Counting the calories and balancing your diet

Jacqui Smith
Registered Nurse and Health Coach
26 November 2019

Do you regularly check food packaging to see how many calories you’re consuming? Some foods and drinks might contain a lot more than you think.

When it comes to calorie counting, some people are strict; others are blissfully unaware of what the calorie count is of any food. But should we be tracking calories at all? And is it just the numbers we should be considering?

What are calories?

The amount of energy in any food or drink is measured in calories. That energy is then used by your body to move and function in every way. The amount of energy a person needs will depend on several things, such as their age, build and how active they are day-to-day.

If you look at any food packaging, you’ll see that the calorie content is given in kilocalories (kcal) and kilojoules (kJ). Kilocalorie is simply referred to as calories.

How many calories do I need?

  • Moderately active women need around 2,000 kcal a day (8,400kJ).
  • Moderately active men need around 2,500 kcal a day (10,500kJ).

What happens if I consume too many calories?

The simple answer is weight gain! Consuming too many calories on a regular basis will lead to putting on weight if you aren’t active enough. You need to create an energy balance of ‘calories in and calories out’ to maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese puts you at a higher risk of many long-term diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and type 2 diabetes. It also puts you at higher risk of health problems such as asthma, back pain and depression.

Should I keep an eye on my calorie intake?

Knowing how many calories are in the foods and drinks you consume is essential to help you maintain an ‘energy balance’ and to avoid weight gain. You don’t necessarily have to track all the calories you consume, but being generally aware of high-calorie foods and what habits can increase your daily intake will help.

Likewise, if you’re underweight, or your GP or dietitian has encouraged you to increase your calorie intake, make sure you’re finding the time to prepare and eat enough food throughout the day.

Think about your daily calorie intake as a whole. Although this doesn’t work for everyone, it can help to spread your energy intake throughout the day. For example, one guide you could follow that the NHS recommends is:

  • breakfast: 400 calories
  • lunch: 600 calories
  • evening meal: 600 calories
  • healthy drinks and snacks: the rest of your calorie intake throughout the day (aiming for a total of about 2,000 calories if you’re a woman, and 2,500 calories if you’re a man)

However, you may enjoy having a big breakfast to set you up for the day. If this is the case, you may have a lighter lunch, lower in calories. If the morning or daytime is a rush for you, perhaps your evening meal will be when you’ll consume more of your daily calorie intake?

The key is to not consistently go over your daily calorie amount.


A picture of pasta salad dish


Habits that push up calorie consumption

Some of your eating and drinking habits may be pushing your calorie consumption up without you even realising it. Here we look at some of the most common ‘calorie culprits’ and things you can do to keep them in control. It might be worth keeping a food diary to highlight where extra calories are sneaking in, especially if you tend to nibble during the day.

Mindless snacking

Perhaps you’re a ‘grazer’ at your desk at work? Or maybe you get mid-afternoon sugar cravings? Try to stick to healthy snacks that are low in calories. Here are some simple ideas.

100 calorie snacks:

  • one large banana
  • a small piece of reduced-fat cheddar cheese (matchbox size) and cherry tomatoes

150 calorie snacks:

  • a small low-fat plain yogurt topped with fresh fruit
  • carrot sticks and low-fat houmous

200 calorie snacks:

  • one slice of wholemeal toast topped with nut butter
  • a small handful of unsalted mixed nuts

Eating out

It’s harder to keep track of the calories you consume when you eat out at restaurants. You may also be tempted to eat more, maybe by having more courses or treating yourself to a dessert.

  • Look at the menu in advance, so you choose a healthier option beforehand, instead of choosing when you arrive and often feel hungriest.
  • Go easy on the sides. Chips, potatoes and garlic bread are all popular side dishes, but can ramp up the calories. Try swapping chips and creamy mashed potatoes for baked, boiled or steamed potatoes with their skins on.
  • Watch what you drink. Alcohol can be very calorific, so watch how often your glass is topped up.
  • Eating out often? Why not invite friends or family to your home for dinner? This gives you more control over what you cook and how much you eat and drink.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for your meal to be cooked differently. Baking or grilling is much better than deep fat frying, for example.
  • Ask for sauces to be served separately, so you can control how much of them go on your plate and eat smaller amounts.

Fizzy or flavoured drinks

Many fizzy drinks, flavoured waters and fruit juices all contain calories. Even those branded as ‘healthy’ are often high in sugar and calories. There are usually diet versions available, which use sweeteners instead of sugar. These are better options, as they contain next to no calories, however, it’s worth noting that they’re still bad for your teeth.

Sticking to water is the best way to keep your calorie count down (and maintain a healthy smile!) when it comes to drinks, as well as staying hydrated.


At the end of a busy day, all you might want is an alcoholic drink to help you unwind. But no matter how healthily you’ve eaten throughout the day, even one or two alcoholic drinks can push your calorie consumption way over the daily recommended amount. Many people are simply unaware how high in calories some alcoholic drinks can be. For example:

  • one pint of 4% lager is 182 calories
  • a 250ml (large) wine is approximately 228 calories

Drinking too many units throughout the week can have many negative effects on your health. Stick to the recommended guidelines and go easy on after-work drinks. Bupa has more tips about cutting back on alcohol and the charity Drinkaware is also a good source of information.

It’s not just about the numbers

It’s important to beware of how many calories you’re consuming and what foods, or habits, might be bumping up your intake. But it's not just about calorie counting. It's just as important to eat a healthy, balanced diet and quality food to make sure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.

Go for ‘quality calories’ – so picking foods that offer nutritional value. For example, a 100kcal banana is much more nutritious than a 100kcal packet of crisps.

Your diet needs to be rich in fruit and vegetables, and high in fibre and wholegrains. Foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar should be kept to an occasional treat, and also keep a watch on your salt intake.

Portion control is also a big factor to consider. For example, nuts and olive oil have high nutritional value but are relatively high in calories. Think of portion sizes as ‘handfuls’ to help you control how much you eat.

Try our calorie calculator

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Jacqui Smith
Jacqui Smith
Registered Nurse and Health Coach

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    • Small Changes, Big Gains! British Nutrition Foundation., published July 2016
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    • NHS / One You. Keep track of calories with 400-400-600., accessed November 2019
    • 10 tips for healthy eating out. British Heart Foundation., accessed November 2019
    • The eatwell guide – a revised healthy eating model. British Nutrition Foundation., last reviewed November 2016
    • Calories in alcohol. British Nutrition Foundation., published October 2014
    • The Quality Calorie (QC) concept. British Nutrition Foundation, accessed November 2019

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