You most likely hear about “empty calories” all the time, but we bet you default to thinking about cupcakes and donuts. Well, it’s better you uncover the truth now—there are actually a whole host of useless foods out there. And by useless, we mean void of nutrition.
When talking about “nutrient density,” it’s all about the vitamins, minerals, and fiber—in other words, the things that work to fuel and repair your body. Each meal or snack that you consume should be seen as an opportunity to nourish your body and fill it with as many nutrients as possible. This is particularly true if you’re following a weight-loss or fitness plan because nutrient-dense foods will help you achieve your goals much faster.
“I think of ‘nutritionally empty’ foods as those that can either be higher or lower in calories, but that offer few or no nutrients,” says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. “Generally, these foods are also fairly refined or processed.”
This classic party food doesn’t contain a long list of ingredients, but none of those ingredients contain a high dose of nutrients.
“Generally speaking, for most crackers and chips, much of the nutritional value of the grain has been removed during processing—especially when these foods are white rather than whole-wheat because the husk and outer layers of the grain have been removed. They aren’t necessarily bad but they just don’t offer much with respect to nutrients,” Smith says.
Eat This Instead: For a more nutrient-dense alternative (that still offers crunch without those empty calories), try air-popped popcorn with your own added herbs and spices or crackers made from whole-wheat with four to five grams of fiber per serving.
Not only is soda void of vitamins and minerals and packed with empty calories coming from sugar, but it also contains a ton of ingredients that can do some harm to your body.
“Regular and diet sodas are loaded with artificial chemicals like colorings and sweeteners. Both calorie-containing and zero-calorie (these, in particular, may negatively influence feelings of fullness and satiety) should be avoided. Also, dark-colored sodas often contain additives like phosphoric acid that can be dangerous to bone health,” Smith warns.
Drink This Instead: Sometimes that fizzy pop craving just won’t go away, though. Instead of soda, experiment with sodium-free, sugar-free sparkling water with either a splash of low- or no-sugar juice, freshly-squeezed juice, or a squeeze of fresh lime or lemon. If it’s the flavor rather than the fizz you’re after, Smith also recommends infusing regular water with fruits and vegetables.
“A few of my favorites are mint and orange, cucumber on its own or with orange, and strawberry with pineapple,” Smith says.
Pretzels seem like a relatively harmless snack. They’ve got the crunch and saltiness that many of us crave, and they’re not really full of sugar or harmful artificial ingredients. The problem? They don’t fuel your body. If you have fitness or weight loss goals, a bag of pretzels’ empty calories aren’t going to help you get over the finish line any faster.