Avoid “Empty Calories”

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Choosing foods and beverages that give you the most nutrients for the calories consumed is one way to eat well. At the same time, it’s important to avoid “empty calories” — foods and drinks that are high in calories but low in nutrients. Limit your intake of

  • saturated fats and trans fats
  • sodium
  • added sugars.

How Fats Can Affect You

We often think of fats as unhealthy, but your body needs a limited amount of certain kinds of fats. Fats in your diet give you energy and also help your body absorb vitamins.

On the other hand, fat contains more than twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrates, and eating too many high-fat foods will likely add excess calories and lead to weight gain. Excess weight increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or other health problems. Excess weight can also make it harder to control these diseases if you already have them.

How Much Fat?

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The fat in your diet comes from two places—the fat already in food and the fat added when you cook. Aim to limit total fats to 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories. For instance, if you consume 2,000 calories daily, only 400 to 700 of the calories should be from fats. The number of calories from fat is listed on the Nutrition Facts label on packaged food labels.

(Note: The FDA recently proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label to reflect the latest scientific information linking diet and chronic diseases like obesity and heart disease. Proposed updates include a new design that better highlights key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes.)

Most of the fats you consume should be polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. These healthy fats come from liquid vegetable oils, nuts, flaxseed, and fish such as salmon, trout, and herring.

Why Limit Solid Fats?

Limit the amount of saturated fats and trans fats you consume. Saturated fats are found in foods like beef, cheese, milk, butter, and ice cream and other frozen desserts. Trans fats are found in foods like margarine, crackers, icings, and French fries, as well as in many sweets such as cake, cookies, and doughnuts.


No more than 10 percent of your total daily calories should come from saturated fats. Keep intake of trans fats as low as possible. Read the Nutrition Facts label to choose products that contain “0” trans fats. (Trans fats are in the process of being removed from the food supply by the Food and Drug Administration.)


figure28_rTips to Limit Fat

Here are steps you can take to lower the fat in your diet.

  • Choose seafood, lean poultry (with the skin removed), or lean cuts of meat.
  • Trim off any extra fat before cooking.
  • Use low-fat or fat-free dairy products and salad dressings.
  • Use non-stick pots and pans, and cook without added fat.
  • Choose an unsaturated or monounsaturated or polyunsaturated vegetable oil for cooking, such as olive, canola, or sesame oil.
  • Don’t fry foods. Instead, broil, roast, bake, stir-fry, steam, microwave, or boil them.
  • Season your foods with lemon juice, herbs, or spices instead of butter.

Why Limit Salt (Sodium)?

The body needs sodium, and the usual way people get it is by eating salt. But people tend to eat more salt than they need. If you are 51 or older, you should limit your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams daily (about 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt). That includes all the sodium in your food and drink, not just the salt you add. Keeping your salt intake low helps to keep your blood pressure under control. Keeping your blood pressure under control can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease.

Sodium is found naturally in some foods, but most unprocessed fruits and vegetables do not have much sodium. Salt is added to many canned and prepared foods. Restaurant foods also may be high in sodium. Many people add salt to foods at the table or while cooking, too.

Tips to Limit Sodium (Salt)

Here are some ways to cut back on salt.

  • Try to avoid adding salt during cooking or at the table.
  • Replace salt with herbs, spices, and low-sodium seasonings when you cook.
  • Ask for low-sodium dishes and for sauces on the side when eating out.
  • Talk to your doctor when using salt substitutes. Some have sodium and most have potassium, which some people also need to limit.
  • Eat fewer salty snacks and processed foods such as luncheon or cured meats.
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When you shop, look for foods labeled “low sodium,” “reduced sodium,” “sodium free,” or “unsalted.” Read the Nutrition Facts label to find out how much sodium a product contains. Different brands of foods that look the same can contain very different amounts of sodium.

How Potassium Can Help

A diet rich in potassium can counter the effects of salt on blood pressure. Older adults should consume 4,700 milligrams of potassium daily from food sources. Sources of potassium include vegetables and fruits such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes, greens, beans and peas, and tomato products. Potassium is also found in all yogurt and milk, including low-fat and fat-free versions, and in fish such as halibut, Pacific cod, yellow fin tuna, and rainbow trout.

Limit Added Sugars

To help control your calorie intake, limit foods and beverages like soft drinks and fruit drinks that are high in added sugars. Replace sweets and soft drinks with lower-calorie, nutrient-dense alternatives like fruits, vegetables, and smaller portions of 100 % juices. Unsweetened tea, low-fat or fat-free milk, or plain water also are good choices. Be aware that some products are low in fat but high in added sugars.

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The Nutrition Facts label tells you the total amount of sugars in one serving of a product. However, added sugars are not listed separately on this label. To find out if a product contains added sugars, read the ingredients list on the food package.

Added sugars include

  • sugar
  • brown sugar
  • raw sugar
  • invert sugar
  • corn sweetener
  • corn syrup
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • honey
  • malt syrup
  • maple syryp
  • molasses
  • fruit juice concentrates.

Added sugars also include

  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • glucose
  • lactose
  • maltose
  • sucrose.

If You Drink Alcohol

Also, if you drink alcohol, limit the amount to no more than 7 drinks per week and no more than 3 in a given day. Alcoholic beverages give you calories but few nutrients. A drink is 12 fluid ounces of regular beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1½ fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

For safety reasons, avoid alcohol when you plan to drive a vehicle or use machinery. Also avoid alcohol when doing activities that require attention, skill, or coordination. People taking certain medicines and those with some medical conditions should not drink alcohol at all. Ask your doctor whether you can have an occasional drink if you want to.

Learn more about how drinking alcohol can affect your safety.

Syndicated Content Details:
Source URL: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/eatingwellasyougetolder/limitsomefoods/01.html
Source Agency: NIH Senior Health (NIHSH)