Top tips for understanding calories by Dietitian, Helen Bond

Posted 06 March 2017

When it comes to helping your family enjoy a balanced diet and lifestyle, there are many things to think about including how many calories our bodies need to stay healthy.

In my last blog – Let’s talk calories – I looked in detail at the subject of calories: what the term actually means and where calories come from in our diets.

In this blog, I want to provide you with some simple tips and advice which I hope will help you keep on top of calories and make more informed choices each day.

  1. A well-balanced diet is about more than just calories. You should also look at the different types of food you are eating. The Eatwell Guide shows the five food groups you should consume – and in what proportions – to have a healthy diet.
  2. Food labels can help you to choose between foods and drinks and to pick those that are lower in calories, but do consider the whole nutritional package: what else does the product provide in the way of fat, saturates, sugars, salt, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals?
  3. Many people mistakenly serve portions that are larger than they should be, which can contribute to your calorie intake. A good way to judge portion size is to look at the packaging to see what the manufacturer suggests. For example, a packet of pasta may say ‘serves 4’, so you know that a quarter of that packet would be a good portion size for one person.
  4. Try to stick to the ‘400-600-600 calorie rule’ – that’s 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.
  5. When out in restaurants, fast food outlets and coffee shops, menus giving calorie and nutritional information can help you to make informed choices.
  6. Liquid calories can build up without you noticing. Try not to drink too many calorific drinks, and instead try to drink more water. That way you can save those calories for something more filling!
  7. Cooking at home, rather than eating out or ordering take away, allows you to truly dictate the calorie and nutritional value of your meal. When cooking from scratch it can be hard to keep on top of calories so do take time to check out the labels and the recommended portion size, as this will influence the number of calories in your meal.
  8. There are some useful apps that make tracking your calorific and nutritional intake easy, such as Nutracheck and MyFitnessPal. If you like using the traditional pen and paper method, a small notepad works just as well.
  9. Don’t limit yourself to just tracking calories. Try to think about your day as a whole and what you eat and drink, as well as any exercise you do – they all contribute to your overall health and wellbeing.
  10. Switch to using a smaller plates or bowls at home to serve your food. Research shows that opting for smaller serving dishes can help you cut down on your portion sizes and so help you eat fewer calories. It is thought that this is because it tricks the brain into thinking you’re eating a normal amount (even though you are eating less). After all you are still getting a plateful!

For more information on reading and understanding food labels, check out my short videos, which look at food labelling in more detail or have a read of my other blogs – food and drink labelling made easy.

*‘calories in / calories out’ image attributed to Making Sense of Sugar

**This blog was updated May 2017