Calories. The foundation of so many diets. The basis of the eat less, move more message. But can foods really be ‘ranked’ based on their calorie value? Is it necessary to count calories to lose weight?
What is a calorie?
A calorie (or kilocalorie/kcal if we are being technically correct) is a unit of energy. It is a value obtained in a lab by measuring how much energy is required to increase a kilogram of water by one degree celsius. Hence, scientifically speaking, all calories are the same. However, our bodies are not scientific laboratories. The way our body uses the food, and what it can get out of food, varies. This means that the calorie values stated on foods are an approximation of what our body will take from it.
How many calories do we need?
If we eat less calories than our body needs, we will lose weight. If we eat more calories than our body needs, we will gain weight. So how many calories do we need? You may know that the Government issue recommendations for daily calorie intake for men and women to maintain weight (2000kcals for women, 2500kcals for men). These are a guide. A very, very loose guide. It can be simple to look at the calorie value of a food, add up the foods eaten during the day and come up with a daily total. This is why it is used, but it does not cater for the individual. In reality, daily calorie need is different for everyone, and even individuals have some variance each day; depending on your body composition, how active you are, your age, whether you are healthy or unwell – just to name a few. So, aiming for a specific number and getting bogged down in the detail is not necessarily helpful.
Is counting calories helpful?
Understanding calories can be helpful when it comes to making choices. Having an awareness of whether something is high or low in calories is useful when considered as part of the bigger picture. Ask yourself; where are the calories in this food coming from? Is this food high in added sugar? What other nutrients does this food offer me? Will this food sustain me? Is this something I eat often?
Counting and/or reducing calories to lose weight can work, but it is a simplistic message. Scientifically, it is correct, but this doesn’t consider the quality of the diet or life. Lower calories does not equal more healthy. For example, if we were to look at calories in insolation, it would probably be possible for a person to lose weight having 3 KitKats a day. Obviously, they would be at significant risk of nutrient deficiencies and be quite unhealthy. Probably pretty hungry too!
Good nutrition is about more than calories!
When considering whether counting calories is helpful for you or not, think about how you are using it. Try not to get too fixated on a specific number, maybe have a range you aim to be between each day. Also think about the other nutritional properties and variance in the foods you eat.
For some people, counting calories can be really off-putting and trigger disordered eating thoughts. Eating should be a pleasurable experience, if counting calories takes the enjoyment out of eating for you – is it helpful? Try to think about how you can make your diet healthier in other ways. Could you eat more fibre? Ensure you are having enough protein? Eat a wider variety of vegetables?