What are Empty Calories?

Written By: Gloria Tsang, RD

Title: Founding Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of British Columbia

Last Updated on:

You may have read the term “empty calories,” or heard it used by nutritionists or even talk show hosts on TV. But what exactly are empty calories? Why are they so bad for you, and how can you avoid them?

Keep reading to discover where these sneaky calories may be hiding in your diet!

Empty Calories = High Calories but Low Nutrition

Contains Calories: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat (collectively known as Macro-nutrients)

No Calories: All vitamins & minerals including antioxidants (collectively known as Micro-nutrients) as well as fiber

“Empty Calories” describes foods high in calories but low in nutritional values (also known as junk food!), lacking the health-promoting micro-nutrients listed above.

Examples of foods containing mostly Empty Calories

French fries, fried chicken, chips and all other deep-fried foods

A large order of fries from a fast food chain can contain up to 570 kcal with a whopping 30 g of total fat and 8 g of trans fat! Tons of calories from fat and very few micro-nutrients.

Candy, pop and other sweetened packaged foods

A can of pop contains about 130 kcal as well as additives and colorings. Again, lots of calories from sugar but no micro-nutrients.

Beer, wine and all other alcoholic beverages

A can of beer contains about 150 kcal from sugar and not much of anything else. In addition, calories from alcohol tend to be stored as fat in the abdomen (leading to a “beer belly”).

Refined grains such as crackers, cookies, white rice and white bread

Refined grains do provide some B vitamins, but that’s it.

How to Avoid Empty Calories?

  • Avoid deep-fried foods. Instead of deep-frying, use other methods of cooking. For instance, have a baked potato with skin instead of fries, or a piece of baked skinless chicken breast instead of fried chicken.
  • Avoid sweetened drinks and canned drinks.
  • Try whole grains instead of refined grains. Whole grains are packed with beneficial fiber and antioxidants. For instance, have a slice of whole-wheat bread instead of white bread. Have a bowl of whole-grain breakfast cereals or unsweetened oatmeal instead of corn flakes.
  • Snack on fruits! Instead of prowling for a box of crackers in the mid afternoon, snack on fruits. Better yet, dip them in low-fat yogurt to get additional calcium and protein.


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