A cartoon clip by Randy Glasbergen, has a patient telling her doctor, “What’s wrong with empty calories? If they’re empty, that means there’s nothing bad in them!”
The truth is, there is plenty of bad in them. Foods with empty calories are those which provide unhealthy calories, without any other beneficial nutrients. When we think of foods like candy, sweets, pastries, puffs, chips, soft drinks, ready to eat cereals and ice cream, in reality those are empty calories. Even though they contain some nutrients, you would have to eat a lot of the product to benefit from them. The nutritive value of these foods is not significant. Unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats), refined flour and sugars contribute to unhealthy calories. This has prompted the World Health Organization to revise their guidelines with relation to sugar. The previous guidelines allowed for 10% of total calories to come from sugar. The recent guidelines suggest that only 5% of calories be allowed from sugar.
The problem with empty calories is they contain no nutrients or fiber. This means that we can consume a large amount of these products and yet not feel full, causing us to overeat. While unhealthy fats clog the arteries, sugar gets quickly digested causing glucose spikes. Once digestion is completed the blood sugar levels drop causing cravings for more fatty and sugary foods. This is a problem especially if the diet lacks fiber. Fiber helps in a slow more sustained release of energy. This is why it is healthier to have a whole fruit rather than fruit juice. For e.g., to make a cup of clear apple juice, you would need 3-4 apples on an average along with their natural sugars. Instead, if you eat a whole apple, you take less sugar, you also benefit from the fiber that the fruit has to offer.
A diet consistently high in empty calories can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. These are non-communicable diseases. The non-communicable disease burden of India has increased from 45% in 2010 to 60% in 2014. With processed foods flooding the market and a sedentary lifestyle, we are at risk for developing these diseases.
Instead, our diets need to contain a healthy balance of complex carbs, healthy protein, fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy. In addition, we need to aim for at least 45 minutes of exercise per day. This should include both cardio and strength training. While aiming for weight loss, you need to create a deficit of calories, through diet and exercise. The diet needs to include whole foods, while eliminating processed foods. Keep in mind that 100g of salad is healthier than 100 g of potato chips in terms of fiber and healthy nutrients.
To start making healthy nutrient dense choices, eat fresh wholesome foods. By cooking at home and including lots of fruits and vegetables of different colours, you can ensure you are getting a variety of nutrients and sufficient fiber. It is also important you avoid foods with unhealthy ingredients like saturated fat, maida and sugar. Read ingredient labels carefully so you are aware of what has gone into the product.
With inputs from: