Not all calories are equal

A third of us underestimate how many calories we work our way through each day. That’s according to a new report from the Office of National Statistics. They reckon that we eat about 1000kcals more than we think we do. So whether the people that took part in the survey gave an under-estimate to look good on paper, or simply forgot what they had eaten, these calories all add up.

My gripe with this report is that they are focussing on the calories that people are eating, and not on the quality of their food choices.


Let’s take 2 examples of what 1000kcals could look like:

Joe adds his extra calories from:

  • a chocolate bar (260kcals) + a bag of crisps (250kcals) + a bottle of fizzy drink (210kcals) + 6 Jaffa cakes (270kcals)

Peter has an extra 1000kcals from:

  • an avocado (190kcals) + a snack pack of brazil nuts (138kcals) + a banana (120kcals) + Greek yoghurt (163kcals) + a tablespponful mixed seeds (145kcals) and 2 oatcakes (90kcals) with humous (153kcals)

Joe’s diet is much higher in sugar than Peter’s, who’s additional kcals are coming predominantly from good fats.

Not all calories are equal

Calories come from fats, protein and carbohydrate. From a very simplistic point of view, we used to think that weight loss was simply a case of reducing the number of calories we consume and increasing the calories burned by maxing up our levels of exercise.

Since this model was first theorised, we know a lot more about nutrition and the human body.

So let’s take a closer look. Calories from fat, protein and carbohydrate all have a very different effect on the body. We know that the best, most useful source of quick energy for the human body is carbohydrate. If we eat too much carbohydrate (or sugar), the extra cannot be used for other functions in the body, but instead will be stored as fat. We also know that if we eat too much sugar and refined carbohydrate, that we are asking too much of our pancreas to keep producing so much insulin to help manage our blood sugar balance, and this sets up a cocktail of high blood sugar combined with high insulin levels – a surefire way to increase the body’s fat storage, not to mention the health risks like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer associated with this lethal combination.

Fat does not make us fat

Fat is a golden nugget of nutrition for the body, if we choose the right types. Avocados, nuts, seeds, oily fish, olive oil, etc. all have an array of different types of beneficial fatty acids that seem to have very positive effects on human health. From cardiovascular health to helping balance inflammation in the body, these fats are essential to our health and well-being, not to mention their role in helping us get enough of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Fat also helps to satiate us and has been shown to influence a couple important hormones (sometimes known as our ‘hunger hormones) called ghrelin and leptin that influence our ability to store fat and influence our appetite. Very basically, the aim of the game is to reduce ghrelin (which can make us feel hungry) and increase leptin (n appetite suppressor). Guess what? Fat helps shift the balance in the right direction. Protein has a helping hand in this balance too.

So it brings us back to the calorie question. It is easy to eat a low calorie diet that is made up of processed foods, low calorie drinks and artificial sweeteners, but if we are eating with health in mind it is essential to eat a wide variety of foods and get a healthy balance of the macronutrients.

My recommendations are:

  • Don’t pass up on fat (just choose your fats wisely).
  • Eat some carbohydrate (aim for low GI foods higher in fibre to keep you feeling fuller for longer).
  • Eat some protein with every meal to help satisfy your appetite.