Let’s Talk Calories with Dietitian Helen Bond

Posted 06 February 2017

Helen Bond, State Registered Dietitian

When it comes to maintaining your weight, there’s no arguing that calories are definitely something you need to consider. Ask any dietitian, for advice on making diet and lifestyle choices for overall health and you’ll hear the same thing – don’t forget to keep an eye on your calories.

To get you thinking about the calories in your diet, I am going to explore what the term actually means, help you make sense of calorie information on food labels and make you more mindful of where your calories are coming from, not just the total amount your body needs to stay healthy.

What is a calorie?

Calories (kcals, which is short for kilocalories, but most of us know as calories) are basically a measure of the amount of energy in food and drinks. Fat, protein, carbohydrates, fibre and alcohol all supply calories, but in different amounts, so the calorie content of an item of food and drink depends on the quantity of these nutrients it contains. For example fat contains nine kcals per gram, whilst alcohol contains seven kcals per gram. Protein and carbohydrate (including sugars) both contain four kcals per gram and fibre contains two kcals per gram.

Calories in – vs – calories out: A balancing act

We all need energy (calories) from the food we eat or drink to run our bodies – the same way a car needs energy from petrol. Our bodies use up that energy through normal body functions, which includes everything from breathing, digesting food, to keeping warm, and exercising.

To maintain a healthy and stable weight, the energy you put into your body must be the same as the energy you use up in your day-to-day life.

How many calories do you need each day?

As a guide, an average man needs 2,500 kcals to maintain a healthy body weight, and a woman needs 2,000 kcals.  Although, your body’s actual needs for calories vary depending on your age, what you are doing and how big and tall you are.

Spread out your daily calories

To maintain energy levels and control hunger pangs, it’s best to spread your calorie allowance throughout the day. The NHS ‘Change 4 Life’ Campaign recommends the ‘400-600-600 calorie rule’ – that is, you should aim to eat roughly 20% of your daily calories at breakfast, 30% for lunch and evening meals, leaving about 20%, for a few healthy drinks and snacks throughout the day. Try to keep calories from drinks to a minimum, as these can provide a lot and liquid calories don’t seem to have the same effects on appetite or satisfy hunger, like food calories do.

Put calories into perspective of your daily diet

There is no traffic light colour coding for calories (to indicate a high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) amount per 100g/ml), but many front and back-of-pack nutrition labels do provide information on how a particular food or drink product contributes to a typical person’s Reference Intake (RI), the new term for Guideline Daily Amount. This can make it easier for you to put the calorie and nutritional content of what you’re eating or drinking, into the context of your overall diet.

RI – a general guide to the amount of calories and nutrients you need

Do bear in mind that the RI value for energy is based on a 2,000 kcal diet (the calorie requirements of an average sized woman, doing an average amount of exercise – not the energy needs of a man or a child) and is intended to act as a guide for the amount of calories you need each day – it’s not meant to be used as a target! 

How else can you track calories?

As well as looking at food labels and nutritional information on packaging, there are lots of websites and some great apps now available for smartphones like the NHS approved Nutracheck, which has a huge database of foods (even for those that don’t always come with a label – such as takeaways and alcoholic drinks) and a barcode scanner to help you get an accurate picture of how many calories
and nutrients you’re taking in over a day. Many apps also sync with fitness devices, like Fitbit to log your activity levels and see how many calories you’ve burned, making them a really useful tool to help you to understand the calorie impact of your everyday food and lifestyle choices.

Look at the bigger picture

Understanding calories is important when it comes to looking after your weight, but remember that calories are just one of the factors to consider when it comes to improving your health. The number on your bathroom scales is not an indicator of nutrient adequacy, or the nutritional quality of your diet. It’s still essential to make sure your diet is balanced and contains all of the nutrients you need for good overall health and wellbeing.

References:

  1. Change 4 Life Campaign http://www.nhs.uk/Change4Life/Pages/calories.aspx (Accessed 24/01/17)
  2. Understanding Calories http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/understanding-calories.aspx (Accessed 24/01/17)
  3. Lyndel Costain, Juliette Kellow, Rebecca Walton. (2016) The Calorie, Carb and Fat Bible