Many of the foods and drinks Americans consume fall within the "empty calories" category. These products, more commonly known as junk food, contain many calories from added sugars and solid fats but offer very few significant nutrients, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can still be healthy if you let junk food make up a small part of your daily calories, but it's important to keep a close eye on what you're putting in your body.
Your daily limit for empty calories is based on how many calories you eat each day. The average child can have about 120 to 160 empty calories per day, boys from 14 to 18 and males from 31 to 50 can have about 265 empty calories a day, females from 19 to 30 and males 51 and over can have about 260, males from 19 to 30 can have about 330 and females over 51 can have about 120, according to the USDA. Your physical activity level increases your daily calorie needs, so you likely have a larger empty-calorie limit if you get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days.
If you eat too many calories from added sugars, you are at risk of gaining an unhealthy amount of weight and developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood fats and heart disease. Most junk foods – including baked goods, hot dogs, fried foods and microwave popcorn – are also high in saturated and trans fats, which are fats that are solid at room temperature. These solid fats can increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your "bad" cholesterol levels. Trans fats can even decrease your level of "good" cholesterol, a problem that further increases your risk of having high "bad" cholesterol.
Some good news for your sweet tooth: eating a moderate amount of some treats may actually benefit your health. For instance, dark chocolate contains antioxidants that may help protect your body from free radicals, according to Meals Matter by the Dairy Council of California. Free radicals are reactive molecules that may lower your risk of age-related health problems such as heart disease. Still, you should stick to no more than about 6 or 7 g of dark chocolate per day or else you may undo the benefits by eating too much fat and sugar. Eating a moderate amount of sweets has also been linked to a longer life span, according to a 1998 study published in "British Medical Journal." In the study, men who ate candy one to three times a month lived an average of one year longer than men who abstained from eating sweets.
Make the most of your daily empty-calorie allowance by adding some nutrients to your treats. For instance, enjoy baked apples with cinnamon, eat a yogurt parfait with granola and fresh fruit, bake treats with whole-wheat flour, top some low-fat frozen yogurt with nuts and make your popsicles out of 100 percent fruit juice, recommends UAB Medicine. If you are presented with a treat that is truly void of nutrients, satisfy your craving by having half the portion size, then wash it down with a glass of water rather than a soda.
- USDA’s MyPlate.gov: Empty Calories
- American Institute for Cancer Research; The Science of Sweets; December 2006
- UAB Medicine: How to Incorporate Sweets Into Healthy Eating; Debbie Strong, M.B.A., R.D., et al., et al.
- Meals Matter by the Dairy Council of California; Health Benefits of Sweets & Fats
- "British Medical Journal"; Life Is Sweet: Candy Consumption and Longevity; I. Lee, et al.; December 1998
- ScienceDaily; Dark Chocolate: Half a Bar Per Week May Keep Heart Attack Risk at Bay; September 2008