How Empty Calories Cause Weight Gain

Most of our goals are set as per certain standards made by the general public.

We count success in terms of the number of zeros following our bank balance or the number of degrees following our name.

Similarly, our perception of being healthy and looking attractive is losing or gaining weight.

What we miss out is that being healthy requires a healthy mind and a healthy body.

Just as for a healthy mind you need positive thoughts and need to work out mental muscles similarly for a healthy body you healthy nutritive food and exercise.

But we choose taste over nutrition.

So that brings us to nutrient dense food and non-nutritive foods.

What lowers the nutritional content of non-nutritive foods is a group of food items that are nothing but empty calories.

What are Empty Calories?

Empty calories apply to certain foods that provide energy but little or no nutrition.

They lack vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibers and all they do is provide energy which in case of no or little exercise is deposited as fat.

The concept of empty calories originates from:

  • Nutrient density: Proportion of nutrients with respect to the energy content of food
  • Calorie density: Amount of energy relative to the weight of the food

We should opt for nutrient dense foods-foods that provide a large amount of nutrients in comparison to the calories and small portions of such food are enough to get your required nutrients.

But we tend to go for empty calories because they simply add flavour and raise the palatability of the food.

Foods that contain empty calories are stripped of nutrients and contain added sugar, salt, and fat.

Highly processed foods are generally overeaten because of their high palatability and lack of promoting satiety.

A meal of fried foods, candy, and sweetened soda may fill you up temporarily but it is likely to make you feel hungry again leading to a vicious cycle.

Empty calorie beverages quickly add up to your daily calorie intake. Sugar-sweetened juices and sodas are the main culprits behind obesity.

Average soft drink is around 20 ounces and it contains 250 calories that translate to 15 teaspoons of sugar.

Average consumption is three to five such 20-ounce drinks which definitely tips the calorie scales to the wrong end.

When it comes to empty calories you have to exercise caution on the portion size of such foods and look for healthier alternatives.

List of Foods Abundant in Empty Calories

Highly processed foods or those that contain added sugar and fat provide a lot of empty calories.

A survey was carried out in 2010 to assess the dietary sources of total energy, added fat and sugar in children and adolescents in the US.

It was found that half of the empty calories came from soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk.

Top 3 empty calorie foods were:

  • Grain desserts: 138 kcal/day
  • Pizza: 136 kcal/day
  • Soda: 118 kcal/day

Around 40% of total energy consumed originated from empty calories (433 kcal from solid fat and 365 kcal from added sugars).

Another survey examining the trend of empty calories consumed by children and adolescents in US since 1994-2010 observed that daily intake of energy from saturated fats and added sugars is decreasing but the mean intake is still way above the recommended value.

Foods that provide maximum empty calories include:

  • Cakes, cookies, ice cream, soft drinks and other foods containing added sugar
  • Margarine, shortening, cheese and other foods containing solid fats
  • Alcoholic beverages like beer and wine

What Contribute to Empty Calories in Food?

The main components that make certain food items a source of empty calories are solid fats and added sugars.

Solid fats

Solid fats as the name suggests are fats that remain solid at room temperature for example- butter.

They are mainly found in animal foods but can also be obtained from plants.

Most solid foods are high in saturated fats and trans fat.

Some even contain cholesterol. All of these increase the risk for metabolic disease and heart diseases.

Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature.

They have a balance of unsaturated fats and saturated fats. Certain oils like coconut oil, palm kernel oil contain high proportion of saturated fats which is why for nutritional purposes they are considered as solid fats.

However, these saturated fats are an exception since they are healthy.

Here is a list of different solid fats

  • Butter
  • Margarine
  • Shortening
  • Milk fat
  • Cream
  • Beef fat
  • Chicken fat
  • Pork fat
  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • Coconut oil
  • Palm or palm kernel oil

Common foods that contain solid fats are:

  • Cheese and cheese containing foods
  • Sausages, bacon, ribs, hot dogs
  • Ice cream
  • Baked goods and desserts
  • Fried foods if fried in solid fats or hydrogenated oils
  • Regular ground beef or meat containing visible fat

The following chart can give you an idea of the number of calories present in solid fats and foods containing solid fats:

Amount of food Amount of solid fat Calories from solid fat Total calories
Shortening 1tbsp 13g 115 115
Butter 1tbsp 12g 100 100
Margarine 1tbsp 11g 100 100
Coconut or palm kernel oil 1tbsp 14g 120 120
Heavy cream 1tbsp 5g 50 50
Whole milk 1 cup 8g 70 145
Cheddar cheese 1 ½ oz 14g 125 170
Chocolate Ice cream 1 cup 14g 125 285
Cooked bacon 2 slices 6g 55 85
Pork sausage 2 links 14g 120 165
Regular hamburger 3 ounces 14g 120 205
Prime rib roast lean and fat 3 ounces 29g 255 340
Croissant 1 medium 12g 105 230
Biscuit 1 small 6g 50 125
Chocolate crème pie 1/6 of 8’’ pie 22g 195 345

For a more detailed version click here .

What does this mean? Solid fats remain solid at room temperature. Apart from not providing nutrients they provide us with a lot of harmful fats. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil are considered as solid fats for nutritional purposes but they are quite healthy. Almost every next regular snack item is loaded with solid fats.

Added Sugars

Added sugars are sugar and syrups that are added to foods or beverages during processing.

They are different from naturally occurring sugars that are present in foods like milk and fruits.

The recommended sugar consumption is 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men.

Basic sugars are glucose and fructose.

In simple terms, glucose is taken up as a source of energy by muscle and other cells and utilised completely.

However, fructose isn’t utilised as energy and is converted into fat by the liver.

Manufacturing and addition of high fructose corn syrup is cheap which is why it finds its way into every next food item and triggers obesity

If you find any of these ingredients on your food label, avoid it:

Anhydrous dextrose Fructose Molasses
Brown sugar High fructose corn syrup Nectars
Confectioner’s powdered sugar Honey Pancake syrup
Corn syrup Invert sugar Raw sugar
Corn syrup solids Lactose Sucrose
Dextrose Malt syrup Sugar/White granulated sugar

Here is an approximate estimate of the percentage of added sugar you get from different foodstuffs


Adapted from:

Sugar-sweetened beverages top the chart followed by snacks and sweets.

You must be wondering why fruit drinks or juices ( processed not homemade) are included in this category.

An 8 ounce glass of juice contains 8 teaspoons of sugar which is around 130 calories.

You tend to drink a number of glasses and unlike fruits juices have no fibre to promote satiety. Choosing a whole fruit is better because you are likely to eat only one serving of the fruit.

All sweet foods are rich in added sugars, but nevertheless here is the list:

  • Chocolates and candy
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages like fruit juices and soda
  • Biscuits and baked goods
  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Dairy products
  • Savoury food like tomato ketchup and sauces

What does this mean? Added sugars are the biggest risk factors for weight gain. Recommended sugar consumption is 6 tsp for women and 9 tsp for men. When we exceed this limit the sugar gets deposited as fat. Sugar sweetened beverages are the biggest culprits belonging to this class.

Link Between Empty Calories and Body Weight

What is the Daily limit for Empty Calories?

USFDA describes the amount of empty calorie limit for different age/sex groups based on the idea that they have limited or no physical activity.

So this snapshot of the long version, the long version can be accessed here.

Gender Age Total calorie limit Empty calorie limit
MALE 14-18 2200 265
19-30 2400 330
31-50 2200 265
51+ 2000 260
FEMALE 14-18 1800 160
19-30 2000 260
31-50 1800 160
51+ 1600 120

How can I Keep a Track of Empty Calories I Consume?

USFDA again comes to our rescue by giving us details of the number of empty calories consumed from different food sources. You can find the detailed list here.

Food Amount Estimated total calories Estimated empty calories

Dairy foods

Fat free milk 1 cup 83 0
Whole milk 1 cup 149 63
Low fat chocolate milk 1 cup 158 64
Cheddar cheese 1 ½ ounces 171 113
Low fat frozen yogurt 1 cup 224 119
Vanilla ice cream 1 cup 275 210

Protein foods

Extra lean ground beef, 95% lean 3 oz., cooked 145 0
Roasted chicken breast (skinless) 3 oz., cooked 138 0
Fried chicken with skin & batter (fried in shortening, breaded) 3 medium wings 478 193
Beef sausage, pre-cooked (brown and serve) 3 oz., cooked 344 172
Pork sausage (brown and serve) 2 patties (2 oz.) 204 96

Grain groups

Whole wheat bread (100% ww) 1 regular slice (1 oz.) 69 13
White bread 1 regular slice (1 oz.) 69 4
Croissant 1 medium (2 oz.) 231 111
Biscuit, plain (fast food) 1 medium (2.5" diameter) 186 71
Corn flakes cereal 1 cup 101 9
Chocolate cake (with icing, homemade or commercial) 1 slice of two-layer cake 408 315
Glazed doughnut, yeast type 1 medium, 3 ¾" diameter 255 170

Vegetable group

Baked potato (no salt, peel included) 1 medium 159 0
French fries (fast food) 1 medium order 389 24
Onion rings 1 order (8 to 9 rings) 282 130

Fruit group

Unsweetened applesauce 1 cup 102 0
Sweetened applesauce (with sugar) 1 cup 173 56


Pepperoni pizza 1 slice (1/8th) of a 14" pizza, regular crust 340 57
Regular soda (cola, fruit, or vanilla) 1 can (12 fluid oz.) 137 126
Fruit-flavored drink (made from mix, "Kool Aid" type) 1 cup 88 83
Wine, red 1 glass (5 fluid oz.) 125 109
Wine, white 1 glass (5 fluid oz.) 121 106
Beer (regular) 1 can ( 12 fluid oz.) 155 98
Distilled spirits (80 proof) 1 ½ fluid oz. 97 98

Healthy alternatives to foods that have empty calories

Empty calories are unavoidable at times but you can always look for healthier alternatives like the ones mentioned below:

Instead of


Whole or reduced-fat milk, flavored milk Low-fat milk
Regular, full-fat cheese and cheese containing foods Low fat or fat-free cheeses
Butter, stick margarine and shortening Vegetable oil
Fried chicken Roasted, grilled or baked chicken
French fries or potato Boiled or baked potatoes or sweet potatoes
Tortilla or corn chips Baked chips or whole grain crackers
Regular cuts of meat with visible fat Lean cuts of meat
Icecream, frozen yogurt Fat-free or low-fat plain yogurt
Sweetened cereals Cereals with no added sugars or whole grain sugars
Cookies Whole grain crackers
Doughnuts, pies, cakes Fruits and fruit-based desserts
Jam or jelly 100% fruit spread
Sugar-sweetened beverages Water, low-fat milk and 100% fruit juice
White bread Whole grain bread
White pasta Whole wheat grain pasta
Artificial sweeteners Honey, stevia


Empty calories provide you with a lot of energy but zero nutrients.

It adds a lot of flavor to foods making them unavoidable but it would be wise to limit their intake and look for healthier alternatives or else they will definitely show up on your waistline.

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