Empty calories, full stomachs

  • By
    Adrian Bridgwater - Journalist

Are 'empty calorie' snacks always so bad? Adrian doesn't think so.

NoodlesDashing between writing assignments as I often do, I have to confess that I occasionally indulge in a bowl of instant noodles or a simple hunk of bread with some Marmite or butter.

I use the terms 'confess' and 'indulge', because nutritionists would have us believe that these foodstuffs fall into the so-called empty calorie food group. These high calorie, often high carbohydrate, very often high artificial additive comestibles are the oft-blighted target of media health gurus everywhere. But is it all bad news?

Are we seriously saying that bread and butter is bad for you? Do we really think that noodles are a sin? China and Japan have done very nicely on them for hundreds of years so that they now boast some of the lowest levels of heart disease in the world haven't they? OK that's probably down to the fish, but we're talking about balanced diets here I hope.

If I do 'noodle up', I like to grab a handful of those frozen mixed vegetables you get in the supermarket and throw them into the mix. Your British super Tapasnoodles may contain nothing more than one sachet of flavouring 'dust', but on my travels in Japan I danced about when I opened a packet of Ramen Noodles and found up to five sachets. Dried vegetables, soup mix, soy sauce, sesame oil and chilli flakes - and then the noodles.

Empty calorie foods include, apparently, goodies such as fizzy drinks, most fried foods, crisps (perhaps unsurprisingly), white bread and almost all alcoholic drinks. Basically, empty calories have the same energy content as a 'healthy' calorie but they suffer from a deficiency of micronutrients and by that I mean vitamins, fibre, minerals and amino acids.

The trouble is, if I need to work until 9pm at night for a project in San Jose California that is expecting me to be online and responsive, my first thoughts are not usually, 'Will I get enough amino acids and a regulated supply of minerals from what I eat tonight'?

If the crux of this argument is down to convenience food, do we have a lesson to learn from the Spaniards with their abundant and informal tapas bars on almost every street corner? A sardine in tomato sauce with some Manchego cheese and a few capers can be ordered and eaten in a quarter of an hour. This is better than a polystyrene cup of Nasty-Noodles for sure. But it does still involve leaving the house or office; and we may be becoming too much of a 24-hour shrink-wrapped society for even 15 minutes observance to a civilised repast.

As previously suggested, we really ought to be thinking about balanced diets. I do eat instant noodles, but some of my other favourite snacks are sticks of carrot and celery. I adore feta cheese and no-mayo homemade coleslaw stuffed into a pita with cherry tomatoes halved and squeezed over the top so that their juice provides an earthy healthy dressing.

So please, is this an empty calorie argument or political food correctness taken to extremes? I know we need to keep the kids off of this stuff by and large because they are growing and they need their nutrients. So let's just be sensible and balanced shall we?

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