Understanding Empty Calories and Their Impact on Your Health

Aditi Shenai

June 1, 2022

Keeping track of your calorie intake is one of the most popular fitness trends of the current times. It effectively promotes healthier dietary habits and lets you understand the nutritional values of each food item. However, certain foods contain calories that offer little to no health benefits. These foods are said to have empty calories in them. In simple terms, these foods have calories, but that’s it. And no nutritional value. 

Food items rich in empty calories are typically alcohols, junk foods, fried foods, preserved foods rich in artificial flavours, synthetic colourings, and sugary foods and beverages. Empty calories, however, are a quick source of energy, something equivalent to a sugar rush. Whether consuming empty calories is harmful or not has been a widely debated topic. While some claim that empty calories don’t exist, there are claims that 25% of the calories you’re consuming are empty calories. 

What are Empty Calories? 

The term empty calories refer to those calories that are not nutritionally balanced. An empty calorie supplies energy but provides no nutritional value. Unlike nutrient-dense foods, beverages and foods with empty calories are often made of solid fats and added sugar. Foods and drinks with empty calories lack a balanced meal’s essential elements. Therefore, empty calorie-rich food does not offer any vitamins, minerals, protein, fibre, and fatty acids. The main problem is that if you’re eating too many empty calories, the body stores them as fat, leading to weight gain. If you’re focusing on losing or maintaining weight, it’s better to keep foods that contain empty calories to a minimum.

Foods With Empty Calories

Foods with empty calories are anything with lots of sugar, sweeteners, fats, or oil. Some sneaky sugar-based empty calories include cereals, breakfast bars, sweetened drinks, and pastries. 

Here are the foods that are consumed most commonly with hidden empty calories that you need to avoid. 


Mayonnaise consists of vegetable oil, egg yolks, and vinegar. These ingredients add some empty calories with standard calories and fats. Therefore, you must limit the intake of mayonnaise or mayonnaise-based sauces.

Crackers and Cookies

Crackers are popular snack choices. However, white flour and partially hydrogenated fat in them are empty calories. Therefore, they do nothing to improve the nutritional value of your diet. 


Although potato is not empty calories, it loads up with empty calories once you coat them in partially hydrogenated oil. So chips might have some nutritional value, but they do more harm than good. 

Fast Food

Fast foods are one of the prominent high-fat, empty-calorie culprits. You do not need to completely cut them off but eat fast food less often to reduce your empty calorie intake. Enjoy pizza or burger maybe once a month instead of every day.

Harmful Effects of Consuming Empty Calories

A dietary survey interview based on snacking habits shows that men aged 20 and older consume 923 empty calories per day. For women aged 20 and older, the average intake of empty calories was 624 calories per day. Therefore, men eat two to three times their limit in the added sugars and solid fats category. Not only that but consuming too many empty calories also leads to a higher risk of chronic health problems in the long run. 

Some harmful effects of consuming empty calories are:

Weight Gain

Foods with empty calories are packed with large amounts of unhealthy fats and sugar, providing no added nutritional value. Therefore, your body cannot absorb nutrients from empty calorie-rich foods and drinks. Instead, the body stores all the empty calories in the form of fat, especially in our bellies. As multiple studies show, this leads to rapid weight gain putting individuals at a higher risk of developing health problems related to obesity.

Cardiovascular Diseases

The high amount of fats and omega-6 fatty acids in empty calorie foods cause your cholesterol levels to shoot up significantly. A high cholesterol level leads to many cardiovascular problems such as hypertension, arrhythmia, artery blockages and even frequent strokes and heart attacks in the long run.

A study shows that most people eat empty calories through snacks high in sodium, fat, and sugar. These empty calories in unhealthy pre-packaged snacks led to chronic disease risk, particularly heart disease. 

Type 2 Diabetes

Foods rich in empty calories are often fatty and sugary foods such as sweetened drinks, cakes, ice creams and chocolates. Your body cannot efficiently absorb the excessive sugar these foods contain, leading to type 2 diabetes and other health problems, such as insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia. 

Empty Calorie Guidelines

It would be best if you ate as few empty calories as possible. Instead, focus on getting calories from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, skinless poultry, and fatty fish. The dietary guidelines or recommendations for empty calories depend on your age and gender. 

The following values represent the limit set by USDA for empty calories.

  • Children of 4-8 years: 120 empty calories per day
  • Girls of 14–18 years old: 120–250 empty calories per day
  • Boys of 14–18 years old: 160–330 empty calories per day
  • Adult women: 120–250 empty calories per day
  • Adult men: 160–330 empty calories per day

How to Watch Out for Empty Calories?

There is no doubt that cakes, ice creams and sugary drinks are delicious to consume. Still, given all the harmful effects of consuming foods rich in empty calories, understanding hidden empty calories becomes even more essential. One can do this simply by being aware and by making a few lifestyle and dietary modifications.

Read Nutrition Labels

Many foods and beverage brands try to promote their products through unfair and misleading advertisements in the ever-competitive market space. It hence becomes essential to study the nutritional labels of all packed foods properly. The food labels give you a rough estimate of the nutrients and calories in the food. It also tells you how to determine your portion sizes to control excess calorie intake. Generally higher the protein and fibre and the lower the fat, the better that food is for consumption. Look at the sodium levels because high sodium foods  typically contain more empty calories.

Swap Calorie-rich beverage with Water

Research claims that drinking water before meals is the best way to keep yourself hydrated and a great way to induce the sensation of fullness. Your body tricks you into thinking that you’re hungry when you’re just thirsty. Thus, satiety from drinking water helps get rid of false hunger pangs, which allow you to cut down on unhealthy snacking habits. 

Bottled fruit juice, beer, soda, and energy drinks contain empty calories. Hence, you can substitute them with water. You’re automatically cutting out unnecessary empty calories from your diet by staying hydrated.

Opt for Energy Dense Foods

As a substitute for snacking on empty calories, one should opt for energy-dense foods, which means foods rich in fibres, vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients. For example, you can eat fresh fruits, colourful veggies, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products. 

Home Cooked Meals

When one cooks at home, they know what ingredients to put in and how much is too much. Therefore, cooking helps control the calories you consume and allows you to include energy-dense foods in your meals. Moreover, slow cooking techniques help retain the maximum amount of nutrients and vitamins which get burnt out in the fast-paced cooking methods of commercial kitchens. Restaurants and fast-food chains serve much more than the recommended serving size, with excess and hidden empty calories. 

Stop Overeating 

Snacking from time to time is perfectly fine and even encouraged by many dieticians. But it is essential to check the type of snacks you are eating and the quantity of them. Consuming unhealthy foods and beverages such as packaged chips, soft drinks, cakes, and fast food contain many empty calories. It also contains harmful amounts of fats. Binge eating such unhealthy snacks in huge quantities leads to serious health problems in the long run.

Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Alcoholic drinks contain high amounts of calories. These are the typical examples of empty calories. Since there are no nutritional values in alcohol, all the calories get stored in the form of fats in your body since the liver can’t utilise those calories. Additionally, as studies show, excessive alcohol consumption drastically lowers your metabolic rate, which leads to weight gain and increases the risk of developing chronic heart, liver and pancreatic illnesses.


Any foods and beverages which contain no significant nutritional value but provide a massive amount of calories are empty calorie foods. Junk foods, fried foods, and foods rich in sugar and artificial synthetics typically fall under the category of foods with empty calories. While empty calories provide you with immediate bursts of energy, it provides no nutritional value, making them one of the leading causes of weight gain. 

The foods rich in empty calories are undeniably delicious due to many artificial flavours. Still, the sheer amount of calories they provide without any nutritional value or health benefits makes them dangerous to consume, especially in huge quantities. Hence, you need to check the types of calories you’re eating. You can follow simple measures such as reading nutritional labels while grocery shopping, opting for energy-dense alternatives, and drinking plenty of water alongside the necessary lifestyle modifications.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. Do empty calories cause weight gain?

A. Consuming empty calories are the primary source of weight gain. Since such foods provide no nutritional value but add up to the total calorie intake, they cause considerable amounts of weight gain in both children and adults.

Q. Are empty calories empty?

A. When food provides you mainly with calories and negligible quantities of nutrients, they are said to provide empty calories. Thus, foods such as processed foods, sugary soda, buttery cakes and pastries are said to be empty in a real sense as they provide no health value to us.

Q. Why is alcohol empty calories?

A. Drinking alcohol provides you with no health value at all. Hence alcohol provides empty calories. Additionally, alcohol doesn’t make you feel full and satisfied like a well-rounded meal. Still, it adds almost as many calories as consuming an equivalent amount of pure ghee or butter. 

Q. What do empty calorie foods not have?

A. Empty calorie foods do not have any definitive nutritional benefits. They don’t add any value to our general health and well being and add up to your total calories. Empty calories lack protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Hence, you must avoid consuming empty-calorie foods as much as possible. 

Q. Is bread considered empty calories?

A. Bread, like brown and multigrain bread, is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and fibres. Multigrain bread hence is not empty calories. However, processed and ultra-refined white bread is not as nutritious and therefore, they fall under empty calories.

Q. Is ice cream considered empty calories?

A. Yes, ice cream is one of the best examples of empty calories. Unfortunately, most ice creams have an extremely high-calorie content due to all the sugar and flavourings, giving us a negligible nutritional value. 

Q. Are empty calories better than no calories?

A. Both empty calories and no calories are equally harmful to our bodies. Our bodies cannot sustain their normal functions on either of them. While empty calories provide us with immediate and temporary bursts of energy, the harmful contents get stored up in our bodies, leading to many chronic health problems. On the other hand, consuming no calories leads the body to run out of energy needed to perform bodily functions, leading to starvation and death.

Q. How many calories does your body need to survive?

A. The number of calories an individual needs to survive depends on their age, gender, weight and physical activity level. For example, an older adult won’t need as many calories as a teenager, and similarly, the calorie requirements of an athlete will be different from those having a desk job. On average, the calorie requirements of women range from 1600 to 2200 kcals per day and for men, it goes from 2300-2700 kcals per day.

Q. What alcohol is the most fattening?

A. All alcoholic drinks contain empty calories which can contribute to weight gain. Cocktails and drinks with juice mixers pile on even more calories due to the sugar in the mixers. Drinks like margaritas, pina coladas and all other cocktails have high amounts of sugar so would contribute to even higher calorie intake compared to drinks like whisky or rum.

Q. Does alcohol cause belly fat?

A. Alcohol is known to cause belly fat as when one consumes it, the liver tries to burn off the alcohol instead of the massive amount of calories it provides. Therefore, all the calories convert to fat. Too much alcohol also affects our metabolism and reduces the body’s ability to burn off calories or shed off fat.

Q. Can I drink alcohol and still lose weight?

A. While it is possible to lose weight even after drinking alcohol, it makes the process extremely slow compared to individuals who do not indulge in drinking. Excessive alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to utilise glucose and makes our metabolic rate extremely slow, impairing the weight loss process.

About the Author

M.Sc in: Dietetics and Applied Nutrition from Manipal University. Worked: All over India and have been involved in helping set up nutrition departments in start ups. Interested in lifestyle based nutrition. Mantra: A healthy lifestyle isn't a choice to be made or discarded, it's a way of life!

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