Can you tell which has more calories?

Image of woman holding two plates one with healthy vegetable the other wth a chocolate muffin
It's obvious which option is the healthiest, but how do you get the right balance?
"Calories are important when it comes to losing, maintaining or gaining weight, but they are not the sole element that we should be focusing on when it comes to improving our health"
  • | by Rhian Davies

Obesity rates in the UK are soaring.

According to a 2014 survey by Public Health England, two thirds of adults are overweight or obese.

The cause of the rise in obesity has been pinned on various elements of our modern lifestyles from desk-bound jobs and inactivity to high-calorie diets and convenience food. 

With so many mixed messages on what is actually healthy, and innumerable fad diets promising quick fixes, it can be extremely confusing.

But we've got your back! We've teamed up with Nichola Whitehead, registered dietitian and health blogger at Nic's Nutrition to come up with two diet plans.

Feast your eyes on this

Take a look at these meals plans.

While it might seem obvious which meal plan is the healthiest, do you know how many calories are in each?

Picture of the meal plans side by side

The answer: they're EXACTLY the same.

So which one should you choose?

It's probably more tempting to go for diet two, it's easy, convenient and who doesn't love chocolate cereal for breakfast? Surely, if it's the same calories it shouldn't matter, right?

Well, we caught up with Nic, and here's what she had to say about the two meals...

"Both daily diets have 2,031 calories, but not all calories are the same," she told us.

"Calories are important when it comes to losing, maintaining or gaining weight, but they are not the sole element that we should be focusing on when it comes to improving our health."

So rather than obsessing over calories, we should focus on the types of food that we're eating?

Yes, reckons Nic.

A healthy diet is a balanced diet, containing foods from all of the five food groups, including...

  • fruits and vegetables for nutrients,
  • whole grain starchy carbohydrates for energy and fibre,
  • protein for growth and repair, and
  • dairy for calcium as well as healthy fats for many vital bodily functions including heart and brain health

So what about our meal plans?

So while the calories might be the same, one option will give you much more of a natural lift than the other.

"While the two daily diets provide exactly the same number of calories, only one of them will leave you feeling more energised," says Nic.

Let's look at both diets in more detail:

Picture of the healthy meal plan

  • Avocado toast with scrambled egg and a cup of tea
  • Carrot and coriander soup with added red lentils and an apple
  • Greek yoghurt and pomegrante seeds
  • Sweet potato and chickpea curry with brown rice and a pear
  • Carrot and celery sticks with peanut butter
  • Salted popcorn and dark chocolate

Daily diet one meets the recommended macronutrients of fats and carbohydrates, and doesn't provide more than the recommended daily intake of saturated fat and sugar (including free sugars).

But what does Nic think?

"Option one contains great sources of lean protein and wholegrain or slow-release carbohydrates which will leave you feeling full for longer," says Nic.

"The healthy fats, such as avocado, olive oil (in the curry) and peanut butter will help maintain healthy hair, skin and nails."

Elsewhere, the dairy in the milk and yoghurt provide a great source of calcium, iodine and B vitamins.

"The diet also offers at least five portions of fruit and vegetables, each meal contains at least one vegetable and the majority of the snacks are based around fruit," contines Nic.

Nic is also a fan of the plan's low salt and high fibre content. "It's kept to a minimum by making meals from scratch and fibre levels are kept high thanks to the wide variety of fresh, wholesome ingredients," she says.

What about daily diet two, it has exactly the same calories, why shouldn't we choose this one?

Picture of the unhealthy meal plan

  • Chocolate cereal
  • Ham sandwich on white bread with crisps and cola
  • Breakfast biscuits, chocolate bar, dark chocolate, two cups of coffee
  • Ready-meal lasagne with half a garlic baguette

"While daily diet two has the same amount of calories, it's devoid of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, meaning that it provides little in the way of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or fibre," says Nic.

 "Most of the carbohydrates featured - chocolate cereal and white bread - provide quick-releasing, short-acting energy which doesn't keep our energy up, nor our hunger levels at bay.

"Even though daily diet two provides an adequate amount of carbohydrates, protein and fats, it's high in saturated fat, which isn't the preferred type for long-term heart health - unsaturated fat is best."

Sugar has been a big issue recently - what's the sugar levels like in this meal plan?

"This meal plan contains high volumes of sugar, most of which comes from the free sugars in the chocolate cereal, cola, chocolate and biscuits as opposed to natural sugars found in milk and dairy," reckons Nic.

"Also, sugary drinks have also been linked to both dental caries and obesity, which obviously isn't good for our health!"

What's the recommendation?

How many calories and macronutrients you need in a day can vary depending on age, gender, weight and activity level, advises Nic.

"However, there are guidelines on the approximate amount of nutrients and energy you need daily for a healthy, balanced diet - they're called reference intakes.

"But remember, reference intakes are there to act as a guide to a balanced diet rather than a strict target."

Finally, here's the million quid question - what's the key to eating healthily?

"Healthy living is about sustainable living, which means you don't have to deprive yourself completely from more processed (delicious!) foods like cakes and biscuits," opines Nic.

"In fact, you could consider following the 80/20 rule, which means if you eat 80% healthy foods then you can afford to indulge in foods that don't provide quite as much goodness the other 20% of the time.

"It's ok to have the occasional day that looks like daily diet two, but for long-term health, optimal energy levels and productivity, daily diet one definitely wins!

"So the next time that you're obsessing over calories, have a think about WHAT you are eating instead; have a look at the ingredients list FIRST, and then the calorie content second!"

To find out more check out'sCounting Calories guide