To many, the word ‘calorie’ is something of a dreaded term commonly associated with ‘bad’ foods. This is a misunderstanding. Calories are not things to be feared.
In fact, better understanding of calories can be the first step on a journey towards better lifelong health and weight management. While many unhealthy foods are also high in calories, it’s an overly simplistic way of looking at what calories really are.
What are calories?
A calorie is simply a unit of measurement. In nutrition, we use calories to calculate the amount of energy in a food or drink. A calorie is also used to measure how much energy we use, whether that is through exercise, or normal bodily functions like digestion, breathing, blood circulation, cell renewal, or muscle tissue repair.
Energy is vital for the healthy functioning of our body and mind. All foods and drinks, besides plain water, provide some form of energy, therefore they all have calories.
Calories can come from carbohydrates (which is made up of three sub-types – sugar, starch and fibre), protein or fats. 1g protein has 4 calories, 1g carbohydrates (including sugar) has 4 calories, alcohol has 7 calories per 1g and 1g fat has 9 calories.
Remember, calories come both in food and drink form. Some drinks, especially fruit smoothies and alcohol, can have high calorie counts because of the amount of sugar they contain.
How many calories should I eat?
You probably know that by consistently eating or drinking more calories than you burn off, you will eventually gain weight. This is because your body is taking in too much energy. And as there is nowhere for the excess energy to go, so your body stores it as fat in your cells.
Each one of us has a base rate of calories required per day to maintain a healthy body weight. According to the NHS, an average man needs around 2500kcal a day to maintain a healthy body weight. The average woman needs around 2000kcal a day.
These base rates differ quite considerably, depending on things like age, gender, height, build and level of activity. For instance, a taller and naturally broader person who is very active would require more calories per day to maintain their body weight than a shorter and naturally petite person who leads a sedentary lifestyle.
If you’re overweight, eating fewer calories than you burn will cause you to lose weight. It’s always best to do this gradually by creating a calorie deficit. If you eat too few calories you’re likely to experience low energy, weakness or low mood.
To find out whether you are a healthy weight for your height, age and gender, check out our BMI calculator.
You are unique – so is your metabolism. To calculate how many calories you need each day to maintain your current body weight, or lose or gain weight, try calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR)
Should I be counting calories?
There is nothing wrong with counting calories. It’s an excellent way to keep track of your intake which will help you avoid obesity and the many health problems that come with it.
However, rather than judging a food just on its calorific value, try to get into the habit of judging it on its nutritional value first. Then try to aim to keep your daily calorie intake within your personal calorie base amount.
Are all calories made equal?
Yes and no. They are in that one calorie represents the same amount of energy, regardless of where that energy comes from. However, in nutritional terms, some calories have more value than others. The key lies in how your body metabolises the calories you eat or drink.
For example, there are 139 calories in 330ml can of original cola. For approximately the equivalent calories, you could have an apple and tablespoon of natural peanut butter. The calories may be similar but there is a huge difference in terms of nutritional impact. The cola contains ‘empty’ calories from sucrose (sugar) – these are calories which contain very little or no nutrients. The apple and peanut butter, on the other hand, contains fibre, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, vitamin E and antioxidants.
Ever wondered how many calories in a bottle of wine? Check out Do you know how many calories you’re eating?
Last updated: 30 March 2020