Empty Calories & the Holidays

We just returned from Thanksgiving and everyone at the office (including employees and patients) are complaining about the dreaded “holiday weight gain”.  My response: “I haven’t bothered to step on the scale” because I know I gained weight over the holiday based on eating way more calories and sweets than I normally do!  And just think…we are less than a month away from repeating this all over again!  The holidays are definitely a tough time to lose weight or to maintain your current weight loss.

With Christmas and New Year’s, alcohol, sweets and fats tends to be the biggest culprits for intake of empty calories.  America’s appetite for sugar and fat is beginning to show up on the waist-line of the consumer.  As we know, obesity is a problem that is sweeping our nation from childhood to adults.  The typical American diet is full of processed foods containing high amounts of fat, sugar and salt.  Most processed foods like cookies, chips, candy and sugar-sweetened beverages are considered empty calorie foods because they have little to no nutritional value but contribute to excess calories and weight gain.


Empty calorie foods offer no fiber, vitamins or minerals that our bodies need to feel satisfied and perform properly.  Our bodies need vitamins, minerals and fiber to prevent diseases, promote a healthy weight and feel satisfied.  Highly processed foods are often over eaten because they have no fiber and satiety and because they TASTE GOOD!

Nutrient dense foods are foods that offer a lot of nutrient value for the amount of calories.  These are the foods we want to make up the majority of our diets.  Foods that are nutrient dense are for the most part found naturally and go through little processing.  For instance, a nutrient dense snack could be a cup of strawberries which contains vitamin C and fiber for only 45 calories and 6 grams of sugar instead of a cup of Skittles which have 830 calories and 185 g of sugar!

Try choosing healthier foods and preparation of the foods.  Grain products made with white flour can contribute to empty calories in your diet.  Examples include pastries, donuts and sugar sweetened cereals for breakfast.  Choosing whole grain cereals with 6 grams of sugar or less per serving, whole grain waffles with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving or omelets made with eggs and veggies will help the body feel full longer and in turn result in fewer calories eaten.  Whole grain bread at lunch will give you more fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins as opposed to white bread.  Choosing whole wheat grain pasta at dinner versus white pasta can also contribute more vitamins and minerals than the white counterpart.

Food preparation is another way empty calories can be added to your diet.  Frying food in butter or adding breading and deep frying foods adds no nutritional value and an enormous amount of excess calories.  When eating out, choose a grilled chicken breast, salad and baked potato as opposed to fried chicken tenders, fries, and macaroni and cheese.


Drinking your calories can add up fast throughout a day’s time period.  Soda and sugar-sweetened beverages are a big contributor to the excess sugar in many individuals’ diets.  Consider your daily intake: a morning coffee with added syrup/sugar and creamer, mid-morning soda, lemonade at lunch, sweet tea at dinner and a glass or two of juice in the evening; this can add up to thousands of empty calories in your diet!

Consider alcohol as well.  I assume with the holiday festivities, most of us will consume at least a small amount of alcohol.  Alcohol is another empty calorie beverage.  Alcohol has no nutritional value and contributes to extra calories and weight gain.

Portion size is also an important thing to consider and be aware of.  Most beverages contain more than one serving so it is necessary to double and often triple the calories and sugar on the nutrition label if you drink the entire beverage.  The average soft drink is 20 ounces and contains 250 calories, which is equivalent to 15 teaspoons of sugar.  Remember, it only takes 3,500 extra calories to gain a pound so these extra calories can easily contribute to a gain of a pound or two a week.

We recommend choosing water or sugar free beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners versus soda, juice and sweet tea to help drastically cut calories from your diet.  The sugar content of juice is often overlooked because juice is considered “good for you”; keep in mind an 8 ounce glass of juice can contain up to 8 teaspoons worth of sugar and approximately 130 calories!  Juice does not contain fiber like eating a piece of fruit.  Eating whole fruit instead of drinking juice will help with portion control, increase satiety due to the fiber and provide more vitamins and minerals to your diet.


Making better food and beverage choices will help reduce the excess empty calories you consume.  As stated previously, this time of year is difficult to lose weight or maintain a weight loss.  Most people are more “health” conscious these days, so hopefully the parties and events you are attending will have plenty of alternative options for you to choose from.  If not, try to eat some nutrient dense foods before the event so you feel full or satiety and will consume less of the empty calories at the event.  If drinking alcohol, try to choose, lower calorie and lower carbohydrate beverages.  Adding juices or mixers to alcohol increase your calories as well.  If consuming soda, I would recommend diet beverages over regular sodas, but your best choice would be water flavored with lemon, limes or berries.  Also try to choose foods that are broiled, cooked or grilled instead of fried or battered.  Enjoy your holidays, keep moving and being physically active to burn off any excess calories you consume and stay safe!