Should we be counting calories?

Healthy meals on table, counting caloriesTheoretically, weight-loss isn’t rocket science: if you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. If you eat the same amount of calories that you burn, your weight will stay the same. And if you eat less calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. Simple right? Well, not quite. Which is why so many people who adopt a solely calorie counting approach to weight loss find themselves confused and frustrated. Here we explain why counting calories is only one aspect of healthy, sustainable weight-loss.


Every bit of food you eat has a calorific value. A calorie is a unit of measurement representing how much energy is stored in a mass of food. If you look at food packaging, you’ll see calories are indicated by ‘kilocalories’, or kcals. One calorie equals a kcal. So for example, a croissant contains around 400 calories – the same as a large jacket potato with baked beans. A single calorie is defined as having approximately the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by 1C. On this basis, it might surprise you to know that an apple contains enough energy to boil a litre of water.

Simple, you might think. I need to lose weight, so I’ll just make sure whatever I eat is less than what I burn. Well, not quite. If your goal is to lose weight in a healthy and controlled way, you’ll need to focus on more than just calorie counting. If all you do is count calories and choose foods based on how much energy they contain, there’s a high chance you won’t see results if you don’t focus on a nutritious, balanced diet which is essential for good health. Let’s dive into the science and find out why.


How many calories do I need?

To maintain weight, an average man needs around 2,500kcal a day and an average woman around 2,000kcal. If you want to gain weight or lose weight, then these figures will go up or down and will need to be adjusted for any exercise you do, because exercise burns more calories.

In addition to the calories we burn during exercise, we also need to consider our basal metabolic rate (BMR) which is the minimal energy required for your body to function during rest. Even when you’re sleeping, your body needs exercise for automatic processes such as keeping your heart pumping or your lungs breathing. Your BMR accounts for anything between 40% and 70% of your body’s daily energy requirements, depending on your age and lifestyle. Any extra energy you consume above your BMR will either be used by your body when you exercise or be stored as fat.


Why calorie counting alone isn’t enough

Not all calories are created equal. Some foods might have the same calorific value but vary in their ‘metabolic efficiency’. This means certain foods (with poor metabolic efficiency) make your metabolism work harder to digest them, and other foods (with high metabolic efficiency) glide through your digestive system with minimal effort.

Cooked foods, especially carbohydrates such as pasta, have a far better metabolic efficiency compared with raw fruit and vegetables. But it’s the foods with a poor metabolic efficiency that have the advantage for weight-loss. Confused? Celery might help.

Are you familiar with the urban myth that celery contains negative calories? Although the celery myth isn’t proven, it no doubt stemmed from the concept that your body has to work really hard to digest something with a relatively low calorific value. Our cave-dwelling ancestors would have preferred cooked, fatty meats to survive the winter over celery sticks. But things are different in our modern society where so many people consume more calories than they need and end up with excess fat stores.


Balance is the key

A balanced diet is just as important to weight-loss as calorie counting. Ideally, you need to factor in both – choose your foods wisely based on how much energy they will give you, as well as the macro and micronutrients they will provide.

A diet high in fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables is a safe bet, because unprocessed foods will give you a metabolic advantage. In addition, whole foods will provide plenty of roughage which will keep you fuller for longer without an energy surplus (an energy surplus that will ultimately turn into fat stores).

However, it’s also important not to cut out food groups when looking to lose or maintain weight. Many popular diets try to cheat the metabolism by swerving certain types of foods but this can lead to problems. The keto diet, for example, is based on the idea that if you cut carbohydrates from your diet, your body will be forced to draw energy from your glucose reserves, stored as fat. This is called ketosis and you may have noticed that this diet certainly has a lot of fans on social media.

But be warned – you can’t cheat your body for long. A low-carb diet can lead to symptoms such as nausea and bad breath as well as kidney disease and kidney stones. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates such as whole grains which will release their energy slowly and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.


Do calories matter?

Yes, calories do matter for weight-loss. If you consume more calories than you burn, you’re going to put on weight. However, there is a ‘but’. If you choose foods based solely on how many calories they contain, instead of aiming for a healthy, balanced diet, you’re inevitably going to run into issues. Would you choose to eat a bag of sweets instead of a full meal if the sweets contained slightly fewer calories? Hopefully not.

Instead, nourish your body with a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, good fats, protein and complex carbohydrates. If you’re determined to achieve your weight goals, choose a healthy balanced diet, sprinkle over some exercise and watch the pounds drop off.


Leave it to us.

Life can get busy. And although you might know what foods you should be eating, you might not always find the time to plan and cook healthy meals. That’s why we created Balance Box. Our expert nutritionists and chefs carefully create menus that take into account nutritional values and calorie content to optimise your health.

Looking to improve your nutrition? Take a look our meal plans and let us do the hard work.