The Caloric Emptiness Trope

So, we were talking about how Americans have not changed much in the past decade, and still procure their empty calories from pretty much the same foods as they did in 2010. According to one school of thought, as long as a person inputs an energy source for the body to “burn,” what does it matter? In a pure energy-balance sense, maybe a calorie is just a calorie. In or out, it’s a unit of energy, and according to strict interpretation, the calorie supplies the fuel and does the work. End of story.

The problem with that is, a person could easily consume 2,000 calories worth of substances and obtain zero nutrients. Many chronic health conditions are nutrition-related. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a list of them:

Cardiovascular health
Metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, and diabetes
Growth, size, and body composition, including overweight and obesity
Reduced muscle strength and bone mass
Gestational diabetes mellitus
Chronic liver disease
Dental health
Food allergy

Discussed here, of course, is the third item, the one about overweight and obesity. If nutrition matters, then food should contain nutritional elements, because where else are we going to get them? Some calories come with useful ingredients that help the body and mind do all the things they need to do besides grossly burn energy. Calories that don’t bring along these vital components are so inferior, they are sometimes called “empty.”

According to a very recent study, about one-fourth of the calories consumed by children are empty. In clarifying this issue, Dr. Edwina Wambogo of the National Cancer Institute named…

[…] the main culprits of these so-called empty calories as being soft and fruit drinks, cookies, brownies, pizza and ice cream.

This list is reminiscent of a poll from Dr. Pretlow’s Weigh2Rock website where kids themselves revealed the foods that cause them the most trouble, and that they perceive as the most addictive. These include chips, chocolate, ice cream, cookies, cakes, fast food, and pizza.

Of course, the older kids get, the bigger a percentage of empty calories they ingest. Also, children like their empty calories in drinkable form, while teens transition to solid empty calories. This seems counterintuitive, given the number of teens who always carry around a bottle of some liquid.

Here is a useful quotation from one of the many nutrition-oriented sites on the Web:

This is not about the quantity of food available at meals. And it’s not about forced exercise. It never was. It’s about the quality of our food.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee,”, 2020
Source: “New Study, A Quarter of Calories that Children and Teens Eat May Come from Added Sugars and Fats,”, 07/15/20
Source: “Shocking Childhood Obesity Trends — and Still Going Up!,”, 04/27/16
Image by Jo N/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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