What Exactly Are “Empty Calories”?
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression:
“You shouldn’t eat that, bro. It’s just empty calories.”
What the f**k are empty calories?
And if they really are empty, does that mean you can eat as many as you want?
That would be cool… but it’s not true.
The Meaning Of “Empty Calories”
Everything we eat contains calories.
And too many of them will make you gain weight. (1)
But when certain foods are called “empty calories”, people are really referring to the sugar content, rather than the calories contained within.
You see, sugary foods are notoriously poor at filling us up.
Think about it… the last time you drank a bottle of Coca-Cola, were you hungry within less than an hour?
My guess is yes.
And here’s why…
Our bottle of Coke contains 210 calories (53g carbohydrates), whereas a bowl of oats and milk contains 180 calories (24g carbohydrates). One of the key differences here is our Coke is made up entirely of 53g fast-release sugary carbohydrates, but our oats provide a combination of 15.7g slow-release carbs and 8.4g sugary carbs.
So despite the two foods having a similar total calorie content, this would see the oats give us a more sustained release of energy, while the Coke would leave us feeling very hungry again in no time.
Hence, “empty calories”, because we’ve just spent 210 calories on something that didn’t even fill us up.
How To Get Away With Eating Empty Calories
Stop eating sugar!
Live on rabbit food!
Only joking. I’m not going to bash sugar.
If you’ve come here expecting me to say sugar is the cause of all weight related issues, you’re gonna leave disappointed.
Even if all of your carbohydrates came from fast-release sugary carbs you would not gain weight providing you stayed within your calorie targets.
The problem is you wouldn’t stay within your calorie targets, because you’d be hungrier than a motherf**ker and snappier than a crocodile with toothache.
But studies clearly show us that, when consumed in moderation, there is nothing wrong with having sugar as part of your diet. The problem is most people overlook the word moderation.
So this is gonna be my advice…
My clients (and I) manage to “get away with” eating so-called empty calories because they work treats into their diet using the 80/20 rule. This means about 80% of your diet is built around healthy, nutritious foods which are packed with fiber and micronutrients, leaving the other 20% for treats.
That sounds more glamorous than it is, and 20% is less than it sounds.
If you’re prioritizing sugary food over eating the right number of calories, getting enough protein, and getting enough fiber, then you’re not building your best body.
Anyway, I hope that clears things up for you.
The next time you hear someone refer to empty calories, think wasted calories instead.
- Howell S., et al. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. (2017)
- Surwit R. S., et al. Metabolic and Behavioral Effects of a High-Sucrose Diet During Weight Loss. Am J Clin Nutr. (1997)