Calories, eating well


Calories – Should we focus on quantity or quality?


Calories – Should we focus on quantity or quality? 

We have all heard of calories, we see them on food packaging, and we know that eating too little or too many can affect our weight. But do we understand the bigger picture? Calories are a unit of measure that tell us how much energy is in food and drink. Calories are vital for life as they provide us with energy. When we consume more calories than the body needs, we gain weight, and too little we lose weight. The number of calories that we need is dependent of many factors, such as age, sex, size and physical activity level. Finding the right balance of calories that match our lifestyles is important for long term weight management. But should we only focus on the number of calories and are all calories equal? 


How many calories should I have? 

The government’s recommended daily calorie intake for weight maintenance is 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 calories for men. It’s important to say that this is a guideline, and some people will require slightly more or slightly less. A more accurate reflection of your personal energy requirements can come from your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). This takes into account your height, weight, age and activity level to calculate your own personal recommendation. A quick search will point you in the direction of the many free TDEE calculators available online. Other factors that’ll affect your energy needs include illness and long-term changes such as pregnancy, breastfeeding and taking certain medicines. 

As well as telling us the energy value of food, calories can also tell us the amount of energy we expend or burn during our day to day lives. In the most basic terms: 


·        Consuming more calories than you expend will result in weight gain.  

·        Expend more calories than you consume, you’ll be in a caloric deficit and lose weight. 




These are nutrients that provide us with energy and should form the bases of our diets: fats, proteins and carbs. It’s helpful to understand their energy value. Calories per gram of macronutrients: 

·        Fats                                    9 calories per gram  

·        Carbohydrates       4 calories per gram 

·        Protein                           4calories per gram 



These are found in food and vastly increase the nutritional profile. They don’t contain calories, therefore don't provide us with energy. Micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts than macronutrients but are vital for a wide range of processes in our bodies, including helping to produce enzymes and hormones for growth and health. Important micronutrients include magnesium, iron, calcium, vitamin B&D. 

The micronutrients in food greatly affect what they offer our bodies. Though calories are all equal in terms of the energy provided, they’re not in terms of nutrition. For example, a banana and 4squares of milk chocolate both have around 100 kcals but the difference in nutritional profiles is vast. Bananas are a complex carbohydrate, offering micronutrients potassium, B6, vitamin C, fibre whereas dairy milk is a simple carbohydrate, high in sugar and fat with little else to offer. Our blood sugar will rise and fall more slowly. Foods that provide us with lots of micronutrients can be known nutrient dense foods. These foods are also likely to contain more fibre, so are likely to keep us feeling fuller for longer.  


They’re both important then? 

Yes. Although we can lose weight purely by keeping within our calorie allowance - that could even consist purely of burgers and chocolate if it was within calories - it won’t aid our health and wellbeing to neglect nutrient intake.  

What’s needed to achieve weight loss is a caloric deficit. To achieve this, we can: 

·        Find out our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) 

·        Understand what foods we need to eat/avoid for energy, vitality and wellbeing 

·        Practice portion control - eating too many calories, regardless of their nutritional value, will lead to weight gain 

·        Be active both in day-to-day life and more structured exercise like running, swimming or other workouts 

·        Take care of our mental health and manage stress levels with good sleep and meditation 


The take home message

Calories are found in all foods in varying amounts, and they provide us with the energy that we need to function and live well. The number of calories that we need varies between person to person and can change depending on our current lifestyle. The number of calories in a food will tell us how much energy it will provide but will not tell us how many nutrients it has. Nutrient dense foods will provide calories but also a bunch of micronutrients, and its these that are influential to our health. Nutrient dense foods are also helpful when we are trying lose weight as they often keep us fuller for longer.


For further information about calories, click here.  

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