The American diet has been changing over the decades, and by all measures it hasn’t been for the better. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans are eating over 20% more calories today than they were in 1970. A significant portion of that increase has come from what are sometimes described as empty calories—in other words, calories that add to our daily calorie intake without providing significant nutritional value. The unfortunate truth is that these empty calories are directly related to the relatively recent rise in obesity and obesity-related conditions.
What Are Calories?
Calories are units used to measure the energy value of foods, and they are a helpful tool for determining how much food the body needs to function. Various compounds in the food we eat have different calorie values because they provide different types and amounts of energy. This can be seen in the three main macronutrients in food that provide energy: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. One gram of carbohydrate is four calories of energy, one gram of protein is four calories, and one gram of fat has nine calories.
This distinction between these three macronutrients is important because it is relevant to our eating patterns and how we maintain a healthy body weight. For each individual, the body’s normal functions and any daily physical activity requires a certain amount of energy; this amount is determined by a variety of factors like height, sex, body size. If, over time, we eat more calories than our required energy needs, that will lead to weight gain in the form of fat deposits. If we eat fewer calories, that will lead to weight loss.
What Are Empty Calories?
Of course, the food we eat contains much more than simply calories, and our bodies need more than energy to function. Food also has essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals that the body needs for making new cells, repairing tissues, supporting the immune system, maintaining a healthy digestive system, and a long list of other functions. Ideally, humans should eat foods that have just enough calories to meet the body’s energy needs while also providing a diverse range of vitamins and minerals that offer health benefits.
Unfortunately, though, the contemporary American diet has shifted away from nutrient-dense foods over the past few decades. As the USDA report notes, Americans are eating more calories than ever before, but the extra calories are coming from foods with empty calories—that is, foods with relatively high calorie counts and little to no nutrients. The sources of empty calories in food generally come in three main categories:
Solid fats: So named because they are solid at room temperature, solid fats include saturated fats from meat and dairy products, shortening, butter, and oils. Some are found naturally in food, but they can also be added to processed foods.
Added sugars: As the name implies, added sugars are added to processed foods to improve flavor. A common culprit is high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener made from corn starch.
Alcohol: The alcohol found in beer, wine, and spirits actually has calories the body prioritizes before other energy sources, and it has no nutritional value at all.
Examples of Empty Calories
In most cultures and types of cuisine around the world, however, the most sought-after and exciting foods contain copious amounts of solid fats, added sugars, or both. The good news is that foods with empty calories can be eaten in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet. The problem comes when a diet contains too high a proportion of these foods. That can lead to additional body weight, insulin resistance, heart disease, and a number of other negative health outcomes.
The fact that empty calories are so much easier to come by these days is why it’s important to be able to identify and avoid and limit them. The USDA recommends limiting total calorie intake to a range of 100-300 per day, depending on age and sex. Below is a list of some common foods that should only be eaten in moderation:
Foods with added sugars:
carbonated soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and other sweetened beverages
cookies, pastries, cakes, pies, donuts, and other sugary baked goods
sugar and sugar toppings like syrup, honey, or molasses
any kind of candy
ice cream or frozen yogurt
breakfast cereals, granola bars, etc.
Foods with solid fats:
fast food in general
fried items like french fries, onion rings, and chicken strips
potato chips, microwave popcorn, and crackers
packaged frozen snacks like hot pockets, pizza rolls, and egg rolls
bacon, hot dogs, and processed meats
whole milk and high-fat cheese
Foods to Emphasize
Even though healthy eating involves moderating empty calorie foods, that doesn’t mean that the foods that form the majority of your diet have to be boring and sad. In some cases there are even versions of the foods listed above that are lower in sugar or fat (though make sure to always read the nutritional food labels). But there are also countless ways to prepare healthy foods in ways that are delicious and inviting. Below are some categories of food that everyone should emphasize in their daily diet that are both healthy and versatile:
lean proteins like fish, poultry, and eggs
legumes like beans and lentils
dairy like low fat cheese, milk, and yogurt (without added sugar)
The Bottom Line
The data is clear that the average American diet has changed over the past few decades, and it includes a far greater amount of empty calories than ever before. When eaten in moderation, these foods can be part of a healthy lifestyle and will allow you to maintain a healthy weight. If you’re not sure how to make changes to your diet, the USDA has developed a website called MyPlate (www.myplate.gov); this allows you to visualize a healthier balance to your diet based on the latest dietary guidelines.
How to Lose Weight
Most Americans would probably be surprised to find out how many empty calories are in their diet since many of the foods that contain them may seem healthy on the surface (like breakfast cereals). Some of these foods do have a small amount of nutritional value, but it is essentially negated by the sugars and fat. And while a diet high in empty calories is often associated with being overweight or obese, the truth is that making minor dietary changes doesn’t tend to make much of a difference in the long run.
If you’ve tried to lose weight by going on a diet yet weren’t able to lose weight, you’re not alone. There are many factors that play into why people gain weight, and the way to achieve weight loss usually takes more than simply cutting back on soda. At True You Weight Loss, we are passionate about helping people find a new path to weight loss that is based on proven techniques and can lead to lasting success. If you’d like to learn more about how to lose weight and keep it off, please contact us today to request a consultation.