When I was younger I had no idea what calories were – It wasn’t until I came to the UK for university that I started seeing the word ‘calorie’ on food packaging in supermarkets and in certain restaurants or fast food chains. Growing up, I was oblivious to calories – I wasn’t concerned how many calories a certain food had or whether I was eating too many or too little. I just ate good food and enjoyed it.

When I went to university and started buying my own food, I was overwhelmed by calories and started to question everything I ate. Counting calories almost became a little obsession and I would be flooded by anxiety if I didn’t know how many calories my food had. I began to doubt my own relationship and judgement with food until I no longer trusted that I knew what I should be eating and how much.

I no longer ate intuitively; I had lost trust with food and whenever you lose trust in any relationship, that relationship is on rocky waters.

Needless to say, my relationship with food wasn’t at its strongest.

It took me years to heal my relationship with food and one of the things I had to get over was the obsessive calorie counting. Calories do play an important role in weight management, however there is so much more to the food we’re eating than just the number of calories it contains. As with everything in life, there are always good sides and bad sides and that goes for calorie counting too. On the plus side it can help make better food choices, the government believes that introducing calories on all restaurant menus will help us make better food choices when eating out and can also help with weight loss strategies. However, there are bad sides to it as well which include a negative relationship with food and becoming malnourished in terms of essential vitamins and minerals.

With the number of calories of food more present than ever, I wanted to share a bit more on them. After all, a calorie really is just a unit of energy and therefore it’s important to get the record straight so that you’re able to make the best choices for yourself possible.

Calories

What is a calorie?

A calorie is a unit of energy supplied by food.

It doesn’t matter what the source is – whether it’s a biscuit, a take-out or even a bunch of kale, a calorie is still a calorie – it’s just a unit of energy. Foods are made of three macronutrients: Carbohydrates, proteins and fats. To work out how many calories are in the food you’re eating, you work out the grams of each macronutrient and add them together. Per gram there are 4 calories in carbohydrates and proteins and 9 calories per gram of fat. This may also be referred to as ‘macros’ (aka macronutrients).

Note: alcohol isn’t considered a macronutrient but contains 7 calories per gram.

* Although calories are displayed on labels, the standards for nutrition labels allow for a certain degree of flexibility and therefore the number of calories in a food doesn’t always match the number of calories on the label.

Calories and weight

There are so many factors that contribute to how much a person weighs and it goes far beyond the number of calories they consume.

For example: Sleep, physical activity and stress can play a role in how much a person weights.

However, eating an excess of calories over a prolonged period of time will result in gaining weight.

  • Consuming more calories than your body uses is known as caloric excess and these extra calories are generally stored as fat.

If your body doesn’t use the energy then it will be stored in the body for use later on. The problem is, if we over consume food over a period of time, then we aren’t giving our bodies the opportunity to use that fuel and it can lead to weight gain.

  • Consuming the same number of calories that your body is using is known as caloric balance.

In this instance, our activity levels and how much fuel our body needs to function is balanced out by the food and fuel that we are taking into our bodies.

  • Consuming fewer calories than your body is using is known as a caloric deficit and may lead to weight loss.

Our bodies need a certain amount of fuel to function, even at a basic level our brains need carbohydrates to function – that is why our bodies store excess food to use as fuel later on. So if you are in caloric deficit, your body is using that stored fuel for energy and therefore it can lead to weight loss.

*Note: It’s important to note that there is so much more to weight loss and weight gain than just calories. A person’s behaviour and lifestyle such as their levels of physical activity, their environment and genetic makeup also play a part in managing weight. Calorie balance certainly plays a big role but it isn’t the only thing to consider.

calorie density

Calorie density is the number of calories for the same weight of each food.

Calorie densities are lowest in unprocessed and plant foods. For example, a green apple has around 52 kcals per 100g whereas chocolate has over 500 kcals per 100g – The apple has a lower calorie density meaning that it contains fewer calories per volume than the chocolate. Foods with a higher calorie density contain more calories in a smaller amount of food.

However, it’s important to note that although calorie density plays a big role in terms of weight management and health, it’s not always the key element when it comes to how healthy a food is for you.

Some foods that are high in healthy fats (monounsaturated fats) have a higher calorie density – due to the fact that fats have a higher caloric value than carbohydrates or proteins. The biggest thing to remember here is that these fats are still good for you in moderation and are needed by the body for optimum health so by avoiding these foods because of their calorie density, you’re doing your body an injustice.

Yes, calorie density is important, but also consider the nutrient density of the food and what value that food brings to your health and your body – take into account how much of those vital micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are in the foods you’re eating.

Crowding out

Crowding out is something that I highly recommend as a way of losing weight and making smarter food choices.

The idea is to crowd out less favourable food choices by increasing your intake of unprocessed whole foods.

Generally the unprocessed, nutrient dense foods, have a lower calorie density anyway and therefore by increasing your intake of these, you naturally crowd out the foods in your diet that have a higher calorie density. For example, filling half of your plate with leafy green vegetables at meal times, will encourage you to avoid over indulging. Not only will you feel full from the fibre the greens provide your body with, but you’ll also avoid reaching for those sugary foods later on when hunger strikes.

Bio-individuality

Finally, consider bio-individuality when it comes to your daily calorie intake. The NHS states that to maintain a healthy, balanced diet for women, that figure is around 2000 kcals daily. For men, the NHS suggests 2500 kcals daily.

However, it is so important to consider bio-individuality as there are so many factors that can affect these numbers. These guidelines don’t take into account height, weight, your levels of physical activity, metabolism, age as well as what your needs or desires are when it comes to your weight. They also don’t take into account your current state of health as illness, pregnancy, breastfeeding etc. can all affect your daily calorie needs.

*If you’re wondering how many calories you should be consuming daily then please talk to a health professional such as a health coach, nutritionist or dietician.


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