Empty Calories: What Are They and What Are Their Effects

Empty calories are present in many foods of industrial origin and are detrimental to health. Learn more about them.
Empty Calories: What Are They and What Are Their Effects
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 12 February, 2023

Empty calories are those that come from foods that don’t have a high nutritional density but do have energy. It’s important to reduce their presence in the diet, as it could be counterproductive over time. They generate inflammation and increased oxidation, among other harmful effects.

Before beginning, it’s important to note that a healthy diet is one that’s mainly made up of fresh foods. These provide high-quality nutrients and don’t have excessive calories inside, as a general rule. They also have vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant substances.

Empty calories, a public health problem

We can find empty calories in products such as alcoholic beverages, industrial ultra-processed foods, and simple sugars… They’re edibles that contain poor-quality energy but aren’t capable of providing the necessary nutrients for the body. They don’t contain proteins of high biological value or vitamins or minerals.

In this regard, it’s much more likely that when eating foods with empty calories, this excess energy is transformed into body fat. From here, very harmful excess weight or obesity could develop. According to a study published in the journal Circulation, this could generate a greater cardiovascular risk, among other complex health problems.

As a general rule, health experts recommend that no more than 5% of the calories in the diet be empty. In this regard, elements such as simple sugars should be limited.

These aren’t only capable of providing low-quality energy, but also have a negative impact on glycemic control. They cause an increase in insulin production, which in the medium term generates cell resistance to the hormone.

In fact, a large part of the chronic and complex pathologies that develop today are caused by bad dietary habits that are promoted among the population.

If the consumption of sugars, trans fats, and alcohol is reduced, the incidence of many of these problems could be significantly reduced. For example, diabetes has been shown to have a significant environmental component based on a person’s eating pattern.

To avoid this problem, it’s important to prioritize the consumption of fresh food. These not only provide quality nutrients but also contain fiber. This substance modulates the absorption of carbohydrates, causing fewer effects on blood glucose levels and protecting metabolic health over the years. This reduces potential inefficiencies.

The empty calories present in alcohol

Wine has empty calories.
Although there are some drinks that are reputed to be “healthy”, such as wine, they actually contain plenty of empty calories.

One of the biggest sources of empty calories is alcoholic beverages. For many years, the moderate consumption of these liquids was promoted to improve cardiovascular protection. However, we currently know that no such effect exists. We’re referring to a substance that’s toxic regardless of the dose consumed. Therefore, it should be eliminated from the diet.

As confirmed by a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, regular alcohol intake negatively affects the function of the central nervous system. It increases the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases over the years, these being chronic and irreversible today. For this reason, its consumption should be avoided.

Regular intake of alcoholic beverages is one of the dietary behaviors that promote excess weight. There’s a lot of energy that can be introduced into the body from these products. Even more so if they’re combined with sugary soft drinks. The result can be a gain in fat weight in a short time that negatively affects the state of body composition.

Furthermore, alcohol itself affects endogenous protein synthesis and the hormonal balance in the internal environment. It can accelerate the catabolism of lean mass, causing variations in daily energy expenditure. Bearing in mind that muscle mass depletion is a marker of poor life expectancy, it will be key to avoid all stimuli that may speed up the process.

Sugar, empty calories, and how insulin works

Sugar is another source of empty calories, at least when added to food as such. It’s a substance that can be used to produce energy in the context of physical activity but doesn’t have a great physiological implication beyond that. Therefore, in sedentary people, it can cause a series of unwanted effects over time.

In fact, regular consumption of simple sugars is associated with an increased risk of developing complex diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. This is evidenced by research published in the Current Diabetes Reports journal. Little by little, insulin resistance is produced, which ends up causing pancreatic stress. As a result, the body becomes less efficient in managing blood sugar levels.

To avoid this problem, it’s always advisable to opt for the consumption of foods with complex carbohydrates inside or with naturally present sugars. An example would be fruit. Despite containing simple carbohydrates, it has fiber that delays their absorption. At the same time, it contains high-quality antioxidants that neutralize the formation of free radicals and improve health.

However, most of the processed foods that you buy in the supermarket can contain these simple added sugars. That’s why it’s so important to carefully observe nutritional labels. In this way, you’ll be able to recognize when a food is of quality and when it has to be consumed very occasionally to avoid negative alterations in the internal environment.

Trans fats, an inflammatory problem

Another example of empty calories can be found in foods with trans fats, usually of industrial origin. Cis-type lipids have important roles in human physiology. They’re capable of modulating states of inflammation and promoting balance at the endocrine level. In fact, their presence in the daily diet is necessary in order for everything to work properly.

However, when fatty acids are subjected to high temperatures, a change is produced in the spatial configuration of the molecules that compose them, becoming trans-type. The same happens when, at an industrial level, hydrogens are introduced into their composition to vary the organoleptic characteristics of products with a high fat content.

From here on, the impact of lipids in the body varies completely. Again, we’re talking about nutrients with empty calories. They’re capable of providing a lot of energy but have little or no benefit on a physiological level. In this regard, studies have shown that the regular consumption of trans fat promotes fatty weight gain and the development of chronic and complex diseases over the years.

On most nutritional labels, there’s no reference to the presence of these elements inside the foodstuffs. However, in the list of ingredients. they’re sometimes listed under the nomenclature of “partially or fully hydrogenated fats”. If the product has this element among the components, it’s best to avoid its intake.

It should be noted that while simple sugars may make sense in the context of exercise, there’s no situation that justifies the consumption of trans fats. Along with alcohol, they’re the worst type of empty calories for the body. They’ll cause inflammation in the internal environment and inefficiencies in physiological processes, which will lead to the development of chronic diseases.

Avoid empty calories, eat fresh foods

Freshly picked apples.
Fruits are an excellent example of fresh foods that can provide quality calories and nutrients.

To ensure that you’re following a quality diet, it’s crucial to ensure that it’s made up mainly of fresh foods. These are characterized by having a high nutritional density. They provide calories, but also elements that perform various functions within the human body, thus managing to maintain a good state of health over the years.

For example, fruits and vegetables are a source of phytochemicals. These elements don’t have an energetic component, but they do act as antioxidants. They’re capable of neutralizing the formation of free radicals over the years, reducing the incidence of complex diseases. This is evidenced by research published in the European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

As a general rule, most of the diet should be made up of fresh foods, although it will also be decisive to apply good cooking methods. Very high temperatures should be avoided so that changes in the spatial configuration of the fatty acids aren’t produced. Grilling, baking, and steaming are the best alternatives.

With this approach, you’ll be able to consume a diet that’s rich from a nutritional point of view. Later, the caloric intake will have to be adjusted, as in most cases, an energy surplus isn’t positive. Otherwise, fat could accumulate in the subcutaneous tissue, promoting weight gain and the genesis of an inflammatory state.

Avoid empty calories to improve health

Empty calories are elements present in foods of low nutritional density and quality that can have a negative impact on health. For this reason, they should be avoided in most cases, with the exception of simple sugars when performing high-intensity exercise. They’re normally harmful to the body.

Remember that to maintain a good state of health, simply taking care of your diet isn’t enough. You have to promote a series of good habits together. For example, it’s important to perform physical exercise on a daily basis, focusing on strength work. This is how to stimulate muscle growth and keep inflammation controlled in the internal environment.

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