Imagine you’re a nutrition expert with an advanced degree and years of research experience. You understand the chemical processes within our bodies and the connection between nutrition and population health. Your job is to communicate what you know with millions of people who don’t understand these things at all.
It’s a huge challenge to turn complex and imperfect nutrition science into simple guidelines. Sometimes it works. For example, thousands of studies linking fruit and vegetable consumption to lowered risk of various diseases have been synthesized into a widely accepted recommendation to eat five servings of them a day. But in other cases, the details get oversimplified in ways that are misleading and ineffective. Case in point: the recommendation to limit empty calories.
While some calories do pack less of a nutritional punch than others, the idea of an empty or useless calorie is an unproductive way to think about food. In fact, some experts believe it might actually do more harm than good. If you’re worried about the so-called empty calories in your diet, or you’re confused about what they actually do, here’s what you need to know.
All Calories Are Nutritious
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched MyPlate, a user-focused online nutrition guide based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. One MyPlate entry described empty calories as calories from solid fats (a.k.a. saturated fats) and added sugars, and advised people to keep these empty calories to a minimum. It gave an oddly specific list of “foods and beverages that provide the most empty calories,” including cakes, cookies, pastries, doughnuts, sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, cheese, pizza, ice cream, sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs. The reasoning? These foods contain high amounts of saturated fat and sugar, which “add calories to the food but few or no nutrients,” MyPlate explained. The entry has since been removed, perhaps because many nutrition experts questioned its logic, but the empty-calorie concept is still widely used in nutrition education.
The main problem with the term empty calories is that it’s an oxymoron. No calorie is devoid of nutrients, because calories are nutrients. Specifically, all foods are made up of some combination of the three macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fat. Amy Porto, a dietitian and nutrition professor at Messiah University, clarifies that although foods high in so-called empty calories contain few or no micronutrients—the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function properly—they’re still made up of some combination of protein, carbs, and fat. It’s important to make that distinction, because even foods without vitamins and minerals “are providing the body with energy it needs to function,” Porto says. In some cases, these calories are actually the best energy choice.
Carbs Are Fuel
All three macronutrients contain calories, which means all three also provide energy. But as anyone who’s ever trained for a race or participated in sports likely already knows, carbs (which break down to glucose) are the body’s preferred and most efficient source of energy. This is why marathon runners use glucose gels midrun, and why professional athletes drink Gatorade during games.
MyPlate lists sports drinks and added sugar as empty calories because they lack other important nutrients, but that’s exactly what makes them such great fuel. Margaret Ruch, a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition and disordered eating, previously explained to Outside that the lack of other nutrients in these sugary substances means they’re absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream and thus better equipped to provide quick energy. Your digestive system breaks them down with little effort, unlike high-fiber carbohydrates that your gut must work harder to process. Calling them empty calories isn’t accurate; if you’re in need of a pre- or mid-workout boost, they’re incredibly valuable.
All Food Serves a Purpose
The idea of empty calories also perpetuates the misconception that protein and fat from less nutritious foods serve no purpose. That’s just not true—sausages and ribs provide significant amounts of protein, which is essential for building and repairing muscle and other healthy tissues. The protein in these foods isn’t any less equipped to do that than the protein from a skinless chicken breast or whey protein powder. (And it actually does it more efficiently than many plant-based protein sources, which don’t contain all nine essential amino acids.) Likewise, fat from cheese and ice cream plays a role in hormone production and cell growth, and it helps protect your organs (even though it’s mostly saturated). Just because these foods deliver fewer nutrients than more nutritious options doesn’t mean they do nothing for you at all.
The idea of an empty calorie isn’t totally bogus. Consuming only soda, doughnuts, and hot dogs could lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies and would greatly increase your risk of poor health. The evidence clearly shows that a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and lean proteins—can improve your health.
What Porto and many other nutrition experts take issue with is how reductive thinking around empty calories is. It’s a blanket term for a wide range of very different foods, which makes it confusing. For example, a soda gets all of its calories from added sugar, so it gives you quick energy but nothing else. But a pizza, which is also designated as a source of empty calories, delivers a combination of carbs, fat, and protein, plus several important vitamins and minerals (albeit in low amounts). Soda and pizza act very differently in your body, so grouping them together doesn’t make sense.
Porto points out another flaw in the way empty calories are presented: sugar-only processed foods, like soda and candy, are demonized as empty calories, but sugar-only natural foods, like honey and maple syrup, aren’t called out in the same way. She attributes this to the omnipresent belief that natural foods are inherently “good” and processed ones are inherently “bad,” which isn’t true. Whole foods are typically more nutrient dense than processed ones, but that’s not always the case. Honey lacks micronutrients and breaks down in your body just like soda does, natural or not.
Vague Advice Is Bad Advice
If your goal is to eat a more nutritious diet, the recommendation to avoid so-called empty calories isn’t very helpful. A better recommendation would be to eat more nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean protein sources, and healthy fats, and eat less added sugar and saturated fat. The best way to go about it, though, is to understand that different foods affect our bodies in different ways. High-sugar foods might lack vitamins and minerals, but they’re great for quick energy. Saturated fat can be harmful if you eat too much (the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your total caloric intake, or about 22 grams per day for someone who eats around 2,000 calories), but it isn’t something you need to avoid completely. Processed meats are typically high in saturated fat, but they still provide protein that’s essential to muscle maintenance and repair.
Simply put, the idea of empty calories is too simplistic to be meaningful. Experts came up with the term as a way to encourage people to eat more healthfully. But in reality, all it does is designate certain foods as “bad” without explaining why or exploring the nuances of how various foods impact our bodies.