Empty calories are calories your child consumes that have a poor nutritional quality — also known as “Junk Foods”. These foods are high in calories with little to no nutritional benefits. A recent NIH study showed that nearly 40% of the energy consumed by 2- to 18-year-olds comes in the form of empty calories.
Empty calorie foods include:
- Soda and juices that are not 100% fruit juice
- Enriched breads, white rice, crackers, cookies, and other enriched carbohydrate foods
- Processed foods (like Pop Tarts, doughnuts, pre-packaged snack cookies)
- Butter, shortening, and margarine
- Condiments and gravies
- Foods cooked in saturated fat like french fries, fried chicken, and potato chips
- and for older teens & adults alcohol is also an empty calorie beverage
A diet high in empty calories can lead to high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and malnutrition.
Empty Calories — What do you look for?
Limit empty calories in foods by not frying foods, not purchasing processed foods like chips, crackers, Pop Tarts, sugary cereals, white bread and white rice. Substitute these foods with baked, broiled, or boiled foods, purchasing whole grain breads, cereals, and brown rice. Try baked chips instead and cook from scratch at home rather than eating out. Try to limit or eliminate packaged/boxed foods. For most families what we drink is a huge source of empty calories. One of the strategies that can help your child the most is clearing out all beverages in your home except for low fat white milk, soy milk, rice milk and water.
Look at food labels to be sure you’re getting a nutritious food for your child. The “Ingredients List” should not have the word “enriched”. Look for “whole wheat, whole oats, whole wheat flour”. Also, if one of the first three ingredients in a long ingredients list is “sugar, fructose, sucrose, high fructose corn sugar” then it’s probably not the best choice of food for your child.
Beware of empty calories in foods are that marketed as “healthier foods”. For example, if a juice box label has largely printed “100%” — you may be tricked into thinking this is a good choice for your child. You may be lead to believe that it’s 100% fruit juice. However, be sure to read carefully. It may say boldly “100%” and then in smaller letters below “Vitamin C”. This is one way a marketer can trick the buyer into thinking this is a healthy food option. Another example is V8 Splash drinks. V8 juice is typically tomato juice. However, the Splash version of V8 is marketed as a healthy way to get your children to “drink their vegetables”. However, looking at the food label, one of the first three ingredients is “high fructose corn syrup” = SUGAR. So this is not the best choice for your child and it is an empty calorie drink.
The best way to limit empty calories for your child is to cook from scratch as much as possible, limit drinks to milk and water only, and eat raw foods and whole grains as much as possible. By making healthier choices for your child’s nutritional intake, you’ll be making sure your child has this one advantage his body needs to stay healthy and grow to his fullest potential and eliminate empty calories from his diet.
- Filling Up on Empty Calories Causes Childhood Obesity (chicagonow.com)
- Healthy school lunches that make the grade (theglobeandmail.com)
- U.S. Kids Filling Up on ‘Empty Calories,’ Study Finds (nlm.nih.gov)