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How To Identify Empty Calories At A Grocery Store Near You!

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

As I’ve learned more about nutrition, I’ve become increasingly aware of the ubiquity of foods that offer almost no nutritional value whatsoever. What’s so shocking is that most foods that are available at your grocery store fall into this category known as “empty calories”.

What Are Empty Calories?

Empty calories are foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, and fiber. Empty calories typically are highly processed, have added chemicals and sugars, and may add synthetic (not natural) vitamins and minerals after processing.

While I seldom eat empty calories now, I lived on empty calories for most of my life. As you’ll see from the photos below, it’s hard not to eat empty calories because they are simply everywhere and are considered “normal” foods. It took me a long time to “readjust” my taste buds and become accustomed to eating more natural, unprocessed foods. Now, I really don’t miss empty calories and carbs at all.

My estimate is 70% of the foods at an average U.S. grocery store are comprised of empty calories and carbs that provide little, if any nutritional value. The foods that are high in sugar may even be toxic for your health (See: Are You Eating Too Much Sugar?)

The photos below I took at the same NYC grocery store, which represents just a small sample of all the empty calories & carbs.

Empty Calories Pic #1 – Sugar Cookies

Empty Calories Pic #2 – Sugary Syrups & Jam

Empty Calories Pic #3 – Let Go My Eggo With Chocolate Chips!

Empty Calories Pic #4 – Chips Anyone?

Empty Calories #4 – Here’s Another Helping of Chips…

Empty Calories Pic #6 – Endless Fruit Juice

Some fruit juices are fairly nutritious, but most have tons of added sugars, don’t fill you up, and lack nutrition. Drinking calories is one of the easiest ways to gain fat. Nothing is as good as water for hydration of course.

Empty Calories Pic #7 – Endless Soda

Empty Calories Pic #8 – Rolls & Cakes

Empty Calories Pic #9 – Candy Galore

Empty Calories Pic #10 – More Candy….

Empty Calories Pic #11 – And Even More Candy….

Empty Calories Pic #12 – Breakfast Cereals, or Candy?

Some cereals have vitamins, minerals, and are low in sugar, but most are basically like eating candy. Check out the amount of sugars per serving in some of these cereals and you’ll see what I mean. Even the “healthy” cereals are dubious.

Empty Calories Pic #13 – The Definition of Empty Carbs…

White bread doesn’t have added sugars like all the other examples, but doesn’t bring much to the table. I’m only human and eat white bread from time to time, but more natural carbohydrate sources are preferable.

Empty Calories Pic #14 – More Cookies…

Empty Calories Pic #15 – And We Can’t Forget Pastries

It’s not easy for me to add this photo, because I lived on Entenmann’s Chocolate Chip Cookies and the Golden Chocolate Cake growing up. The amount of sugar in these pastries is jaw dropping; only 9 cookies is over 33 grams of sugar, which is 7 teaspoons of sugar. A box is 33 cookies, which is 121 grams of sugar (30 teaspoons of sugar) and 1500+ calories.

What percentage of a grocery store do you think is empty carbs & calories?

Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

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27 Comments

  • Mary says:

    The best way to resist the empty calories is to substitute comparable nutritious food items, such an apple and cashew peanut butter or a low sugar natural jam instead of snacks that are laden with fat and sugar. It is possible and over time you will naturally head for these items and lose interest in the empty calorie foods. It takes will power, but it can be done. Good article!

  • Gren says:

    i think I just lost my will to eat...

    no seriously, there is really nothing to eat now that this list has come out!!

    Marc, I want to see the approved eating list in the next post :)

  • Marc Perry says:

    @Gren - I know where you are coming from. What's crazy is that I could have literally taken 30 photos of all the foods that are empty calories, but I only took 5 photos of all the "real" and unprocessed"food that you can buy at your grocery store. Check out my comment above to Wade where I describe healthier alternatives. In addition, I think simply having a handful of berries, or an apple is a much better snack than potato chips, pastries, or any other food listed in this article! Just that change right there can make a big difference. Will follow up soon!

  • Scott says:

    Marc: As always BRAVO on an eye-opening article. I've learned to try and only perimeter shop. However with kids in the house, the pantry has those UNDESIRABLE EMPTY CALORIES snacks we need to avoid! The family has lately come around and are eating better alternatives, "small steps". More fruits, almond butter, veggies, etc.... We just need to be creative at times with the presentation.

    Referring to "TUBOR" foods......Is there anything else in that category in addition to potatoes & sweet potatoes?

    What market have you been comfortable with lately to buy your Organic Meats & fish? Whole Foods?

    Thanks Marc!

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Scott - Thanks for the comment and I apologize for not responding sooner. Sometimes comments can slip by me. I think regarding tubers, yams, sweet potatoes, brown/wild rice, various legumes, squash, oatmeal to name a few are in the starchy carbohydrate/grain category and are all mostly unprocessed. Regarding buying organic foods, I like trader joes and whole foods. Both have great options, but I would say Trader Joes has very competitive pricing, while whole foods generally has a larger selection.

  • Toni says:

    I grew up in a house where Wonder Bread was served with regularity. Our next-door neighbor always used to chide my late mother about the lack of nutrition of it compared to whole wheat bread. Years later, I realized that our neighbor was onto something about whole grains versus sugary-laden white bread. The one thing I've struggled with is the fruit juice thing. I've basically cut my juice consumption down to just orange juice in the morning and an occasion tomato juice (low sodium version) every now and then. I've been drinking water by the gallon because it's so much better for you. Also, making oatmeal is not always an option for me so I eat Cheerios as a second-choice. I"ve got two school-age sons and they don't like the fact that I don't buy the sugary cereals and snacks anymore but they've started reaching for a piece of fruit or yogurt instead. I keep telling myself that I have to lead by example.

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Toni - That's great you are a role model for your kids and it seems their eating habits are starting to improve directly because of the food choices you are making. At the end of the day, you do have to lead by example. I wish many other parents followed your habits, because childhood obesity is simply out of hand. Children shouldn't have to worry about being so overweight and unhealthy. It's sad.

  • Seb says:

    What should me and my brother eat for breakfast instead of cereal, and eggs, we have egg whites, so what should we eat? since cereal is candy and me and my brother are trying to get rid of all junk food, desserts, junk drinks!!!!!!!!! we are trying to eat fruits, veggies, and organic fruits/veggies taste so much better then non- organic /processed foods!

    What is the best place to buy non-processed foods because, I want to get rid of processed foods and aren't processed foods bad for you and fating!!!!

    Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Seb - Eggs are very nutritious, so do continue to eat them. Other options include greek yogurt, fruit like grapefruit, berries, an orange, etc. I wouldn't put too much pressure on yourself either, some cereal here or there should be fine, just may not be ideal. You can buy unprocessed foods at a grocery store, the point I was trying to make with this article is that most food at the grocery store is quite processed. I do need to follow up with a post about what to actually buy at a grocery store, as opposed to what to avoid. I'm happy to see you are so interested in improving your health and your family's health, that's great!

  • Seb says:

    What should me and my brother eat for breakfast instead of cereal, and eggs, we have egg whites, so what should we eat? since cereal is candy and me and my brother are trying to get rid of all junk food, desserts, junk drinks!!!!!!!!! we are trying to eat fruits, veggies, and organic fruits/veggies taste so much better then non- organic /processed foods!

    Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Cg says:

    Is it okay to drink diet coke?

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      That's a great question! We actually have a couple of awesome articles that discuss whether sugar alcohols (like those in diet coke) are ok to consume, or if they're bad for you. I recommend checking them out:

      http://www.builtlean.com/2012/10/08/sugar-alcohol/
      http://www.builtlean.com/2013/12/16/diet-soda-weight-gain/

      In short, while sugar alcohols don't contain calories, they can increase your cravings for sugar, and they may cause some negative reactions like headaches, bloating, and stomach upset. Additionally, drinking diet soda is correlated with weight gain and obesity.

      I would recommend checking out those articles, and then making the best decision for yourself. Personally, I try to avoid artificial sweeteners, chemicals, or food colorings. Instead, I tame my sweet tooth with fruit (and the occasional dark chocolate). I hope that helps! If you have more questions, feel free to ask!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Kim says:

    I think 80% of the super market is empty calories and carbs.

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      Hi Kim,

      I agree - grocery stores are filled with a lot of packaged & processed foods. That's why I think the best approach is to shop for most of your groceries around the perimeter (where the fruits, vegetables, and proteins are located), and then picking up select items from the aisles (like olive oil, seasonings, etc).

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Roman says:

    You are incorrect about the definition of what an empty calorie is.

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      Would you mind sharing your definition of an empty calorie?
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

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