The term “empty calories” refers to the foods and drinks we consume that provide little or no nutritional benefit. Empty calories usually come in the form of added sugar or saturated and trans fats. While proteins, complex carbs, and healthy fats work to fuel our bodies, empty calories are eaten more for enjoyment than for our health.
Nutritionists sometimes use the terms “SoFAS” (which stands for “Solid Fats and Added Sugars”) or “discretionary calories” to refer to empty calories.
- Solid fats: These fats are solid at room temperature. They include shortening, most saturated fats (in meat and dairy products), and trans fats. Trans fats are liquid fats that have been manufactured to be solid at room temperature. They are typically seen in processed foods to increase the shelf life of a product.
- Added sugars: Some sugar occurs naturally in food. Whole fruits contain sugar (fructose), for instance. The term “added sugars” refers to sweeteners that are added to food during the manufacturing process (like in sodas, sweet treats, and even pasta sauces).
The Trouble With Empty Calorie Foods
Many empty-calorie foods also contain high levels of sodium and preservatives. It’s a good idea to find strategies to prevent them from taking over a large percentage of your total food intake. Balancing empty-calorie foods with more nutritious options can help you maintain an overall healthier lifestyle.
Discretionary calories are kind of like “discretionary income.” In the same way that discretionary income is the extra money left over after you pay your bills, discretionary calories are the calories left over after you take in the foundational nutrients that your body requires.
Empty Calorie Guidelines
There is no official list of SoFAS or empty calorie foods, but government health experts identify certain types of foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition. Limiting your intake of these foods can help keep your weight and your health on track by allowing enough space in your eating plan for more nutritious options.
How many empty calories should you consume each day? Ideally, as few as possible. Getting your calories from fresh, wholesome fruits, vegetables, and natural proteins will provide you with more sustained energy and health benefits. However, it is possible to strike a balance between healthy eating and less favorable food choices.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) has set standards for limiting the number of empty calories we consume each day. Limits are based on age and sex.1
- Children (2–8 years old): 120 calories per day
- Children (9–13 years old): 120–250 calories per day
- Girls (14–18 years old): 120–250 calories per day
- Boys (14–18 years old): 160–330 calories per day
- Adult women: 120–250 calories per day
- Adult men: 160–330 calories per day
These recommendations assume that empty calories are extra calories consumed after you’ve reached your recommended intake of other important nutrients and food groups.
Unfortunately, empty calories are easy to overeat, and over time, this can contribute to excess weight gain or even malnutrition (when not balanced out by the nutrients your body requires).
The USDA estimates that 90% of Americans consume too many empty calories. Finding a better balance improves the nutritional quality of your daily food intake.
Empty Calorie Recommendations for Weight Loss
It’s a good idea to be mindful of empty calories when trying to lose weight. There are several ways that empty calories can make weight loss more difficult.
You’re more likely to feel satisfied, eat portions, and maintain your energy throughout the day if you choose foods that are packed with nutrition.
Although not harmful when eaten on occasion, empty-calorie foods simply don’t provide enough nutrition to make up a large part of our daily food intake.
Unfortunately, empty-calorie foods sometimes look healthy based on the way they are packaged and marketed, which makes it confusing to determine what food choices are best.
Before you head to the grocery store or to the cafeteria at work or school, check this list of common empty-calorie foods. Try to limit your intake of these foods and choose healthier foods for weight loss more often.1
Breakfast cereal and flavored oatmeal may seem like health foods. Too often, these products are filled with added sugars. Cereals that are marketed for kids tend to be especially high in sugar. But even some of the adult brands are worth a second look.
Check the ingredients list for added sugar so that you’ll know what you’re getting before you buy. Try to choose brands that are high in fiber and low in sugar to help you feel full and satisfied throughout the morning.
Soda or Diet Soda
Sweetened sodas are very high in calories and provide no nutritional benefits. Although diet sodas have fewer calories, they still provide no nutritional benefits.
Work on drinking more water instead. If you need flavor, add fruit or herbs to make it taste better. Drinking soda is a tough habit to break, but even just reducing your intake can provide significant health benefits.
Fried potato chips and corn chips are a common source of empty calories. Many of these foods are fried in unhealthy oils. Even lower-calorie baked chips provide minimal nutritional benefits. Consider crispy vegetables, popcorn, roasted chickpeas, or whole-grain crackers as healthier ways to quell your salty and crunchy cravings.4
Pretzels may be lower in calories than fried snacks, but don’t let that fool you into thinking of them as a healthy snack food. They offer very little in terms of nutrition and are often high in sodium. Because they don’t fill you up, they’re easy to overeat, regardless of whether or not you are truly hungry.
Fluffy muffins and baked breakfast goods are full of sugar, refined (white) flour, and trans fats. If you would like to have them occasionally as a treat, choose a small size or consider sharing with a friend. Aim to get some protein in the morning with a hard-boiled egg or a healthy smoothie on the go.
Fancy coffee and espresso drinks may offer a quick burst of energy, but they are also a common source of empty calories. In addition to the saturated fat in whole milk or cream, many of these drinks contain sugar-sweetened syrups and artificial flavors or candy toppings.
Instead, make your own healthier coffee drinks at home. Save money and improve your health by drinking hot lemon water. A cup of tea or coffee from home can provide a quick pick-me-up without the extra sugar.
Cookies, cakes, pies, and other after-dinner delights are generally full of empty calories. In fact, grain-based desserts are one of the most common empty calorie foods that have been identified by the USDA.1 While most of us realize that desserts have added sugar, sometimes these products are labeled to make you believe they are healthier than they are.
For example, organic non-GMO, gluten-free cookies are still cookies. Remember that these types of foods should be seen as a special treat, rather than a daily habit.
A bowl of hard candies or chocolate minis on your desk may seem harmless. But, candy is one of the most commonly consumed empty calorie foods. Mini candy treats are easy to overeat and don’t provide any health benefits.
Instead of leaving these items in plain sight, put them away to be eaten more intentionally.9
Sweetened Tea Drinks
Bottled tea drinks and sports drinks are often no better for you than high-calorie soft drinks. Even if the label looks healthy and natural, many of these beverages contain added sugars and other sweeteners and preservatives.
Check the ingredients list and nutrition facts label before you buy them. Brewing your own herbal teas at home can help you have more control over the amount of added sugar they contain.10
Fruit-flavored drinks (like fruit punch) are typically high in sugar and low nutritional value. For the real deal, look for 100% juice on the food label. Diluting juice with water or limiting your intake to a smaller glass will help you cut back on this concentrated source of sugar. Choose whole fruit over juice to get the full benefits of natural fiber.11
French fries add up quickly, with a single serving of fries providing nearly 400 calories and very little nutrition.
For this reason, the USDA recommends that you make your own oven-baked fries instead. Potatoes are a vegetable and keeping the skin on retains key nutritional benefits. By baking them in the oven, you can cut back on the extra oil used for frying.12
If your applesauce is homemade with real apples, it can definitely be a nutritious choice. But many commercially prepared cups and jars of applesauce have lots of added sugar, taking away from the otherwise healthy attributes of this natural food.
Choose fresh fruit whenever possible, which ensures that you get enough fiber to slow down your body’s absorption of the naturally-occurring sugars. If you love applesauce, make your own without added sugar. Cinnamon is a great addition that provides flavor without sugar.13
High Fat Milk and Dairy Products
Nutritionists often include whole milk and whole milk dairy products like cheese, butter, and ice cream on their lists of empty-calorie foods. These foods do provide some nutritional benefits, but they also contain a lot of saturated fat. Some, like ice cream, contain added sugar as well.14
Pizza is almost always listed among the top empty-calorie foods because of refined flour and unhealthy toppings. Many pizza brands even add sugar to the tomato sauce or extra sodium and preservatives to the pizza dough.
If you’re a die-hard pizza fan, try to find whole-wheat pizza dough at your local grocer. Top it with lots of veggies to make your own whole-grain veggie pizza at home.
Margarine may sound healthier than butter, but in many cases, it’s not. Several margarine brands contain trans fat. Using a small amount of butter is often a better choice than choosing a processed imitation product.
If you prefer margarine, choose a brand that contains no hydrogenated oils on the ingredients list (trans fat). Avocado is a nutritious alternative that’s a good source of monounsaturated fat.
Despite its association with fruit, commercial jelly brands often contain added sweeteners, like high fructose corn syrup. Look for reduced sugar versions or choose a whole fruit spread. For optimal nutrition, it’s always a good bet to just eat the whole fruit.
Sausage and Processed Meats
Many dietitians consider sausage (and other highly processed meats) as an empty-calorie food to avoid. Even chicken or turkey sausage can contain high amounts of saturated fat when made with the skin and other high-fat parts of the animal. These products are also always notoriously high in sodium.
Make your own healthy sausage at home, or check nutrition labels carefully when buying sausage products at the store. Feel free to have sausage in moderation, but choose less-processed meats more often.
Breakfast or Snack Bars
Breakfast bars or snack bars are often not as healthy as they’re made out to be. Many provide no more nutritional value than a standard candy bar. They often contain added sugar, refined grains, and unhealthy fats.
Choose a healthier snack bar with fiber and protein to fill you up, and look for brands with less sugar. Shorter and more simple ingredients lists usually indicate that they are less processed.
Many people believe that frozen yogurt, or “fro-yo,” is a healthier alternative to full-fat ice cream. However, this empty-calorie food typically contains quite a bit of added sugar and very little nutritional value. Both ice cream and frozen yogurt are empty calorie foods that are meant to be enjoyed sparingly.
If you choose to indulge, be mindful of your portion size. A single serving is just 1/2 cup. Sometimes the first few bites can satisfy a sweet craving just as well as a larger size.