, NY, in an accompanying commentary, wrote:

High added sugar consumption which occurs most commonly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with a constellation of cardiovascular risk factors, both independently, and through the development of obesity. Multiple studies have shown that presence of these risk factors in childhood is associated with accelerated atherosclerosis and early cardiovascular disease. Randomized trials of nutritionist-guided interventions show us that diet change can be accomplished and is associated with important cardiovascular benefits. This combined body of evidence suggests that reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages should be considered a critical dietary approach to reducing cardiovascular risk in childhood.

Another article in the same journal reports on a link between buying snacks, sodas or sweetened drinks with the availability of vending machines in schools. The study also revealed that if healthy alternatives are available in vending machines, children are less likely to go for them if the less healthy ones are still there for them to purchase.

This is a dietary terminology. The term empty calories refers to very high energy foods/drinks with poor nutritional profiles. Empty calorie foods are usually made from processed (refined) carbohydrates or fats. An empty calorie has the same number of calories – energy content – as any other calorie, but does not have the accompanying nutrients, such as dietary minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, fiber or vitamins.

People who wish to control their body weight need to limit the number of empty calories they consume, especially if they lead a sedentary lifestyle. If you are trying to lose weight you need to consume essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals to avoid malnutrition – so you should avoid empty calorie foods (junk foods).

The opposite of empty calories foods are nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

The following foods tend to have a high proportion of empty calories:

  • Butter
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Candy
  • Dripping
  • Fruit-flavored drinks with not much juice in them
  • Hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, donuts, French fries, and other high fat foods.
  • Ice cream
  • Lard
  • Margarine or shortening
  • Soft drinks
  • Sweets

“Dietary Sources of Energy, Solid Fats, and Added Sugars among Children and Adolescents in the United States”
Jill Reedy, PhD, MPH, RDCorresponding Author Informationemail address, Susan M. Krebs-Smith, PhD, MPH, RD
Journal of the American Dietetic Association Vol 110, Issue 10, Pages 1477-1484 (October 2010)

Written by: Christian Nordqvist