Understanding and Identifying Empty Calories

The foods that you consume provide energy in the form of calories to help fuel your daily activities. Different foods might also provide nutrients like healthy fats, protein, fiber, or vitamins and minerals to help support a healthy body. When a food's primary nutritional benefit is that it provides calories, it may be referred to as an "empty calorie" food.

The term "empty calories" has been increasingly de-emphasized over the years as nutrition experts try to reduce food stigma or labeling foods as "good" or "bad." But you may still see the term pop up from time to time and it can be helpful to understand what it means.

Woman at the grocery store

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What Are Empty Calories

The term "empty calorie" can be misleading because the calories from these foods provide energy just like calories from other foods. But they generally provide little or no additional nutritional benefits. Foods like carbohydrate-based desserts, sugary drinks, candy bars, processed oils, and condiments such as barbecue sauce often contain empty calories.

Empty calories usually come in the form of added sugar or saturated and trans fats. Nutritionists sometimes use the terms "SoFAS" (which stands for "Solid Fats and Added Sugars") or "discretionary calories" to refer to empty calories.

  • Solid fats: These fats are solid at room temperature. They include shortening and most saturated fats (in meat and dairy products). Solid fats can also include trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils), but in the U.S., the FDA has taken steps to remove trans fats from processed foods.
  • Added sugars: Some sugar occurs naturally in food. Whole fruits contain sugar (fructose), for instance. The term "added sugars" refers to sweeteners added to food during the manufacturing process (like in sodas, sweet treats, and even pasta sauces).

Foods like carbohydrate-based desserts, sugary drinks, candy bars, processed oils, and condiments such as barbecue sauce often contain empty calories. Fast food and alcohol may also be sources of empty calories.

Empty calorie foods can be delicious and enjoyable to consume. But people who eat a lot of empty calories might not be getting enough fiber, minerals, vitamins, protein, or essential fatty acids.

Empty Calories and Children

For many years, various scientific and health organizations have tracked the consumption of empty calorie foods in children. Even though the average intake is on the decline, researchers still report that more than 25% of total daily calories came from empty calories in children ages 2-18. Teenagers (ages 14-18) have the highest intakes of empty calorie foods, ranging from an average of 30 percent to over 35 percent of total daily calories.

The consumption of too many empty calories concerns nutritionists because excessive consumption has been shown to displace more nutrient-dense foods and drive the daily calorie intake above calorie needs.

When kids get more of their calories from empty calories they are likely to get less of the nutrients that their growing bodies need. They may also consume more sugar and more calories than they need each day which is associated with increased body weight and a higher risk for heart problems.

Empty Calorie Guidelines

There is no official list of SoFAS or empty-calorie foods, but government health experts identify specific foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition. Limiting your intake of these foods can help keep your weight and health on track by allowing enough space in your eating plan for more nutritious options.

How many empty calories should you consume each day? Ideally, as few as possible. Getting your calories from fresh, wholesome fruits, vegetables, and natural proteins will provide you with more sustained energy and health benefits. However, it is possible to balance healthy eating and less favorable food choices.

In 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) has set standards for limiting the number of empty calories we consume each day. Limits are based on age and sex.

  • Children (2–8 years old): 120 calories per day
  • Children (9–13 years old): 120–250 calories per day 
  • Girls (14–18 years old): 120–250 calories per day
  • Boys (14–18 years old): 160–330 calories per day
  • Adult women: 120–250 calories per day
  • Adult men: 160–330 calories per day

These recommendations assumed that empty calories are extra calories consumed after reaching your recommended intake of other essential nutrients and food groups.

Current dietary guidelines provided by the USDA do not provide guidance specifically about empty calorie foods. But the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 does recommend that adults and children 2 years of age and older limiting added sugars to less than 10% of total calories per day. They also suggest limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories per day starting at age 2.

How to Identify Empty Calories

The best way to find empty calories in food is to check the Nutrition Facts label on the foods that you buy. The label provides detailed information about the various nutrients in the food.

For instance, you'll see a listing for "Added Sugars" underneath the "Carbohydrates" heading. You'll see how many grams are found in a serving of the food. You'll also see "% Daily Value" listed.

Percent daily value or DV tells you how a single serving of that food compares to recommended intakes for a nutrient based on a 2000 calorie per day diet. For example, if you see 10g listed for Added Sugars, you'll also see that it accounts for 10% of the recommended daily intake or DV for added sugars.

In addition to added sugars, you can also see how much saturated fat a food provides and how much sodium it provides.

15 Common Empty Calorie Foods

According to nutrition information provided by the USDA's MyPlate program for healthy eating, "a small amount of empty calories is okay, but most people eat far more than is healthy." They identify common foods that provide the most empty calories for Americans.

  • Bacon and other processed meats
  • Cakes and other sugary baked goods
  • Candy
  • Cookies
  • Donuts
  • French fries
  • Fruit drinks
  • Full-fat cheese
  • Pastries
  • Pizza
  • Sausages and hot dogs
  • Soda
  • Sports drinks
  • Sugar-sweetened coffee drinks
  • Ice cream

How to Make Healthier Choices

Balancing empty-calorie foods with more nutritious options can help you maintain an overall healthier lifestyle.

If it helps, you can think about empty calories as discretionary calories. Discretionary calories are kind of like "discretionary income." In the same way that discretionary income is the extra money left over after you pay your bills, discretionary calories are the calories leftover after taking in the foundational nutrients your body requires.


Sugary Cereal

breakfast cereal

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Breakfast cereal and flavored oatmeal may seem like healthy foods. Too often, these products are filled with added sugars. Cereals that are marketed for kids tend to be incredibly high in sugar. But even some of the adult brands are worth a second look.

Check the ingredients list for added sugar so that you'll know what you're getting before you buy. Try to choose high in fiber and low in sugar brands to help you feel full and satisfied throughout the morning.


Soda or Diet Soda

empty calorie sodas

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Sweetened sodas are very high in calories and provide no nutritional benefits. Although diet sodas have fewer calories, they still provide no nutritional benefits.

Work on drinking more water instead. If you need flavor, add fruit or herbs to make it taste better. Drinking soda is a tough habit to break, but even just reducing your intake can provide significant health benefits.



open bag of chips

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Fried potato chips and corn chips are common sources of empty calories. Many of these foods are fried in unhealthy oils. Even lower-calorie baked chips provide minimal nutritional benefits. Consider crispy vegetables, popcorn, roasted chickpeas, or whole-grain crackers as healthier ways to quell your salty and crunchy cravings.




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Pretzels may be lower in calories than fried snacks, but don't let that fool you into thinking of them as a healthy snack food. They offer very little nutrition and are often high in sodium. Because they don't fill you up, they're easy to overeat, regardless of whether or not you are truly hungry.



empty calorie muffins
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Fluffy muffins and baked breakfast goods are full of sugar, refined (white) flour, and trans fats. If you would like to have them occasionally as a treat, choose a small size or consider sharing with a friend. Aim to get some protein in the morning with a hard-boiled egg or a healthy smoothie on the go.


Coffee Drinks

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Fancy coffee and espresso drinks may offer a quick burst of energy, but they are also a common source of empty calories. In addition to the saturated fat in whole milk or cream, many of these drinks contain sugar-sweetened syrups and artificial flavors or candy toppings.

Instead, make your own healthier coffee drinks at home. Save money and improve your health by drinking hot lemon water. A cup of tea or coffee from home can provide a quick pick-me-up without the extra sugar.


Baked Desserts


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Cookies, cakes, pies, and other after-dinner delights are generally full of empty calories. Grain-based desserts are among the most common empty-calorie foods that the USDA has identified. While most of us realize that desserts have added sugar, sometimes these products are labeled to make you believe they are healthier than they are.

For example, organic non-GMO, gluten-free cookies are still cookies. Remember that these foods should be seen as a special treat rather than a daily habit.



bowl of hard candy

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A bowl of hard candies or chocolate minis on your desk may seem harmless. But, candy is one of the most commonly consumed empty-calorie foods. Mini candy treats are easy to overeat and don't provide any health benefits.

Instead of leaving these items in plain sight, put them away to be eaten more intentionally.


Sweetened Tea Drinks

glass of sweetened tea

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Bottled tea drinks and sports drinks are often no better for you than high-calorie soft drinks. Even if the label looks healthy and natural, many of these beverages contain added sugars and other sweeteners and preservatives.

Check the ingredients list and nutrition facts label before you buy them. Brewing your own herbal teas at home can help you have more control over the amount of added sugar they contain.


Juice Drinks

juice drinks in bottles

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Fruit-flavored drinks (like fruit punch) are typically high in sugar and have low nutritional value. Look for 100% juice on the food label for the real deal. Diluting juice with water or limiting your intake to a smaller glass will help you cut back on this concentrated source of sugar. Choose whole fruit over juice to get the full benefits of natural fiber.


French Fries

french fries

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French fries add up quickly, with a single serving of fries providing nearly 400 calories and very little nutrition.

For this reason, the USDA recommends that you make your own oven-baked fries instead. Potatoes are a vegetable, and keeping the skin on retains vital nutritional benefits. You can cut back on the extra oil used for frying by baking them in the oven.



apple sauce

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If your applesauce is homemade with real apples, it can definitely be a nutritious choice. But many commercially prepared cups and jars of applesauce have lots of added sugar, taking away from the otherwise healthy attributes of this natural food.

Choose fresh fruit whenever possible, which ensures that you get enough fiber to slow down your body's absorption of the naturally-occurring sugars. If you love applesauce, make your own without added sugar. Cinnamon is a great addition that provides flavor without sugar.


High Fat Milk and Dairy Products


Nutritionists often include whole milk and whole milk dairy products like cheese, butter, and ice cream on their lists of empty-calorie foods. These foods do provide some nutritional benefits, but they also contain a lot of saturated fat. Some, like ice cream, contain added sugar as well.

The science is mixed on whole fat dairy, however. Many sources may be very nutritious. Read more about this topic here:




Michael Shay / Getty Images

Pizza is almost always listed among the top empty-calorie foods because of refined flour and unhealthy toppings. Many pizza brands even add sugar to the tomato sauce or extra sodium and preservatives to the pizza dough.

If you're a die-hard pizza fan, try to find whole-wheat pizza dough at your local grocer. Top it with lots of veggies to make your own whole-grain veggie pizza at home.




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Margarine may sound healthier than butter, but in many cases, it's not. Several margarine brands contain trans fat. Using a small amount of butter is often a better choice than choosing a processed imitation product.

If you prefer margarine, choose a brand that contains no hydrogenated oils on the ingredients list (trans fat). Avocado is a nutritious alternative that's a good source of ​monounsaturated fat.



jar of jelly

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Commercial jelly brands often contain added sweeteners, like high fructose corn syrup, despite its association with fruit. Look for reduced sugar versions or choose a whole fruit spread. For optimal nutrition, it's always a good bet to eat the whole fruit.


Sausage and Processed Meats

sausage meats

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Many dietitians consider sausage (and other highly processed meats) as an empty-calorie food to avoid. Even chicken or turkey sausage can contain high amounts of saturated fat when made with the skin and other high-fat parts of the animal. These products are also always notoriously high in sodium.

Make your own healthy sausage at home, or check nutrition labels carefully when buying sausage products at the store. Feel free to have sausage in moderation, but choose less-processed meats more often.


Breakfast or Snack Bars

snack bars

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Breakfast bars or snack bars are often not as healthy as they're made out to be. Many provide no more nutritional value than a standard candy bar. They often contain added sugar, refined grains, and unhealthy fats.

Choose a healthier snack bar with fiber and protein to fill you up, and look for brands with less sugar. Shorter and more simple ingredients lists usually indicate that they are less processed.


Frozen Yogurt

frozen yogurt

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Many people believe that frozen yogurt, or "fro-yo," is a healthier alternative to full-fat ice cream. However, this empty-calorie food typically contains quite a bit of added sugar and very little nutritional value. Both ice cream and frozen yogurt are empty-calorie foods that are meant to be enjoyed sparingly.

If you choose to indulge, be mindful of your portion size. A single serving is just 1/2 cup. Sometimes the first few bites can satisfy a sweet craving just as well as a larger size.

A Word From Verywell

Now that you know more about empty-calorie foods, you'll be better equipped to identify them at the grocery store, in restaurants, and on your plate.

Knowledge is power. It's OK to choose empty-calorie foods once in a while, but don't let yourself be fooled by treats disguised as health foods. Checking food labels and choosing whole foods will help you get the most nutrition out of each day.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Edwina Wambogo, Jill Reedy, Marissa Shams-White, Kirsten Herrick, Jennifer Lerman, Lauren O'Connor, Sources of energy, empty calories, added sugars, and solid fats among children and adolescents 2–18 years in the United StatesCurrent Developments in Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue Supplement_2, June 2020, Page 296, doi:10.1093/cdn/nzaa043_1

  2. Poti JM, Slining MM, Popkin BM. Where are kids getting their empty calories? Stores, schools, and fast-food restaurants each played an important role in empty calorie intake among US children during 2009-2010J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014;114(6):908-917. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2013.08.012

  3. US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025

  5. USDA ChooseMyPlate. What are empty calories?

By Malia Frey, M.A., ACE-CHC, CPT
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.