Last updated:

25 July 2023

It’s a phrase you’ve heard before, but what does it mean? EMPTY CALORIES explained!

what is empty calories

Reading time:

3 min read

“Don’t eat that, bro – it’s just empty calories!”

I’m sure you’ve heard this expression before, but what the f**k does it mean?

Oh, and if these calories really are empty does that mean you can eat as much as you want without gaining weight?

That would be super cool…

but it’s not true.

When people refer to certain foods containing empty calories they are usually referring to high sugar content.

These foods do a really poor job of curbing appetite, making it easy to over-eat.

A bottle of Coca-Cola is an easy example. Despite the fact that it contains 210 calories and 53 grams of carbs, it’ll not fill you up. A bowl of oats, meanwhile, contains about the same number of calories yet feels 100x more filling. This is because oats have a better macronutrient breakdown (protein, fat, slow-release carbs and fast-release carbs), whereas the fizzy drink was just sugar in a bottle.

Of course, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy so-called empty calorie foods (I have them myself!), just don’t be a d**k.

what are empty calories

How To Enjoy “Empty Calorie” Foods Without Losing Your Gym Results

Some people will tell you that sugary carbohydrates are the root cause of all evil, and that you must give up your favorite treats if you want to build a leaner, more toned body.

This is nonsense!

The ultimate factor which decides whether you gain weight or lose weight is calories, not individual macronutrients. In fact you can expect the same level of fat loss with a diet that’s high in carbs, moderate in carbs, or low in carbs (providing total calories and protein are controlled). (1, 2)

The best diet really is the one you can stick to.

what are empty calories

Instead, the biggest issue with these so-called empty calorie foods is that they won’t fill you up, which makes it harder to stay within your calorie target.

(2000 calories of foods which keep you full feels totally different from 2000 calories of foods which never satisfy your hunger!)

I’m a big fan of flexible dieting, though, so I believe there’s nothing wrong with grabbing these foods from time to time.

In order to maximize results, I tell my clients to follow “the 80/2 rule”. This means they make sure the bulk of their food choices are healthy, nutrient dense options which will help them to hit their daily targets (especially protein), and as long as they do that then there’s no harm in enjoying a treat which serves no real purpose other than to bump your calories up and taste nice.

I’ve found that doing it this way (rather than banning the outright) is great for diet sustainability, because we enjoy these foods even though we know they aren’t productive, and we really don’t need to beat ourselves up for it!

This is a technique many readers will recognize from my Shred System diet plan, and it’s an approach which works for the vast majority of people.


  1. Howell S., et al. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab (2017).
  2. Surwit R. S., et al. Metabolic and Behavioral Effects of a High-Sucrose Diet During Weight Loss. Am J Clin Nutr (1997).

Who Is Russ Howe PTI?


Russ has been a personal trainer in the UK since 2002, and provided both training advice and full programs on this website since 2011.

His work has been featured in Men’s Fitness magazine, and the content on this website led to him being voted one of the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost.

Russ’ days are spent coaching men and women in the legendary Powerhouse Gym, and creating new content for the 109,246 followers of his popular free weekly e-mail, which you can join below!

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