Photograph by Siram Bala, Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Siram Bala, Creative Commons 2.0

Why Empty Calories Are a Big Problem

Not all foods are created equal. Some foods, in fact, from a nutritionist’s point of view, barely count as foods at all.

Among these are doughnuts, pizza, ice cream, candy, soda pop, chips, chocolate pudding, and bacon—as well as beer, wine, and any other conceivable form of booze.

All these are hefty repositories of empty calories—that is, ingredients such as solid fats and sugars that add lots of calories to foods, but provide nothing much in the way of useful nutrients.

The flip side of the coin is nutrient-dense foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, (fat-free) milk, (unsalted) nuts, beans, fish, and lean meats. These are lower in calories than empty-calorie junk foods and are great sources of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and monounsaturated fatty acids.

In the best of all possible worlds, of course, a box of glazed doughnuts and a six-pack would be a reasonable choice for dinner. Biologically, though, we’re just not there.

This point was dramatically demonstrated in “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary on the physiological and psychological effects of the fast-food industry. The physically fit, 32-year-old Spurlock, who both directed and starred in the film, spent thirty days living on nothing but McDonald’s food. By the end of his Big-Mac-saturated month, he’d gained 24 pounds, upped his cholesterol level to 230, suffered heart palpitations, and experienced mood swings and sexual dysfunction. It took him over a year to return to normal, with the help of his girlfriend, a vegan chef.

Since the 1960s, Americans on average have grown 24 pounds heavier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 70 percent of American adults are overweight, and 35 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are clinically obese. Obesity in America, according to the Surgeon General, is now epidemic—and it brings with it a battery of health issues, among them increased incidences of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity is $147 billion.

While studies show that obesity has multiple causes—among them genetic and environmental factors, stress, lack of exercise, and lack of sleep—a prime contributor is food. We’re eating too much of it, and we’re eating the wrong kind.

We know potato chips aren’t healthy, so why do we keep eating them? According to some food analysts, we’re addicted to the crunch.

In Daniel Manus Pinkwater’s Fat Men From SpaceDaniel Manus Pinkwater’s Fat Men From Space—a book devoted to the theme of empty calories—young William, the main character, begins picking up radio signals (via a filling in his tooth) from a fleet of spaceships heading toward Earth. From the ships, hordes of fat men in plaid jackets descend upon the planet and begin consuming all the junk food in sight: cheeseburgers, hotdogs, pizza, French fries, cupcakes wrapped in cellophane, ice-cream bars, jelly doughnuts, and chocolate-covered marshmallows.

“Conditions of panic exist in many parts of the United States,” reports Manus Pinkwater. “Residents of most areas cannot get anything to eat but lean meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables…” By the time the fat men depart (in search of intergalactic pancakes), the Earth is entirely stripped of junk food, and William and his parents are reduced living on green salads, whole-grain bread, and milk.

Health-wise, it’s a happy ending.