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Sneak a peek into the typical American shopping cart, and what will you find?

Jun 01, 2012 05:10PM ● By Cate Reynolds

The most likely answer is soda, which is the number one-selling grocery item. Next, you’ll probably find milk and bread, numbers two and three, respectively, while salty snacks, cheeses, frozen dinners, cereal and alcohol round out the remainder of the shopping cart, according to a 2009 survey by Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc.

This typical shopping cart contains food with the calories necessary for survival, but most of them are “empty calories,” a term coined to describe foods that are high in calories but lacking in nutritional value. When it comes to explaining the reported obesity epidemic in America, some health experts are pointing the finger squarely at the nutritionally defunct foods as a culprit.

The Problem with Empty Calories

Have you ever experienced the “3 p.m. slump?” This mid-afternoon crash when you feel like indulging in a bit of shut-eye is one of the short-term effects of consuming empty calories. “Empty calories provide nothing in the way of nutritional benefits to the body, except a quick burst of energy followed by an almost immediate crash—and that’s the good news,” says certified nutritionist Carol Cottrill, author of the book, The French Twist: 12 Secrets of Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Management. Long-term effects are much worse: increased risk of morbid obesity, cardiovascular disease, and a weakened immune system, among other health conditions.

To avoid empty calories, you have to know where to find them. In many cases, it’s as simple as avoiding anything that comes packaged in a box, but we all know that making sweeping generalizations can easily lead to a dieting downfall. According to the USDA’s Choose My Plate program, the two sources of empty calories are solid fats and added sugars. Simply put, it’s the stuff you probably already know you should avoid—French fries, fried chicken (and other skin-on chicken dishes), full-fat cheeses, sausages and hot dogs, and desserts such as ice cream or baked goods. Items with added sugars include soft drinks, candy, and, again, baked goods such as cakes, cookies, pies, and donuts.

It’s no coincidence that an increase in the prevalence and popularity of packaged foods has mirrored an increase in obesity rates in America. Since 1990, America has seen a 137 percent increase in obesity; in Maryland, 1.2 million adults are obese, nearly half a million more than 10 years ago.

“There are more than 23 million overweight or obese children and adolescents in the United States,” Cottrill says. “And there is no doubt that empty calories have contributed to the obesity epidemic in our general population and, most notably, in our nation’s children.”

Kids and Empty Calories

One of the struggles parents face is feeding their children nutritious yet delicious meals, particularly when so many of the “empty calorie” foods listed above are some of their children’s favorites.

However, it’s a challenge to take seriously. In October 2010, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported nearly 40 percent of the total calories consumed by children come in the form of empty calories. Half of those come from just six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy-based desserts (e.g. ice cream), grain-based desserts (e.g. cookies), pizza, and whole milk. In contrast, it’s recommended that just 8 to 10 percent of a child’s calories come from these sources. It’s clear that a diet overhaul could benefit the whole family.

Fixing the Problem

In recent years, legislators have become interested in combating the obesity epidemic, a controversial move, politically speaking. New York state already requires calorie counts on restaurant menus, a tactic that will soon be required of all restaurant chains, thanks to the 2010 health care overhaul. You also often hear talk of a “soda tax” or “junk food tax” as a way to reduce America’s overindulgence of these items.

However, really fixing the problem requires being your own legislator, not relying on politicians in Washington, D.C., or the Annapolis state house. “Parents must value health and nutrition and demonstrate to their children that food and dining deserve respect,” Cottrill says. “The most valuable discussion does not take place outside the home, but rather inside the home.”

So instead of waiting for politicians to overhaul the restaurant and food industry, take a hard look at your own pantry and refrigerator. Dr. Barry Sears, creator of the Zone Diet, which promotes weight loss through lean protein, colorful fruits and vegetables, and a dash of fat, has a simple suggestion for those looking to rid their kitchen of empty calories: “If it is white or in a box, throw it away,” he says. Cottrill calls this the “pantry exorcism”—get rid of anything sugary, followed by products made with high-fructose corn syrup (including where it’s hidden, such as salad dressings and ketchup), corn oils and polyunsaturated fats, and processed high-fat foods.

And as for that 3 p.m. slump, try a dose of protein rather than a fix of sugar to combat the drowsiness. A study published in the November 2011 issue of the scientific journal Neuron found protein, rather than sugar, activates the cells responsible for keeping us awake and burning calories. Rather than a candy bar, try a hard-boiled egg as a mid-afternoon snack—for its 71 calories, the egg also offers you 6 grams of protein, as well as healthy doses of vitamins A and B12, riboflavin, and folate—now that’s what we call a nutritionally rich snack.

The Nutritionally Rich Kitchen

Get rid of these foods

  • Soda
  • Sweetened beverages
  • Sweetened cereals (hot and cold)
  • White bread, rice, and pasta
  • Potato chips and other packaged snacks
  • Candy
  • Margarine
  • Frozen pizza and dinners
  • Packaged desserts (cookies, snack cakes, frostings)
  • Corn oil
Replace with these foods
  • Water—with a slice of either lemon or cucumber
  • Hot or iced teas, unsweetened—black, green, Earl Grey, your choice
  • Whole grains (brown rice and whole-wheat bread and pasta)
  • Beans (all varieties)
  • Eggs
  • Unsweetened oatmeal and whole-grain cereal
  • Canned or pouched tuna and salmon packed in water
  • Lean meats such as fish, chicken and turkey
  • Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables

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