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Calories: should you focus on quantity or quality?

Calories: should you focus on quantity or quality?

By Hannah Buckland, Healthy Hearts Care Planner

When it comes to calories, there tends to be a lot of confusion. How many calories should you be eating as part of a healthy lifestyle? Or is it the quality of those calories that really matters? As is often the case with nutrition, there is no simple answer to these questions. So, let’s take a look at what we know.

A calorie is a unit of energy, most often used to describe how much energy we take in through food and drink or how much energy we expend when we exercise. Fats are the most calorie dense nutrients, containing 9 calories per gram. Alcohol is next, containing 7 calories per gram, followed by carbohydrates and protein at 4 calories per gram. The recommended daily calorie intake, set by the government, is 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 calories for men. These are the facts. But what does this look like as part of a healthy lifestyle?

If you look at calories solely as a form of energy, then quantity is key. At a basic level, if you consume more calories than you expend, then you will gain weight. If you expend more calories than you consume, then you will lose weight. Portion control is therefore an important component of a healthy lifestyle, especially in relation to weight maintenance or loss. Indeed, in order to lose weight, the NHS recommends reducing calorie intake by 600 calories per day. However, it’s not always as simple as this. Whilst this number is a useful guide, at a personal level, daily calorie requirements can actually vary quite dramatically. This is because individual factors such as metabolism, age, genetics and body composition – among others – can affect the exact number of calories you require daily. It can also be affected by day-to-day changes such as illness and physical activity levels, as well as more long-term changes such as pregnancy, hormone levels and taking certain medicines.

A focus on quantity also neglects consideration of the nutritional value of the food or drink being consumed. Take a medium-sized banana and 4 squares of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Both contain around 100 calories but are very different in terms of nutritional value – the banana will offer far more vitamins, minerals and fibre than the chocolate. For this reason, it is entirely possible to remain within your daily calorie allowance but still consume an unhealthy and unbalanced diet – obviously, this is not going to be good for your overall health. It is therefore important to also consider the quality of the calories you consume; focusing on including a variety of foods and nutrients in your diet.

The conclusion? Quantity and quality BOTH matter when it comes to calories. So, how can you use this knowledge to improve your health and wellbeing? When you visit the supermarket, try checking the labels on the foods you buy, to give you an idea of how many calories you are consuming. There are some great free apps that you can use to help with this, like the NHS Food Scanner app. By scanning the barcode on an item of food, you can see how many calories it contains, as well as how much sugar, saturated fat and salt, so you can keep an eye on both the quantity and quality of the calories you are consuming. We also discuss calories, food labels, portion sizes and how to maintain a healthy, balanced diet on our Adult Weight Management courses – if you’re interested in finding out more, why not join us? Sign up here or call us on 020 3434 2500.

Remember, diet is just one part of a healthy lifestyle, but it is an important one. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, whilst also keeping an eye on overall calorie intake, can really help you to improve your long-term health and wellbeing; leading to a healthier, happier you.

Read some other blogs in our Myth Busting Series:

Wk1 Can you trust what you read online?
Wk2 Calories: Should you focus on quantity or quality?
Wk3 Should you be cutting carbs for weight loss?
Wk4 Should you be following a low fat diet?
Wk5 Protein: What sources are there?

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