Beware These Empty Calories!
10 foods that can pile on the pounds
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
Soda, candy, chips? What do they all have in common? They are all top sources of what many dietitians refer to as "empty calories."
The American Heritage College dictionary defines "empty" as "holding or containing nothing." And for all the calories these foods add to your diet, they bring along almost nothing else for your body -- very little vitamins or minerals, very little fiber or phytochemicals.
There are basically two empty-calorie culprits in our diets:
- Anything with lots of sugar or other sweeteners
- Anything with lots of fat and oil
Culprit #1: Anything with Lots of Sugar or Other Sweeteners
There's no way to sugarcoat the truth -- Americans are eating more sugar than ever before. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined that, on average, Americans consume 111 more calories per day from caloric sweeteners in 2010 than they did in 1977. And those extra 111 calories a day turn into a whopping 3,330 calories per month.
To what items do we point the finger as the primary cause of these extra calories? Shockingly, it's not even food we eat -- these added calories come mainly from soft drinks and fruit drinks.
The latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals lists the top five food categories that contribute added sugar to women's diets as:
|Food||Average number of teaspoons of sugar (or equivalent) per serving|
|1. Soda and sweetened beverages (mostly carbonated soft drinks, but also includes fruit "drinks" and "ades" and bottled iced teas).||9 teaspoons per 12-ounce serving of soda; 12 teaspoons per 12-ounce serving of fruit drink or ade.|
|2. Cakes, cookies, pastries, and pies.||6 teaspoons in 1/16 of a pie or frosted cake.|
|3. Sugar or sugar substitute blends such as syrups, honey, molasses, and sweet toppings.||3 teaspoons per tablespoon of syrup or honey.|
|4. Candy.||3 teaspoons per 1-ounce chocolate bar.|
|5. Frozen milk desserts (includes ice cream and frozen yogurt).||3 teaspoons per 1/2 cup.|
So, besides staying away from soda, be sure to watch for sneaky sugar calories from these items:
- Other sweetened drinks. Lemonades, sports drinks, and fruit drinks.
- Fancy coffee and tea drinks (hot or cold). These can be loaded with sugar calories. A 9.5-ounce bottled coffee drink contains around 190 calories and almost 8 teaspoons of sugar.
- Snack cakes, pastries, and breakfast/cereal bars. Toaster pastries, granola bars, and breakfast bars fall into this category. One little toaster pastry has around 200 calories and almost 5 teaspoons of sugar. A 4-ounce supermarket blueberry muffin can contain about 420 calories and more than 8 teaspoons of sugar.
- Sweetened hot and cold cereals. Check out the labels before you buy your breakfast cereals, because they list the grams of added sugar per serving. A packet of flavored instant oatmeal contains around 150 calories and around 4 teaspoons of sugar! Sugar is usually the second ingredient listed in the ingredient list.
- Condiments. Pancake syrup and even catsup can add on the sugar calories if you are heavy handed. A 1/4-cup serving of pancake syrup has about 210 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar, and 1/4-cup of catsup contains around 60 calories and 4 teaspoons of sugar!
Culprit #2: Anything with Lots of Fat and Oil
Although some fats and oils contain vitamins and important fatty acids such as omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, foods loaded with fats and oils are often empty-calorie culprits. This is particularly true when the food is full of trans fats and saturated fats; deep-fried French fries, potato chips, popcorn chicken that has more fried crumb topping than chicken, and high-fat crackers made with white flour are all examples.
"A new survey...found a link between fast-food consumption by kids in the U.S. and increased calories
and poor nutrition."
Since we're talking about empty calories, it's important to note that gram for gram, fat has more than two times the calories of carbs or protein. In other words, a gram of fat has around 9 calories, while a gram of protein or carbohydrate has 4 calories. When foods have lots of added fats and oils, the calories can go through the roof pretty quickly.
One of our biggest fat traps is fast food. That's mainly because so many fast food items, such as French fries, onion rings, taco shells, chicken strips and fish filets; dressed in high-fat sauces such as mayonnaise; are either deep fried or garnished with fatty meats such as bacon or sausage.
A new survey from the Agricultural Research Service and Harvard University found a link between fast-food consumption by kids in the U.S. and increased calories and poor nutrition. Children who ate fast food on the two days surveyed took in more total calories, more calories per gram of food, and more total saturated fat than children who didn't eat fast food. The fast-food-eaters also took in more added sugars and sugar-sweetened beverages, and less milk, fiber, and fruit. Even children who ate fast food on just one out of the two days surveyed showed similar dietary problems on the day they ate fast food.
So here are my nominees for the top five high-fat, empty-calorie culprits:
Fast food. Swearing off fast food isn't the only answer. We can make better choices at fast food chains, such as ordering charbroiled chicken sandwiches (hold the mayonnaise), bean burritos, and pizza with extra tomato sauce and vegetable toppings. And we can eat fast food less often --- maybe once a week instead of every day.
Mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is basically made up of three ingredients: vegetable oil, egg yolks, and vinegar (it's not the vinegar that I'm worried about). Mayonnaise makes this list because it is loaded with calories and fat grams. Many people slather around 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise or mayonnaise-based sauces on their sandwich. This adds up to 198 calories and 22 grams of fat. See what I mean?
Chips and microwave popcorn. Although the potato and corn kernels that go into making these popular snack items have some nutritional value, once you coat them in partially hydrogenated oil, they top the charts in calories and fat grams. A 2-ounce bag of potato chips contains around 303 calories and 20 grams of fat. A bag of microwave popping corn (not the light kind) totals 435 calories and 25 grams of fat.
Crackers. Crackers may seem like they would be good snack choices. But if you look on the ingredient labels, they're usually just white flour with partially hydrogenated fat -- neither of which does much for the nutritional value of your diet. Calories and fat can add up quickly here, too. A 2-ounce serving of Ritz Bits, for example, totals 302 calories and 17 grams of fat, while the same size serving of cheese crackers comes to around 285 calories and 14 grams of fat.
Packaged frozen snacks. Walk down the frozen-food aisle and you'll find scores of packaged savory snacks just waiting to be popped into the microwave: hot pockets, pizza rolls, egg rolls, etc. Trouble is, these are full of partially hydrogenated fats and oils. Just one pepperoni pizza pocket totals around 510 calories and 26 grams of fat.
The Final Word
So what's the final word on these empty-calorie foods Americans to love so much?
When it comes to empty-calorie foods, it's all about moderation. A little is fine; a lot can get you into calorie overload. You can have your cake and eat it, too -- as long as the piece of cake is petite, and choosing empty-calorie foods instead of nutrient-rich ones is the exception, rather than the rule.
Originally published Jan. 9, 2004
Medically updated May 3, 2018.
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Medically reviewed by Judi Goldstone, MD; Board Certification in Internal Medicine/Bariatric Medicine May 3, 2018
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