Many modern foods and drinks contain “empty calories”. People may use this term to describe calories that come from foods with little to no nutritional value.

Learning about how to recognize empty calories can help a person make more healthful food choices.

This article looks at what empty calories are, which foods and drinks contain them, and how to eat for better nutritional value.

a woman eating a donut that is full of empty caloriesShare on Pinterest
Carbohydrate-based desserts are a rich source of empty calories.

Foods and drinks that contain no significant nutrients but are high in calories are said to have “empty calories.” These are mainly foods and drinks that have a high sugar, fat, or alcohol content, but little or no other nutritional value.

Empty calories are those that come from added sugars and solid fats, as well as some processed oils. These include:

  • carbohydrate-based desserts, such as cakes, cookies, biscuits, donuts, muffins, granola bars, and more
  • sugary drinks, including soda, energy drinks, and fruit juice
  • candy bars, chocolate bars, and hard candies
  • some meats, including bacon, sausages, and hotdogs
  • some full fat products, such as butter, shortening, and ice-cream
  • processed oils, such as soybean and canola oil
  • condiments, such as ketchup and barbecue sauce
  • fast food, including burgers, wraps, pizza, and more
  • alcohol

Research from 2012 found that male adults ate an average of 923 empty calories per day. For females, the average intake of empty calories was 624 calories per day.

The added fats and sugars make these empty calories taste good, which can cause people to crave them.

There are 4 calories per gram in sugar, 9 calories per gram in fats, and 7 calories per gram in pure alcohol.

Consuming a lot of foods and drinks with empty calories can lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. For example, a person eating lots of empty calories may not get enough:

  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • protein
  • essential fatty acids
  • fiber

An older study, from 2010, found that around 40% of the total calories that children aged 2–18 in the United States consume are empty calories.

Half of those empty calories come from just six different product types:

  • soda
  • fruit juice
  • dairy desserts, such as ice-cream
  • grain desserts, such as muffins and cookies
  • pizza
  • whole milk

Parents and caregivers do not need to rule out whole milk, however, as it can be a good source of calcium and protein. Studies have found that whole milk does not increase the risk of obesity in children.

The recent implementation of updated nutrition standards for school meals has significantly improved the quality of meals and their consistency with the Dietary Guidelines For Americans, according to a 2020 review.

People can adopt a more healthful diet by ensuring that the majority of their foods are unprocessed whole foods, and by looking out for empty calories.

In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that snacks provide almost one-third of a person’s daily empty calorie intake (32% for women and 31% for men).

A person could reduce their empty calorie intake by reducing snacks and eating meals that contain enough protein, whole grain carbohydrates, and fiber.

Also, combining proteins with carbohydrates when snacking can help a person feel fuller for longer.

Although fruits contain vitamins and minerals and are therefore not empty calories, people should be aware of how much sugar they are consuming in juice.

For example, a 12 ounce (0.35 liter) serving of orange juice contains 7.5 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories. Eating fresh fruit instead means that a person is also consuming fiber.

Sweet foods such as cakes and sodas are sometimes made up entirely of empty calories from sugar and solid fats. However, empty calories can also be present in other foods that contain important nutrients.

People can substitute more healthful foods in place of empty calories. The table below contains some suggestions:

Foods with empty caloriesGood substitutes
Sweetened applesauceUnsweetened applesauce
Regular ground beef (75% lean), which contains solid fats Extra lean ground beef (95% or more lean)
Sugar sweetened cereals Plain oatmeal
Processed oils Extra virgin olive oil
Fried chickenBaked chicken breast without skin
Soda, fruit juice, and sports drinksWater, black coffee, and herbal teas
Candy, cakes, and cookiesFresh fruits

Empty calories can quickly add up and take a person over their daily calorie recommendations. Consuming a lot of solid fat and added sugars in the diet can lead to weight gain and certain health outcomes.

People can become more aware of empty calories by checking food labels for sugar and fat content, as well as making more healthful choices when possible. Reducing snacking and avoiding sweetened drinks may also be helpful.

Children are particularly at risk of consuming a lot of empty calories at home, school, and out and about. In fact, many food and beverage companies specifically market high calorie products at children.

Focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole foods while eliminating packaged foods can help a person reduce their consumption of empty calories.