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Getting to the Heart of a Healthy Diet: Empty-Calorie Foods

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The American Heart Association recommends that you limit your intake of foods high in calories or low in nutrition, including foods like soda and candy, that have a lot of sugars. Most everyone knows that these are unhealthy, but do you know the reasons why?

Fat vs. Calories

People may think that any food that is low in fat is inherently healthy. This is not the case. For example, soda and hard candy have no fat, but they also have no vitamins, minerals, fiber, or other heart-healthy ingredients. What they do have is sugar, and lots of it. And a lot of sugar can add up to a lot of calories.

Eating foods high in sugar and calories can lead to weight gain, and being overweight is a risk factor for heart attacks and heart disease.

In addition, sugary foods often take the place of healthier foods. For example, when was the last time you chose a soda over a glass of skim milk or snacked on gummi bears instead of an apple?

How to Minimize Empty-Calorie Food Intake:

Here are a few tips to help you minimize your intake of empty-calorie foods.

Do not be fooled by low-fat sweets. Often, when food manufacturers remove fat from cookies, crackers, cakes, and other snack foods, they add sugar to make up for the flavor lost with the fat. The result is that many low-fat snacks provide the same amount of calories—or more—as the original product. So a low-fat banner on the package does not give you free reign to eat the whole box. It's still important to look at calories and limit snacks.

Find other ways to satisfy your sweet tooth. Sometimes a little bit of sugar goes a long way. Try some of these tactics:

  • Instead of the sugary cereal you have been eating since you were a kid, make a bowl of oatmeal and top it with some brown sugar, honey, or real maple syrup.
  • Snack on a bowl of applesauce; if it's not sweet enough, add raisins.
  • Fruits, both fresh and dried, are sweet and may offer you the sweet fix you are looking for at 3 o'clock in the afternoon or after dinner.

Choose diet versions. If you just love the taste of soda and can't imagine having popcorn or pizza with anything else, try a diet version. Or if it's the bubbles you crave, have a glass of one of these low calorie beverages:

  • Seltzer water (some are flavored)
  • Club soda (add a splash of fruit juice for flavor)


American Heart Association

Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics


Canadian Cardiovascular Society

Dietitians of Canada


Diet foods, used wisely, can help in weight control. American Heart Association website. Available at: Updated January 9, 2015. Accessed June 30, 2016.

Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: Updated December 2015. Accessed June 30, 2016.

Dietary interventions for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated June 16, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.

What are empty calories? website. Available at: Updated March 30, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.

Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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