Calories: Units of Energy. So Stop Calling Them ‘Empty.’

The phrase ’empty calories’ has always irked me, and it seems to be cropping up everywhere around me lately, like people got a memo that I didn’t see mandating its use at least four times a day. It’s a meaningless phrase that has become fraught with meaning, used as an indictment of some types of food, and it really needs to stop, because it’s not true, and it reinforces dangerous social attitudes.

The calorie, which is actually the kilocalorie in the case of food, is a unit of energy. It reflects the amount of energy available in a given unit of food, and that’s all it reveals; if something has 100 calories in a 10 gram serving, that doesn’t tell you anything about where that energy is derived from (fats, carbohydrates, fiber, etc.) or what kinds of added nutritional value, like vitamins and minerals, may also be present. This is why nutrition labels require disclosure not just of the calories in a serving, but also of the additional nutritional information, because caloric value alone doesn’t provide enough information.

When a food is high in calories while being low in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, those calories are sometimes referred to as ’empty,’ which makes little sense. They aren’t empty; they’re providing energy. They aren’t providing much other than energy, but energy is still needed to function. The body actually burns through a lot of fuel on any given day just to power baseline processes, let alone activities like exercising, moving around, and engaging in complex cognition.

People can choose between varying sources of calories, and some may offer more nutritional benefits than others, but they aren’t ’empty.’ We can talk about the source of energy in food to discuss potential risks and benefits of that source; for example, trans fats are generally recognised as potentially harmful, and they also have a high caloric value. Some fats, in other words, are better than others when it comes to balancing out nutrition. But they still aren’t ’empty.’ They’re doing things inside the body. Not always good things, but things nonetheless.

What people mean when they talk about empty calories is that a food is ‘bad’ for you, determined by some loose social measure fundamentally based on viewing fat as a bad thing and associating fatness with calories. Some foods are high in calories, which can be associated with weight gain (a complex combination of factors contributes to weight, as I hope we all know), and ergo, these foods must be ‘bad.’ Potato chips. Doughnuts. Candy. They’re ’empty calories’ because all they do is fatten people up, without adding, as it were, value.

These assumptions are based in some faulty knowledge about nutrition, but more than that, they’re based in faulty ideas about weight. Weight isn’t a determining factor in whether someone is a good or bad person.

It can play a role in health, but weight alone doesn’t determine if someone is healthy or unhealthy, and people who are unwell and fat may be unwell for reasons completely unrelated to the fat (in fact, the fat could be caused by the illness). And, furthermore, health has absolutely nothing to do with whether someone is good or bad.

Value judgments about weight are what allow people to assign the ’empty calorie’ designation to some foods and not to others; fat people eat doughnuts all the time, doughnuts must make them fat, fat is bad, ergo the calories contained in doughnuts are bad. They must be ’empty,’ devoid of value, just like the fat people who eat them, unlike broccoli, which is chock-full of all kinds of ‘good,’ just like the thin people who eat it[1. Fact: Fat people do not eat broccoli.].

‘I’m staying away from empty calories,’ people say. What they really mean is ‘I’m terrified of getting fat,’ but that’s not what they say. And these kinds of statements contribute very directly to disordered eating, because it is hard to eat well, to eat for yourself, to balance the needs of your body with the pressures of society, when you’re continuously reminded that food, something which should be value-neutral, can be good or bad. Some foods are evil and other foods are not, and you must navigate the muddy waters to eat the ‘right’ ones or else you’ll be considered a bad person.

Hovering your hand over the options at a buffet, prepare to be faced with narrowed eyes if you happen upon a food that contains ’empty’ calories, because you’re selecting a bad food item. If you’re slim, you’ll get a knowing nod for ‘indulging’ regardless as to how frequently you eat such foods, and if you’re fat, you get the glare for continuing to eat the food that is obviously making you fat, again regardless as to how often you eat such foods.

A calorie is just a calorie. It’s a unit of energy, and that’s all it is. Units of measurement can’t be bad or good; miles aren’t evil while kilometres are saintly. The calorie is simply one way of quantifying something, and not a 100% accurate and perfect way, either. It’s a way to contextualise nutritional information and come up with recommendations, but one thing it’s not is empty. If a food contains 100 calories, it contains 100 calories. That’s not ’empty.’

As always, major props to The Fat Nutritionist for her coverage of food, food politics, and eating. Her thoughts on these matters have definitely informed my own and if you aren’t already reading her (and checking out her archives), you should be.