Beware These Empty Calories!

10 foods that can pile on the pounds

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

Soda, candy, chips? What do they all have in common? They are all top sources of what many dietitians refer to as "empty calories."

The American Heritage College dictionary defines "empty" as "holding or containing nothing." And for all the calories these foods add to your diet, they bring along almost nothing else for your body -- very little vitamins or minerals, very little fiber or phytochemicals.

There are basically two empty-calorie culprits in our diets:

  • Anything with lots of sugar or other sweeteners
  • Anything with lots of fat and oil

Culprit #1: Anything with Lots of Sugar or Other Sweeteners

There's no way to sugarcoat the truth -- Americans are eating more sugar than ever before. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined that, on average, Americans are consuming 83 more calories per day from caloric sweeteners than they did in 1977. And those extra 83 calories a day turn into a whopping 2,490 calories per month.

To what items do we point the finger as the primary cause of these extra calories? Shockingly, it's not even food we eat -- these added calories come mainly from soft drinks and fruit drinks.

The latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals lists the top five food categories that contribute added sugar to women's diets as:

Food Average number of teaspoons of sugar (or equivalent) per serving
1. Soda and sweetened beverages (mostly carbonated soft drinks, but also includes fruit "drinks" and "ades" and bottled iced teas). 9 teaspoons per 12-ounce serving of soda; 12 teaspoons per 12-ounce serving of fruit drink or ade.
2. Cakes, cookies, pastries, and pies. 6 teaspoons in 1/16 of a pie or frosted cake.
3. Sugar or sugar substitute blends such as syrups, honey, molasses, and sweet toppings. 3 teaspoons per tablespoon of syrup or honey.
4. Candy. 3 teaspoons per 1-ounce chocolate bar.
5. Frozen milk desserts (includes ice cream and frozen yogurt). 3 teaspoons per 1/2 cup.

So, besides staying away from soda, be sure to watch for sneaky sugar calories from these items:

  • Other sweetened drinks. Lemonades, sports drinks, and fruit drinks.
  • Fancy coffee and tea drinks (hot or cold). These can be loaded with sugar calories. A 9.5-ounce bottled coffee drink contains around 190 calories and almost 8 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Snack cakes, pastries, and breakfast/cereal bars. Toaster pastries, granola bars, and breakfast bars fall into this category. One little toaster pastry has around 200 calories and almost 5 teaspoons of sugar. A 4-ounce supermarket blueberry muffin can contain about 420 calories and more than 8 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Sweetened hot and cold cereals. Check out the labels before you buy your breakfast cereals, because they list the grams of added sugar per serving. A packet of flavored instant oatmeal contains around 150 calories and around 4 teaspoons of sugar! Sugar is usually the second ingredient listed in the ingredient list.
  • Condiments. Pancake syrup and even catsup can add on the sugar calories if you are heavy handed. A 1/4-cup serving of pancake syrup has about 210 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar, and 1/4-cup of catsup contains around 60 calories and 4 teaspoons of sugar!

Culprit #2: Anything with Lots of Fat and Oil

Although some fats and oils contain vitamins and important fatty acids such as omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, foods loaded with fats and oils are often empty-calorie culprits. This is particularly true when the food is full of trans fats and saturated fats; deep-fried French fries, potato chips, popcorn chicken that has more fried crumb topping than chicken, and high-fat crackers made with white flour are all examples.

"A new survey...found a link between fast-food consumption by kids in the U.S. and increased calories
and poor nutrition."

Since we're talking about empty calories, it's important to note that gram for gram, fat has more than two times the calories of carbs or protein. In other words, a gram of fat has around 9 calories, while a gram of protein or carbohydrate has 4 calories. When foods have lots of added fats and oils, the calories can go through the roof pretty quickly.

One of our biggest fat traps is fast food. That's mainly because so many fast food items, such as French fries, onion rings, taco shells, chicken strips and fish filets; dressed in high-fat sauces such as mayonnaise; are either deep fried or garnished with fatty meats such as bacon or sausage.



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