Empty Calorie Foods vs. Nutrient Dense Foods


Learn what foods contain empty calories you should avoid for healthy weight loss.

To lose weight, it is important to balance calories in and out. With lower caloric intake, you eat fewer nutrients and this may lead to a problem: you do not get the nutrients your body needs. The solution is to prefer nutrient-dense food to food and beverages packed with empty calories like sodas. For an equal number of calories, you can get more vitamins and microelements essential to your health. Pay attention to the nutrient density of the food you buy.

What Is Nutrient Density?

Nutrient density is the amount of nutrients per unit of energy (calorie) you get from the given food. Eating nutrient-dense food is one of the healthiest ways of dieting: you get a lot of vitamins, minerals, fiber and save calories. Nutrient-dense food includes fruit, whole grains, legumes, vegetables, lean meat, eggs, poultry, low-fat dairy and seafood. Whole, unprocessed foods are usually nutrient dense.

How to Tell Nutrient-Dense Foods From Empty-Calorie Foods?

Two products can have approximately the same number of calories, but the amount of nutrients and vitamins in them may differ greatly. If you compare a portion of baked potato to a portion of plain potato chips with equal calorie content (100 calories), you will find that baked potato contains twice the amount of dietary fiber: baked potato contains 1.61 g of fiber, while chips contain 0.75 g of fiber. In addition, baked potato has four times more vitamin C than chips (13.7 mg of vitamin C in baked potato and 3.4 mg in potato chips). Baked potato is more nutrient dense than plain potato chips.

Empty Calories Definition

What is an empty calorie? Empty-calorie food is the opposite of nutrient-dense food. Sweets and soft drinks are very high in calories because of added sugars, while their nutrient density is very low. Such energy-dense food is not beneficial to your health.

Make the Right Choice

To get all the nutrients your body needs and save calories, substitute nutrient-dense food for empty-calorie food. Fruit and vegetables are perfect nutrient-dense snacks as they are low in calories and packed with dietary fiber and vitamins. Eat apples between meals and a cup of strawberry instead of chips or popcorn in front of a TV.

Nutrient-dense food contains more nutrients and generally fewer calories than energy-dense food. “They’re the foods that are loaded with the nutrients we need to thrive,” says Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, “Think about choosing a potato instead of potato chips, or a banana instead of a soda. Opt for a plate with lots of vegetables, and skip the dinner roll. Ignore the cake and go for the fruit.”

Make a wise choice. You should not use calorie count as the main criterion when buying food. Eat food high in nutrients. Nutrient-dense food includes, for the most part, dietary products: fish, fruit, vegetables, seafood. “If Americans choose foods based on nutrient density,” Kennedy says, “they will, essentially, be choosing foods based on quality.” You can make a perfect diet plan with nutrient-dense food. A diet based on the concept of nutrient density will help you lose weight and get all the nutrients your body needs for health.

More About Empty Calories and Nutrient Density

  1. The World’s Healthiest Foods. “What is nutrient density and why is it so important?”
  2. Newswise.com. “Expert Recommends Communicating ‘Nutrient Density’ to Consumers”


8 thoughts on “Empty Calorie Foods vs. Nutrient Dense Foods”

  • At first most people hit the weight loss plateau. The important thing is to continue with the exercise program and not to get discouraged. Exercises raise your metabolism, allowing your body to burn more calories. Your body just needs time to adapt to your new regimen.

    You may also try to change the proportion of carbs, protein and fat in your diet. If you are a carb-eater, try reducing your carb intake so that you get about 40% of your calories from carbs, 30%–from protein and 30%–from fat. Remember: carbs and protein have 4 calories per gram, while fat has 9 calories per gram. If you are not a vegetarian, lean meat or fish with fresh vegetables make a filling meal. Soups are great too as they are usually low in calories but make you feel full and satisfied.

  • Everyday I do elliptical machine (manual) resistance 1 or 2 for 40-60 minutes. Add on Tuesdays for upper body workout (roughly 15 min.) and Wed. for lower body workout. I’m not a big breakfast person…I’ll try to eat a banana or oatmeal. I have 2 snacks a day (usually fruit or yogurt) then a sensible lunch and dinner. Water through out day. I’ve been doing this since Jan. 1st 2011 and I’m still at the same weight. I am getting toner but I’m not losing weight. Any suggestions?

  • This helped me get to know about empty calories. I always knew that fruits and veggies were always the right choice, but I guess I just couldn’t get over my old habits. When I finally got to buy apples and ate them every snack time as a replacement for chips, I actually thought they were more filling and actually healthier than junk food.

    Fred Homes

  • Nutrient density is the amount of nutrients per unit of energy (calorie) you get from the given food. Eating nutrient-dense food is one of the healthiest ways of dieting: you get a lot of vitamins, minerals, fiber and save calories. Nutrient-dense food includes fruit, whole grains, legumes, vegetables, lean meat, eggs, poultry, low-fat dairy and seafood. Whole, unprocessed foods are usually nutrient dense.

  • It is hard to give you much advice without knowing much about you. The first thing you should do is consult your doctor and see what he/she has to say regarding your diet and exercise program. However, here would be my suggestion: Decrease the time and frequency of your aerobic workouts, increase the number of weight workouts, eat nutrient dense foods, and cut out excesses like coffee, dessert, etc.

    Decreasing time and frequency of aerobic workouts:
    I question the intensity of your aerobic workouts. I do not doubt that at the end of your workouts, you are tired (40-60 minutes is a long time!) but you are better served going at a higher intensity (increasing the level slightly, but mainly just going faster and increasing your RPMs). You could do a 20 minute interval workout once or twice a week and burn just as many calories as the 60 minute exercise (There are not enough studies to prove that there is an after-burn, but I believe that interval workouts speed up the metabolism and keep it going well after the workout). The interval workout goes as follows (Make sure to check with your doctor that this program is okay for you to try out.): 6 minute warm-up, 30 seconds at 70% maximum speed (you will learn what this is after doing the first workout all the way through), 60 seconds at warm-up speed, repeat for a total of 5. Then go back to warm-up speed until you have reached 16 minutes of elapsed time. Repeat the sprinting set. You should finish around 22 minutes in. Then cool down at a warm-up speed and below for 3-4 minutes. Your heart rate should get up relatively high (tough to tell without knowing your age and other factors. Again, ask your doctor. My guess would be to aim around 150-170 but I can’t tell with any accuracy without knowing more about you. Alternate this with your one-speed workouts (these can be between 20-30 minutes) so you are doing aerobic workouts 3-4 times a week. This should be more beneficial.

    Increase the lifting workouts and intensity of lifting workouts:
    Lifting weight actually burns fat! It also tones (to make you look good) and is important so you don’t get hurt. By changing it up with aerobic activities, you help keep your body healthy to maintain such vigorous workouts.

    Eat nutrient dense food:
    You say that you have a sensible lunch and dinner, but that doesn’t convey any info. It is important to stay away from high-sodium foods and caffeine as they will make you retain water and keep your weight up. Also, cutting out excesses like dessert and sweets (empty calories) will help decrease your weight.

    Also, I agree with what the poster wrote above. Decreasing your carb intake will probably help.

    Lastly, make sure to measure your waist, arm, chest, thigh, and calf circumferences. It is very likely that you have already lost weight (in fat) but are gaining weight (in muscle), which is very healthy and great! Muscle is more dense than fat so small gains in muscle will cause your weight to increase but your circumfrences to decrease (making you more skinny). So it is important not just to measure by weight.

    I hope this helps! Good luck!

    *I am not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be. I am just trying to help. Like I said numerous times, you should consult a doctor before making any changes.

  • depends how fast you want to lose weight. loosing weight is just burning off more calories than you gain. depending on what you want to do, lift weight, run,walk, jog, or bike. if you like lifting weights your not going to bulk up lifting over 10lbs. you bulk up lifting heavy objects with less reps. if you intend to lift weights to burn calories you should work out legs, back, and chest. do 20-30 reps with low weights, 2-3times. every other day. if you like running, jogging, or biking. i personally recommend a stair climber or an elliptical machine. these machines are by far the best machines for cardio. they add resistance training with little do no stress on the joints. i recommend doing the manual settings with a resistance that you feel. the higher the resistance the more calories you burn. if you choose to do elliptical you should do this everyday or every other day for at least 40-60mins. you will no bulk up, but become lean. eat lots of vegi’s and wheat breads. stay away from lots of fruits and sugars. stay away from diet foods too. try to drink lots of water. And stay away from those powder mixes.

  • After surgery I gained 22 lbs and do can not loose it. I go to the gym, but I am too scared to lift more that 10 lbs for fear that I might bulk up on my already excess weight. I eat right, but unfortunately my job is a sit down almost seven hours. Should I increase the pounds I train on so there will be some resistance allowing me to burn calories, and I also recently introduce those powder mix from Kellogs or the antioxidant from crystal lite.

  • You need to consult your doctor before choosing your exercise program, especially if you have a medical condition. In general, cardio exercises help to lose weight and weight training helps to build muscle. You need jogging, swimming or at least walking.

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