Do Calories Count? How many calories a day do I need?

Do Calories Count

24 February 2016

Written by Jennie Bayliss

We are so indoctrinated with the concept that weight loss requires eating less calories, that in the supermarket we often compare brands and choose the one with lowest calorie content. Yet this habit could so easily lead to weight gain—instead of the desired weight loss.

How many calories do I need to become slimmer?

The short answer to this question is, ‘No-one can give you an exact number’. But the longer answer is that there is some truth in the philosophy of losing weight requires a lower calorie intake, but the over simplified message used by the food manufacturers to promote food sales, is very misleading.

The fact that no-one can tell you exactly how many calories YOUR body consumes on an average day nor the reduced amount you need to lose weight, may surprise you. On food packaging, labels clearly state that an average woman needs 2000 calories a day whilst an average man needs 2500. And it’s widely promoted that if you reduce your calorie intake by 500 a day, you will lose weight and this might be true. However, this assumes you are average: and there are so many variables, that I’m not sure what this average person looks like. How many calories you need each day is determined on the following:

  • gender: men need more than women
  • age: you need less as you get older
  • height: taller people need more than shorter people
  • build: a slight frame needs less than a more solid build
  • work: if you sit most of the day, you need less than if you are on your feet
  • sports/activities: if you are very active, you need more
  • genetic make-up: some bodies are more efficient than others
  • special times: pregnancy and breastfeeding requires more.

Your daily calorie needs are also influenced by your hormones and unique gut bacteria. Taking all of this into account, you can begin to see the impossibility of calculating how many calories you need. The averages stated on food packaging could keep your weight steady, or lead to weight loss or even weight gain.

The number of calories is not as important as what you eat

Calories measure only the amount of energy found in the food: they don’t take into account the nutritional content. Your body doesn’t just need energy: it needs protein for building and repairing your body’s cells and it needs hundreds of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (found in plant-based foods) for the many chemical interactions that help your body function.

Energy in food comes from carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates are often thought of as sugar and what are often referred to as starchy,’white’ carbs; potatoes, rice, pasta and anything made using flour. Yet carbohydrates include all fruit and vegetables too which are a source of many different, beneficial nutrients. All carbohydrates are broken down into sugars that are used for energy in the body. However, those ‘white’ carbs are broken down in the body quickly whereas most vegetables and fruit takes longer due to the fibre they contain.

The speed of the breakdown is an important thing to consider because it helps understand why its not just calories that matter. In the image, you can see a sweet potato is less in calories than a packet of crisps. If you were to add 40 g of feta cheese to the potato, now calories content of both is the same. Imagine eating the crisps. How filling are they to you? Does it do anything to stem your hunger? How quickly do you want to eat something again? Now imagine eating the sweet potato (by the way, sweet potato is a better option than regular, white potatoes as they contain twice the amount of  fibre) with the cheese. This is a mini meal. The protein and fibre take your body much longer to digest, making you feel fuller for longer and less likely to want to eat again soon. Whereas the crisps, with their crunch manufactured to be a sound that the brain finds pleasing (yes, really!) and their salty flavours tend to stimulate your appetite.

The crips, if eaten alone, are likely spike your blood sugar levels (more on this soon in a another article) whereas the sweet potato with the cheese is less likely to do this. When your blood sugar levels rise too quickly, this can lead to your body converting this excess sugar into body fat. Even though the calorie content was the same, your body doesn’t deal with these 2 food choices in the same way.

Five Tips to make better food choices

These tips will help you increase the nutritional content of your food choices and reduce your calories without you having to count them.

1. Include more coloured, fresh vegetables and fruit in your meals as the vast majority are very low in calories and filling. This will leave less room for starchy and fatty foods. Whilst vegetables and fruit are carbohydrates, and contain natural sugars, their nutritional content is hugely beneficial to your body. Try eating them raw or only lightly cooked for optimum nutrition.

2. Avoid all supermarket foods labelled “Low Fat”. These may be lower in calories, but the fat will have been replaced with sugars, states and gums. These will be digested more quickly than the original ‘full-fat’ version and so you will not feel full for long and the sugars may lead to a spike in your blood sugar levels.

3. When choosing foods in a tin/packet/jar/container, look at the ingredients list. If there are dozens of ingredients, especially if you see modified states, gums and chemical names you don’t recognise, this indicates the food is highly processed. This is akin to eating pre-digested foods meaning your body will not have to work at breaking them down. Avoid these foods.

4. Zero calorie drinks are NOT good for you. How these drinks are advertised makes my blood boil! The artificial sweeteners used in these drinks have be shown to stimulate the appetite. Avoid them!

5. Lean cuts of meat provide you with good amounts of nutrients including protein, but even lean cuts of meat contain fat which is high in calories. If you are not a vegetarian, you can still enjoy your meats—just cut back on the quantity whilst you increase your coloured vegetables. Consider joining Meat Free Mondays.

I hope this article has made the issue of calories clearer. If you have enjoyed this, please share this article with your friends – or drop me a comment in the box below if you have a question and I will be delighted to answer.

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