Are you eating empty calories? Here’s how to make the most of your daily quota

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

Calorie-counting - it’s at the heart of new Public Health England guidelines  designed to tackle the growing obesity epidemic, but is losing weight all down to crunching numbers?

While plans such as the 5:2 diet  and the 800 calorie Blood Sugar Diet  have shown that it can be put to effective use when done in a strategic way, the more figures-focussed approach of the government campaign (which encourages eating 400-600-600 calories for breakfast, lunch and dinner and manufacturers to reduce the number of calories in their products by 20 per cent), risks advocating a ‘quantity over quality’ mindset. Total daily calorie intake recommendations remain at 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men.

“It’s a step in the right direction with changing recipes, but I have concerns over what other ingredients they would put in to make the product taste the same - more additives perhaps?” comments nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy . It’s also at odds with the way calorie-counting has evolved over the years since piquing the public’s interest in the 80's - a phenomenon that Daniel credits to the low fat trend that was happening at the time. Originally, the calorie formula was based around the concept that weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you consume. There are several problems to this theory though.

Firstly, high value low calories can easily be confused with low value empty ones. “You are what you eat and absorb - food is more than just energy - it’s what repairs cells and keeps us nourished,” he says. “You can eat 100 calories of sweets or 1½ eggs yet the sweets have absolutely zero nutrition. An egg has vitamins and minerals which will satisfy and nourish your body more.”

A more metric-centric approach can also serve to unfairly vilify certain food groups such as fats. “People on low-calorie diets avoid fat because it has twice the calories,” says Daniel. “People tend to use vegetable oils and heated processed oils rather than butter which are inflammatory for the body - the obesity rate has hugely increased since low fat diets have been introduced.”

Calorie-counting is no longer seen as a numbers exercise, but rather ensuring your calories come from the right sources for a more well-rounded approach towards health and weight loss.

Calories broken down...

Calories from fats

In the past, calorie-counting and fats didn’t mix. It all came down to the maths. Per gram, fat has more calories (9kcal) compared to protein (4kcal) and carbs (4kcal). Hence, low fat was often viewed as the way forward for many in the 80's and 90's as a way of losing weight.

However, times have changed and we now know that not all fats should be avoided. In fact, preconceptions about them and their role in weight loss have transformed so much within the last decade that low-carb, high fat diets such as the Ketogenic diet  and the Banting diet  have gained popularity the world over. They work by encouraging the body to use fat rather than glucose (from carbs) for energy - a process called ketosis. Intermittent fasting  works in a similar way.

Relying on fats rather than carbs for energy has distinct health advantages. “When you eat carbs they are broken down into sugars by the digestion process,” explains Daniel. “Sugar causes the release of insulin and insulin causes the sugar to be stored, primarily as fat in adipose cells. Fats break down much slower than carbs and don’t directly trigger an insulin response, so the body doesn't go into ‘storage mode’ as often when fats are your primary fuel.”

Just like calories, all fats aren’t created equal. Daniel breaks it down for us:

“Unsaturated, most omega 3 and monounsaturated fats are protective while saturated fats are neutral. Saturated fats have been given a bad name for perhaps being linked to heart disease but this theory has been disproven.

“The truly harmful fats are artificial trans fats and processed vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids. Examples are: soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil and safflower oil.”

The best sources of healthy fats are:

Avocados (194kcal in a medium-sized one),

Nuts (295kcal in 100g of walnuts),

Seeds (128kcal in 25g of flax seeds),

Oily fish (3 canned sardines roughly equates to 126kcal),

Olive oil (1tsp is 41kcal)

They contain essential fatty acids, vital to get from our diet as our body doesn’t produce them. “These healthy fats help our brain to function better, help to stabilise our mood and keep our skin and joints healthy,” says Daniel. “Aim for 30 per cent of your calories to come from good fats.”

Calories from protein

Protein is an essential building block of bones, skin, hair and muscle, is used to repair tissues and supports important metabolic processes. A gram of protein contains 4kcal.

In terms of foods that offer the greatest yield, look for first class proteins - ones that contain all the essential amino acids in them. “In general, flesh and meat sources are plentiful and contain all essential amino acids compared to vegan sources,” says Daniel.

The sources of protein best equipped to meet the body’s needs are meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. However, those who follow a vegan diet can incorporate complete proteins into their diet by combining plant-based ones such as hemp and pea or rice and pea. This can be most easily done with the help of vegan protein powders . Lentils, beans, tofu, chickpeas and pumpkin seeds can also be handy ways to up your daily intake too.

For a useful guide, approximate calorie breakdowns are as follows:

Chicken breast (106kcal in 100g)

Poached egg (53kcal)

Skinless cod (75kcal in 100g)

Cottage cheese (61kcal in a 60g serving)

Puy lentils (roughly 141kcal in 100g)

Tofu (73kcal in 100g)

Chickpeas (160kcal in a 50g serving)

Pumpkin seeds (84kcal in 15g)

The Nue Co Plant Protein + Gut Food vegan protein powder, (pea and hemp) (59kcal per 1 tbsp)

Daniel recommends aiming for a 25g portion of protein per meal. Protein-rich snacks are also a great way to keep hunger at bay in between and are a better option than carb-rich ones as they have a less destabilising effect on blood sugar for a less ‘peak and trough’ effect. Avoid going overboard though. Daniel cautions that protein overload can be detrimental for kidneys and digestion and in some instances, it can elevate blood glucose levels. “This is because the liver has the ability to convert the amino acids that are found in protein into sugar,” he explains. “This process is called gluconeogenesis and can happen when there is low blood sugar.”

Calories from carbs

Similar to how low-fat lifestyles peaked in the 80's, interest surrounding low-carb diets surged in the 00's. However, much like the other food groups mentioned above, not all carbs are deserving of the same amounts of scrutiny (we’re starting to see a pattern here).

“All carbs are not equal due to the sugar and fibre content,” explains Daniel. “Sugar is immediately absorbed and increases blood sugar and fat storage. Fibre makes foods slower to digest and doesn’t elevate blood sugar as a food low in fibre.” His fibre-rich picks include nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, which are also full of other nutrients too.

Daniel recommends swapping refined carbohydrates for whole complex ones to avoid blood sugar spikes. He advises having a quarter plate of them with each meal with protein and healthy fats. Here’s a breakdown of the calories of some common sources:

Brown rice (166kcal for 50g)

Quinoa (154kcal for 50g)

Buckwheat groats (182kcal for 50g)

Biona Organic Millet Wholegrain Bread (95kcal for 1 slice)

“Be mindful of a product stating wholegrain as it may actually not be,” cautions Daniel. “If you can scrunch up bread back to the dough, then it’s likely not wholegrain.”

The final word

Calorie-counting can have its benefits if done well. Your calories just need to have substance. This means framing it around a diet low in refined and added sugars and processed foods, but plentiful in whole foods and high quality proteins. “Per day, aim for eight servings of fruit and veg (six veg, two fruit), two portions of ‘iPhone sized’ proteins and two to three portions of carbs that should fit onto a ¼ of your plate,” recommends Daniel.

High value calories found in, for example, foods high in protein and fibre trump empty calories found in processed or fast foods. “Protein is low calorie and will keep you full and high fibre will take longer to digest, nourish your body and not spike your blood sugar too much,” says Daniel. Low-calorie doesn’t automatically mean high quality. As Daniel points out, “You could consume 2000 cans of Diet Coke per day on a low calorie diet but it would probably kill you.”

What does 100 calories look like? Here’s our visual guide

Follow Daniel on  Instagram  and Ayesha on  Instagram