“Oh you shouldn’t eat that, mate – it’s just empty calories!”

I’m sure you’ve heard this expression before, but what the f**k are empty calories?

And if they’re empty, can you eat as many as you want without gaining weight?

That would be cool… but it’s not true.

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

You see, foods which are comprised of mainly fast-release carbohydrates are very poor at curbing our appetite, and this makes it more difficult for us to stay within our daily calorie target.

You can see a perfect example of this in a bottle of Coca-Cola. The last time you drank one, it probably didn’t fill you up – despite the fact it contains 210 calories and a whopping 53 grams of carbohydrates. Meanwhile, a bowl of oats contains around the same number of calories yet feels 100x more filling. This is because oats contain a combination of fast-release carbs, slow-release carbs, protein and fat.

So despite the two foods having a similar total calorie content, one has a vastly superior macronutrient breakdown.

But hold up for a moment…

I’m not saying you CAN’T have “empty calories” in your diet!

what are empty calories


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

This is nonsense.

Research clearly shows that calories are the deciding factor in weight loss and/or weight gain, not individual macronutrients. (1, 2)

what are empty calories

So don’t panic, you don’t need to give anything up.

But the main problem you’ll face with the regular consumption of sugary carbohydrates is that you’ll find it more difficult to adhere to your calorie goals, which makes it harder to achieve the body you want. So I’ve long advised my clients to use something I call “the 80/20 rule” with regards to their nutrition. This means making sure 80% of their food is based upon healthy, nutrient-packed foods which will help them hit their daily targets (particulary protein), with the remaining 20% coming from what we’d typically class as “treat foods”. This is a technique many readers will recognize if you follow my Shred System diet plan, and it’s an approach which works for the vast majority of people.

Anyway, I hope that clears things up for you.

The next time you hear someone refer to empty calories, think wasted calories instead.

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  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).

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