Empty Calories

November 14, 2017

Calories, calories, calories. I often hear people talk about calories, in fact they are now posted on most Canadian menus (I am sure you've noticed that). But what are calories and do you need to be restricting them?



What are calories? 

Calories are a unit of energy. We get our energy (aka calories) from the foods we eat and beverages we drink, in turn we burn calories through physical activity and daily living activities (i.e., breathing, digesting, walking, moving etc.).


How many calories do I need? 

Our bodies need calories to be healthy and to function at our best throughout the day. The amount of calories each person needs varies depending on a variety of factors including weight, height, age, sex, fitness level etc. For example, if you are a tall male athlete you will need a lot more calories than a shorter low active male. In addition, our caloric needs drop with age, we need the most calories during periods of growth (like childhood and adolescence) and less as we get older. The 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) found that 14-18 year olds consumed an average of 2112 calories/day. This amount declines amongst those in later adulthood, with Canadians 51 years and older consuming an average of 1762/day. 


Bottom line: the amount of calories you need depends on a variety of factors including your overall health, current weight, activity level, height, fitness/health goals, age, etc.). 


Many of the meals we eat each day will have a combination of fat, protein, and carbs. That means that in your meal you will be getting a certain amount of energy (aka calories) from each of the macronutrients. Every body is different, it is important to discover what macronutrient balance works for you, this will be influenced by your health and fitness goals.  Our bodies need energy from these calories for fuel and to maintain good health.  Calories only become an issue when we are eating them in excess or severely under eating.   In fact, research has shown that the main source of overeating or excess calories come from foods that provide us with empty calories.


What are empty calories? 


Empty calories come from foods we consume that have little nutrition value, meaning they are providing us with calories...but that's about it! They aren't providing us with vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants, etc. They are often found in foods that are high in fat and sugar (i.e., sugary cereals, donuts, dressings, fast food etc.). 

I often like to use pop or any sugar sweetened beverage as an example. Depending on the beverage you choose, you are getting anywhere from 150-400 empty calories from 1 beverage. There are no vitamins, minerals, or fibre. It is mainly made up of carbohydrates (more specifically, sugar). 

According to the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS, 2004) Canadians consume 25% of their total energy intake from "other foods," which are mainly made up of empty calories. These empty calories are often unnecessary and can easily add up throughout your day. 


Top 10 sources of  "other" foods Canadians consumed:


1. Soft drinks - this would be your pop, ice tea, fruit punch etc. It is no surprise that drinking soft drinks is a major source of empty calories.

2. Salad dressings

3. Sugars, syrups, preserves - this could be the jam you add to your bread, syrups to your lattes, or honey to your meals.

4. Beer 

5. Fruit drinks - this includes 100% fruit juice. It is always better to choose the fruit instead.

6. Vegetable oils

7. Margarine 

8. Chocolate bars

9. Potato Chips

10. Butter 


Many of these empty calories come from additions to meals (i.e., too much salad dressing, too much butter with cooking), sweetened beverages, or "snacky" foods (i.e., potato chips or chocolate). This suggests that paying attention to what you are choosing to eat in between meals is important. 

However, keep in mind this data is dated (2004). The top 10 sources for Canadians might look slightly different now, but I would think a large majority of these foods would still make the list, especially sugars and sweetened beverages! 


Bottom line: empty calories are fine to enjoy...in moderation. However, they are often the biggest culprit of over eating and excess calories. Be mindful of how many empty calories you are eating (or drinking) each day. 


Recommendation: choose foods that provide you with calories but also other important nutrients your body needs (like fibre, vitamins, and minerals) most of the time.


Please connect with me to learn more about your individual needs and how to reduce your empty calories and eat more mindfully. 


Cheers to happy and healthy eating! :) 


Until next time,


Eat Right Feel Right - Angela XO 





1. Statistics Canada (2007). Canadian Eating Habits - Findings. Retrieved from: https://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2006004/article/habit/4148989-eng.htm

2. Statistics Canada (2017). Nutrition: Nutrient intakes from food and nutritional supplements. Retrieved from: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/170620/dq170620b-eng.htm 












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