Monday, November 8, 2010

Empty Calories (Revised November 8, 2010)

Is soda an empty-calorie food?
If a group of people were asked whether or not soda is an empty-calorie food, the consensus would certainly be yes. It is clear that sodas are loaded with calories from sugar (high fructose corn syrup), but offer no nutritive value when it comes to protein, vitamins, minerals or other health-promoting and disease-preventing compounds.

What about pizza? 
Is this an empty-calorie food?

Many people seem confused on this issue. They tend to confuse empty calories with high-calorie. But there is a real distinction and it is important to understand the distinction if you are going to make decisions about what to eat or serve your family.

To determine if pizza is an empty-calorie food we have to look not only at the calorie content, but at whether or not it provides a reasonable amount of essential nutrients in relation to the calories.

Here’s a quick look at some basic ingredients that may be found in pizza:
Cheese, tomato sauce, choice of veggies, pineapple, mushroom, pepperoni and sausage – to name a few. And of course you have the pizza crust.

It is obvious that despite the potential to be high in calories, pizza offers some real nutritional benefits – protein, lycopene, fiber, iron, and a host of other vitamins and minerals.

What about desserts?
Dessert can also mean a bowl of chilled fresh fruit or a piece of pineapple. It could also mean frozen yogurt or ice cream. There is nothing empty about the calories you get from any of these desserts.

Even cakes and pastries that are high in fat, sugar and calories are not empty calories. They are simply high-calorie foods that have a disproportionately large number of calories from unhealthy fat and sugar. These foods are considered undesirable, not because they are empty-calorie foods, but because they have the potential for causing unhealthy weight gain and other health problems, if eaten in excess.

Take ice cream, for example. No one would deny that ice cream is an energy-dense food. However, ice cream (not the artificial stuff) contains a reasonable amount of protein, calcium and other important nutrients. Therefore, while it is a high-calorie food it does not meet the criteria for being an empty-calorie food.

Now, sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages are a different story. These foods offer no real nutritional value beyond the calories they provide. The same can be said for most candies and confectionaries.

It is important to deliver the right messages about food in order to avoid confusion and thus make it easier for people to make the right choices when deciding what to eat and feed their families. 

Still confused about what to eat or serve your family? Talk to a registered dietitian.

Note: This post was erroneously posted earlier in its draft form. This post replaces the previous one dated November 8, 2010. If you received the draft in error, please delete it and save this post. Thank you.

U.S. Kids Filling Up on “Empty Calories,” Study Finds: Medline Plus
American Dietetic Association, news release, Oct. 1, 2010