Counting calories

Christmas is often a time of over-indulgence and many people start the new year with one particular resolution – to lose weight.

While it might be tempting to jump into the latest fad diet to shift those extra festive pounds, a recent study by Exeter and Bristol universities suggests that yo-yo dieting triggers the brain into starvation mode which can cause the body to store fat and ulimately

Instead, we’re encouraged to eat a healthy balanced diet. But, with conflicting messages about what's healthy, it can be extremely confusing. So, here at health insurance, we're working with registered dietitian and health blogger at, Nichola Whitehead to uncover what a healthy balanced diet actually looks like, and explain why you shouldn’t rely on counting calories alone.

Which has more calories?

healthy meals

unhealthy meals

Answer: they're equal

Nichola: Both daily diets have 2,031 calories; however, not all calories are the same. While calories are important when it comes to losing, maintaining or gaining weight, they are not the sole element that we should be focusing on when it comes to improving our health. In addition to being calorie aware, we need to focus on the types of food that we are (and aren’t!) eating.

A healthy diet is a balanced diet, containing foods from all of the five food groups; fruits and vegetables for nutrients, whole grain starchy carbohydrates for energy and fibre, protein for growth and repair, dairy for calcium as well as healthy fats for many vital bodily functions including heart and brain health.

While the two daily diets provide exactly the same number of calories, only one of them will leave you feeling more energised and provide you with what your body needs to stay strong and healthy in the long term, i.e. vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre as well as slow-release carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats.

Daily diet one

healthy meals calories

Daily diet one contains:

  • At least five portions of fruit and vegetables. Each meal provides at least one vegetable and the majority of snacks are based around fruit.
  • Whole grain or slow-release carbohydrate at each meal, for example, wholemeal bread, lentils, sweet potato and brown rice.
  • Lean protein sources such as lentils and chickpeas, as well as Greek yoghurt.
  • Healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil (in the curry) and peanut butter which helps to maintain healthy hair, skin and nails.
  • Dairy in the form of milk and yoghurt, which is an excellent source of calcium, iodine and B vitamins.

Plenty of sugar-free fluids in the form of water, as well as green tea to ensure optimal hydration. Daily diet one also provides an adequate amount of the recommended macronutrients, fats and carbohydrates, and doesn’t provide more than the recommended daily intake of saturated fat and sugar (including free sugars).

Salt is also kept to a minimum by making meals from scratch and fibre levels are kept high thanks to the wide variety of fresh, wholesome ingredients.

Daily diet two

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. 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. It also contains high volumes of sugar, most of which comes from the free sugars in the chocolate cereal, cola, chocolate, biscuits and ice-cream as opposed to natural sugars found in milk and dairy. Sugary drinks have also been linked to both dental caries and obesity, which obviously isn’t good for our health!

The recommendation

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

To maintain consistency and discourage over-eating, reference intakes are based on an average-sized female doing an average amount of exercise.

Reference intakes are there to act as a guide to a balanced diet rather than a strict target. To illustrate what a balanced diet could look like, daily diet one meets nearly all of the macronutrient requirements, with slightly increased protein to support physical activity.

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. 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!