Empty Calories vs. Nutrient Dense Foods

02.15.2013 / Blog Posts Health and Wellness

AP Photo

Jane Jakubczak MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN; Washington Redskins Team Dietitian

Last week's assignment was to identify unconscious eating, one of the main causes of weight gain or weight plateaus. Click here to review last week's topic.

This week we continue to set a strong foundation for achieving weight management for a lifetime by identifying hidden, empty calories in our current eating habits.

As we learned last week, to lose weight, one must take in fewer calories than one uses. However, we still need the same amount of nutrients. Therefore, it is important to make every calorie count.

You may have heard of the term nutrient dense. Nutrient dense is the opposite of empty calories. Nutrient dense means there is an abundance of nutrients per calories in a particular food. The most nutrient dense food groups include the fruit and vegetable groups. They both offer lots of vitamins and minerals with a very small calorie count.

This week’s assignment involves identifying empty calories in your daily diet:

1. Continue to keep your food log, along with the hunger/full rating (Click here to review directions on keeping a food log)

2. Pay close attention to your food choices.

    Examples of Empty Calories
    Candy Regular Soda   Doughnuts/Muffins
    Cookies Sugary Drinks   Patries/Pies
    Chips Alcohol Ice Cream
    French Fries Cake Frozen Yogurt
    Sugary Cereals      Bacon Pretzels*

    * White bread, white pasta, white rice and pretzels are not "bad" for you (they are all low in saturated fat). However, they also offer substantially less nutrients than if you chose the whole grain equivalent, whole wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and whole grain crackers. To know whether a product is truly whole-grain, visit

3. Once you have a weeks worth of "data" (food log), review the log and circle all the foods that would be considered empty calories. Think about an alternative nutrient dense food you could choose next time in place of the empty calories. For example, I used to be a pretzel fanatic; scarfing down bags of pretzels until I realized I was consuming a lot of calories but not getting much nutrients from them. I've replaced my bags of pretzels with a handful of whole grain crackers and a string cheese. Not only am I getting more nutrients, including fiber and calcium, but the snack is much more satisfying because of the protein.

    I would love to hear how WOW members switch out their empty calories with nutrient dense foods. Please share in the comment section below. Thanks!

    Make it a healthy week!


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