Why you shouldn’t be scared of calories!
An insider’s guide to calories and weight loss by our favourite nutritionist, Charlotte Debeugny.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently regarding calorie counting. Public Health England (PHE) have been actively campaigning for a greater awareness of calories to help combat rising obesity levels. Research has identified that many people consume more calories than they realise.
Yet, calories are not something you should be terrified of! They are simply a measure of energy. The average woman/man needs approximately 2,000/2,500 calories (kcals) a day to maintain their weight. Meeting this goal on an average daily basis helps to prevent weight gain. Equally, consuming less calories than this should help people to lose weight. Note that our calorie intake changes with age as well as our levels of activity. Active adolescents may need more energy while a sedentary pensioner will need less energy.
An interesting fact: The recommendation of 2000 kcals a day for woman assumes a ‘moderate level’ of daily activity, about 30-45 minutes of activity a day. Unfortunately, if you are more sedentary, you will need less energy than this!
The PHE guidelines recommend that these 2,000 calories are split across the day as follows:
Breakfast: 400 kcals
Lunch: 600 kcals
Snacks/drinks: 400 kcals
Supper: 600 kcals
Is counting calories effective?
Critics of calorie counting highlight that it is ineffective for long term weight control and can result in an obsessive focus on food. It can also lead to the consumption of ‘lower dietary quality’ type of foods because the emphasis is on calorie intake as opposed to nutrient intake.
Let’s be clear though. Most diets whether they involve calorie counting, carbohydrate restriction, high protein ‘clean eating’, ‘detoxing’ are ultimately a form of energy restriction as they involve less energy being consumed. It might be fairer to say that most diets don’t work in the longer term and this concern is not just limited to calorie counting.
Are all calories equal?
The answer is yes and no! In terms of energy, the answer is yes. For example, carbs contain 4 kcals per g and a teaspoon of sugar, whether it is white, brown or from a coconut, contains the same amount of energy. In terms of nutrient profile though calories are not equal. A serving of quinoa, even though it contains the same amount of energy as a serving of white rice, contains more fibre, protein and minerals.
For weight control, some foods tend to be more ‘satiating’ (fill you up more) than others. Protein rich foods and fibre rich foods tend to be digested more slowly. This helps in maintaining stable energy levels (so you don’t get raging munchies at 4 pm in the afternoon) as well as helping to prevent hunger pangs between meals.
Volume is also a factor. Our wonderful stomachs need to have a certain amount of volume to communicate the ‘stretch messages’ that we have eaten enough to the hypothalamus. Some foods are higher in volume compared to others, so you naturally consume less. You could eat 2 bars of chocolate, with a total of 1000 kcals and still feel hungry, or you could eat 2 cauliflowers with a total of 300 kcals and struggle to finish the second one!
Is Diet quality and calories are linked?
It could be argued that diet quality and calories are somewhat linked. Selecting foods which are high in nutrients naturally leads to a slightly lower calorie consumption because these foods either contain less calories, or tend to be more filling, so we end up consuming smaller portions of them.
Calories are not a dirty word and an awareness of calories, can be helpful for weight control!
Charlotte’s guide to effortless calories awareness!
- Automatically and systematically fill 50% of your plate with vegetables for your lunch and evening meal. Aim for a rainbow coloured mix! Roughly 150 kcals
- Aim for 25% protein, a serving about the size of your palm. About 150 kcals depending on your type of protein.
- Aim for 25% wholegrains or potatoes, roughly 3 tablespoons. About 150 kcals
- Add 1 tsp of fat for cooking/seasoning. 50 kcals
This gives you a total of 500 kcals. If you then have a portion of fruit/2 squares of dark chocolate/30g of cheese, it bring the total to 600 kcals.
Please do download the calorie factsheet which is a useful guide to calories and calorie awareness and don’t hesitate to share it!
Charlotte Debeugny, a British Nutritionist and Author based in France.