A calorie is a unit of heat energy. We often think of calories as something found
in our food, but it’s a basic unit of energy needed by your body to perform daily
functions. That energy comes in the form of heat.
Scientifically, all calories are created equal. But your body may tell a different story.
The food source behind the calories that you eat provide energy, but some foods
have a tremendous nutritional profile, while others lack quality nutrients altogether.
That’s where the term ‘empty calorie’ comes from. Foods that lack quality nutrients
like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and dietary fiber are considered
to provide discretionary or empty calories.
If you think about discretionary income, it’s money that you have leftover after you
pay the bills, take care of basic needs, and deposit into your savings. You can think
of empty calories the same way. The bulk of your calories should come from foods
that not only provide a great energy source, but also feed your body the nutrients it
needs to carry out biological tasks.
The food you eat is needed to support healthy tissue and organs, repair and
replenish cells and DNA, provide energy for a healthy metabolism, support
cardiovascular, nervous, and digestive systems, regulate blood, and support growth
within these systems.
You can think of all those wonderful processes as your bills, necessities, and savings
account. Feed this first, and your empty calorie bank last.
So, what exactly is an empty calorie? It’s a calorically dense, nutrient-lacking food
source. When you think of calorically dense food, you imagine a food that is bulky
and filling. It’s likely laden with saturated fats, processed carbohydrates, and is
stripped of nutrients. This could be sweets like cakes and cookies, salty snacks like
potato chips, or some other processed food that fills you up while leaving you empty
This image shown by the Agricultural Depart shows you exactly what 100 calories
looks like for specific foods. Notice the empty calorie foods like chips and candy
are small portions, while the nutrient-dense foods like berries and broccoli provide
Which do you think would fill you up more? Which do you think would provide your
body with the greatest support and greatest energy?
When put into perspective, the foods that have more supportive properties not only
provide you with abundant nutrients, but also give you a lot more bang for your