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Beware the empty calories

Do you magically find yourself weighing a few extra pounds? How is it possible to gain weight without noticing?
The answer is likely to be found in your lifestyle and food.

Basically, one gains weight because one eats more calories than needed to live and move throughout the day, and every calorie that is not consumed is transformed into fat. A fast way to gain weight is to eat, and especially drink, "empty calories".

Empty calories are defined as the source of calories present in foods and beverages that only provide energy and a very low or no nutritional value at all, meaning food without protein, fats, complex carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins, such as sugar and alcohol.

A diet consisting of an abundant consumption of foods rich in empty calories can bring about uncontrolled weight, which can lead up to malnutrition due to deficiency of essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, in addition to promoting the development of metabolic diseases such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.

Empty and hidden calories?

Refined sugar, whether table sugar, brown sugar, or cane sugar is always sucrose, it provides 4 kcal per gram and such calories are empty ones; sugar extracted from fruit, fructose, is a monosaccharide but still provides 4 empty calories per gram. Basically, everything that is used to sweeten food and drinks that are not calorie-free sweeteners only supplies empty calories: honey, fruit syrup, grape or apple extracts. Sugar is used to sweeten tea and coffee, dough for desserts, fruit salads, lemonades, etc.

Thus, it is possible to monitor its consumption when one has control over its use (a teaspoon corresponding to 5 grams = 20 kcal) but sugar can be found in every food that tastes sweet: drinks, homemade or factory-baked pastries, chocolate, snacks, candies, it is thus difficult to measure it.

Alcohol instead is easier to measure: in culinary preparations it often evaporates, thus alcohol consumption is mostly wine, alcohol and spirits. Even in this case, when you sip some wine, aperitif, or vodka, you do not always realize that you are drinking ethanol.
A glass of 125 ml wine with medium alcohol content contains about 12g of ethanol which provides 7kcal per gram, for a total of 84 Kcal.
A shot, 40ml of spirits with a 40% alcohol content provides 13g of ethanol for 94 kcal, a small malt beer (200 ml) equals 170 Kcal.

In the drinks, in fruit juice. It's hard to imagine that drinks in general, particularly those fruit-based, could contain empty calories, but instead they do. A 250ml bottle of cola contains an average of 25g of sugar; while drinking it, one does not realize to be ingesting 100 or more empty calories from simple sugars. Trying to quench one's thirst (or raise one's blood pressure) drinking sugar cubes dissolved in water is not a good idea: it is the water that quenches the thirst, and it is still the water that momentarily helps increase blood pressure due to the volume of circulating liquid in the body.

Drinking sugar or sugary drinks also increases the desire to drink more sweet drinks, with the result that the more one drinks these sugary drinks, the more one wants to drink them. For many young people it is like this: their consumption is one of the major causes for obesity in children and adolescents, who often have the bad habit of accompanying their meal with sugary drinks.

Some people drink fruit juice thinking they are healthy beverages, undoubtedly they are made of fruit, more or less concentrated, but some contain a lot of sugar. Sugary fruit juices, even when they have a high percentage of pulp, contain fruit sugar (fructose) in addition to the added sugar (sucrose or cane sugar) with the result of providing a lot of empty calories, few vitamins and mineral, and almost no fiber.

Thus, they cannot be considered a substitute to fruit, but a sugary drink.
Thus, it is better to opt for drinks and juices with no added sugar, perhaps sweetened with calorie-free sweeteners.

Empty calories and the power of satiety

The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that serves to determine the feeling of hunger or satiety, does not record the ingestion of calories if they are devoid of nutrients. Generally, a 330 ml can of orange juice (132 calories) provides the same amount of calories as half a croissant with cream.
In the case of a soda, the calories are only from the sugar and the brain does not register a feeling of satiety.

In the case of the croissant, instead, the calories come from simple and complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all nutrients that set in motion the feeling of satiety. It is the same thing with alcohol, which, like sugar, does not fill the stomach as much as the calories that it provides. Therefore, eating and drinking sugars and alcohol beyond our calorie needs, one may end up ingesting 6,000 to 7,000 calories over a period of 10 days and gain 1kg in a week, 3kg in a month, and so forth.

Rethinking daily habits

> Choose foods with healthy properties and avoid junk food.

> Choose tea instead of sugary drinks and drink plenty of water.

> If you do not like eating whole fruit, fruit can be enjoyed as a natural drink: blended or extracted, but it is better to avoid juicers as they remove fibers and vitamins.

> Read the labels and keep in mind what one is eating and drinking.

> From early childhood, do not give children foods with added sugars, but not salty either, so that they will get used to the natural flavor of food, and they will not love things that are too sweet, or too salty, as they grow up.

These are simple ways to avoid eating empty calories during the day, and especially in the evening.
Information and education is very important, especially at a young age.

The contents of this article are in accordance with the parameters set out by the European Food Safety Authority - EFSA.