The Myth of the Empty Calorie

As a logically thinking person who has always been interested in both science and language, I was completely mystified by the phrase “empty calories” when I heard it for the first time. That doesn’t make any sense, I thought. Calories are not tangible items that can be either full or empty. Calories are energy. It is literally impossible for a food to consist of nothing but energy – what would that even look like, an edible beam of lightning?!

Obviously, I know what people are really trying to say when they use this phrase. They want to tell you that the snack you’re eating is lacking in nutritional value because it mostly contains sugar, fat or both and doesn’t have much else to offer. I have been told that “There are no nutrients in it that our bodies really need!”

Well … I don’t know about you, but the last time I checked, fat and carbohydrate were major nutrients that my body needed. The very fact that they’re in there means that the food does have nutritional value. I might go so far as to say that all food does, or else it wouldn’t be food! It is arguable whether or not you are worse off if you consume that carbohydrate in the form of sugar, but anyone except for the admittedly still alive no-carb crowd* would agree that we do need some of it.

The motivation behind labelling food in this manner is an ingrained belief that sugar and fat are bad for us and should only be consumed in small quantities, preferably together with other things. To be honest, I do have an inkling that I, myself, am in fact eating too much sugar and that this is bad for me. However, that’s not because I believe that the sugar itself is bad – it’s because I fear I’m not getting enough protein. I can easily tell that this is the case whenever I suddenly feel like eating a ton of eggs while that bar of chocolate over there looks totally icky. I also think that I should include more fiber in my diet, but again this is not related to anything else being bad.

Another important factor that can cause many of us to question the “healthiness” of a food is the amount of vitamins and minerals in it. Of course it is true that we need them, just like we need all of the major nutrients. There is no reason to insist that they be in every single meal that we eat, though – if you’ve already had your daily fill of vitamin C, for example, any additional vitamin C will simply go to waste. I understand the urge to take a “better safe than sorry” approach, but it will do no harm to stray from that occasionally. No matter how you turn it: Food that mostly consists of major nutrients is not useless.

*If you want to live off of animal products only and can arrange that with your conscience, go ahead. On the other hand I have also heard of poor individuals who tried this and became very ill, which clearly indicates that it is not an option for everyone.