Not So Empty Calorie Foods
By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
We Americans surely love our sweet and fatty foods. On average, we consume about 800 calories—more than one third of our total daily calorie intake—from foods rich in solid fats and added sugars (affectionately called SoFAs in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans). These include:
- soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks
- cakes, cookies, donuts, and other grain-based desserts
- ice cream and other dairy desserts
- fruit drinks
Although small amounts of these foods and beverages can fit into an otherwise healthful diet, having supersized portions of them at the expense of nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low fat dairy and lean protein foods can sabotage our health and our waistlines.
Eating a nutrient-poor diet may also take its toll on our mental health. A new study in Public Health Nutrition looked at eating habits over six months and found that those who regularly ate the most donuts, croissants and fast food were 51 percent more likely to develop depression compared with those who ate the least of those foods.
Is the answer to keep all the junk out of our trunk? Or can some foods that we think of as “empty calorie” foods actually have health benefits? Here are 3 snacks you can feel good about including in a nutritious, satisfying, calorie-conscious diet.
Go Cuckoo for Kernels
Downing a small movie popcorn loaded with fat and salt may taste great, but it can easily cost you upwards of 1,000 calories (if not more). But if you pop it yourself, you can satisfy your craving for crunch and simultaneously add whole grains and some dietary fiber to your diet.
But that’s not all. A recent study, partially funded by Weaver Popcorn and presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego, analyzed 4 commercial brands of popcorn and found that popcorn provides a healthy dose of polyphenols, powerful plant chemicals act as antioxidants to protect cells against damage that can contribute to disease.
My Tip: Three cups of air-popped popcorn counts as a one ounce-equivalent of whole grains according to MyPlate. If you oil-pop it, use no more than one teaspoon of canola or another healthful oil for every 3 cups of popped popcorn. Skip or skimp on salt and season with spices and no-salt seasonings. You can also buy a healthful, low fat, low sodium brand of popcorn without any artificial ingredients (like SkinnyPop, one of my favorites).
Get Svelte with Chocolate?
Studies suggest that eating dark chocolate can be a boon to your heart—it may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions. But it may also be a boon to your waistline according to a new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Researchers found that those who regularly consumed moderate amounts of chocolate weighed less than those who reported they ate chocolate less often or didn't eat chocolate.
Although the relationship between chocolate intake and lower body weight is unclear, the researchers speculated that antioxidants and other compounds in chocolate may somehow boost metabolism.
My Tip: A half ounce of chocolate has about 75 calories, so when you consume it, count it towards your SoFA calorie allotment—about 120 calories for a 1,600 calorie meal pattern, and about 260 calories for a 2,000 calorie meal pattern outlined in current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Give Yourself a Raisin!
Some shun raisins and other dried fruit because of their high sugar content. But according to current dietary guidelines, they can be included alongside fresh fruit and 100 percent fruit juice to help you meet your daily fruit quota.
Raisins pack in some dietary fiber (though not as much as fresh fruit), potassium, and antioxidants that have heart-health and other benefits. And new research suggests they may benefit blood pressure as well. A study announced at the American College of Cardiology’s 61st Annual Scientific Session (and funded by the California Raisin Marketing Board) found that eating raisins three times a day—270 calories worth or about 1/2 cup, or 8 tablespoons in total—significantly lowered blood pressure in those with prehypertension.
My Tip: Raisins and other dried fruits pack in lots of calories for a small dose, so stick to small portions (and don’t forget to brush and floss afterwards!). Two tablespoons (1/8 cup) has about 65 calories. Mix raisins with whole grain, high fiber crunchy cereal and nuts to make a trail mix or with low-fat yogurt for a hearty snack. At meals, you can add to oatmeal or a colorful salad.
What’s your favorite “empty calorie” food?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and award-winning author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," "Feed Your Family Right!," and "So What Can I Eat?!." She is also a past national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com. Sign up for the free weekly ZIED GUIDE™ newsletter for nutrition tips and news you can use (go to right side of home page at elisazied.com). Follow Elisa on Twitter/elisazied and on Facebook.