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Adding Up Empty Calories

Most of us have heard the phrase empty calories. We know that they’re not a good thing, but how much do you know about what empty calories are, exactly, and how many are in foods you may eat daily?

Here, from the experts at the site choosemyplate.gov, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is what you need to know:

Solid fats and added sugars add calories to food but few or no nutrients. For this reason, the calories from solid fats and added sugars are often called empty calories.

Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, beef fat, and shortening. Some solid fats are found naturally in foods. They can also be added when foods are processed by food companies or when they are prepared. Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added when foods or beverages are processed or prepared.

Solid fats and added sugars can make a food or beverage more appealing, but they also can add a lot of calories. The foods and beverages that provide the most empty calories for Americans are:

Cakes, cookies, pastries, and donuts (contain both solid fat and added sugars)

Sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruit drinks (contain added sugars)

Cheese (contains solid fat)

Pizza (contains solid fat)

Ice cream (contains both solid fat and added sugars)

Sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs (contain solid fat)

These foods and beverages are the major sources of empty calories, but many can be found in alternate forms with less or no solid fat or added sugars. For example, you can buy low-fat cheese and low-fat hot dogs. You can choose water, milk, or sugar-free soda instead of drinks with sugar. Check that the calories in these products are less than in the regular product, and note the product’s sodium content.

(Although calories from alcohol are not from solid fats or added sugars, but they count against your limit for empty calories ― calories from solid fats and added sugars.)

To give you a concrete idea of how much difference there can be between foods with empty calories and those that don’t have it,  here are some comparisons. The figures can be startling:

*A cup of skim milk has zero empty calories, while a cup of whole milk has 83.

*Three oz. of extra lean ground beef (95 percent lean) has zero empty calories, while regular ground beef (80 percent lean) has 64 empty calories.

*A medium baked potato has zero empty calories, while an order of medium French fries has 185 empty calories.

*A cup of unsweetened applesauce has zero empty calories, while the same amount of sweetened applesauce has 68 empty calories.

For a chart listing the comparative calorie counts of additional foods, click here.

A small amount of empty calories is okay, but most people eat far more than is healthy. It is important to limit empty calories to the amount that fits good nutritional needs. If it’s too tough to eliminate empty calories all at once, you can do it gradually.

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