Calories: friend or foe?

Calories indicate how much energy a food contains. Our requirement depends on various factors – for example, physical activity. Here you can find out how to slightly increase your calorie consumption. And whether counting calories makes sense.

30.12.2021 Lara Brunner 3 minutes

What is a calorie?

A calorie is an old unit for measuring energy, i.e. the thermal energy. A thousand calories is equivalent to one kilocalorie. A kilocalorie is the energy required to heat one litre of water from 14.5 to 15.5 degrees Celsius. The energy that we take in with our food is also defined in kilocalories. And the energy that our bodies need to perform all its functions.

Good to know: the internationally recognised energy unit is actually a joule (J) or kilojoule (kJ). However, the calorific value of food is given in both units: kilojoules and kilocalories.

Key Terminology

  • Energy density: different foods deliver a different number of calories per gram. The greater the calories per total weight, the higher the energy density.
  • Empty calories: we talk about empty calories when foods contain very little in the way of essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, other than energy.
  • Negative calories: negative calories do not exist. There is nothing we can eat that burns more energy during the eating and digestive process than it adds to the body.

What is meant by “calorie balance”?

If you contrast your calorie consumption with your calorie intake, you get the calorie balance. If you consume more calories than you burn, you have a positive balance. This results in a calorie surplus. That in turn leads to weight gain. Conversely, if you have a negative balance – in other words a calorie deficit – you will lose weight.

How do you calculate your calorie consumption?

Calorie consumption is individual: it depends on factors, such as age, sex, muscle mass and physical activity. For example, you can calculate your approximate calorie consumption with the Swiss Society for Nutrition (Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Ernährung) calorie calculator.

To the calorie calculator (in German)

You can easily increase your energy consumption with an active lifestyle. For example, ensure that you walk a minimum of 10,000 steps per day. The following tips will help you:

  • Stand up and walk about as often as possible. Use the stairs instead of the lift, travel short distances on foot or by bike or get off one stop earlier.
  • Housework and gardening are strenuous. Turn these tedious chores into your new sport!
  • Doing jumping jacks gets your circulation going. It also strengthens your bones and improves your stamina. Incorporate 10 to 20 repetitions before your next coffee break.
  • Next time you watch TV, sit upright on the floor instead of lounging on the sofa. You’ll use more energy that way. Or incorporate exercises, such as wall sits, knee raises or crunches.
  • Stand on tip toes the next time you brush your teeth or make a phone call. Hold this position for 20 seconds and repeat this exercise three times.

P.S.: Muscle mass burns almost three times as much energy as fat tissue, even at rest.

How do you know which foods contain how many calories?

The nutrition table on all food packaging shows the calories (kcal) per 100 g and serving. You can also find the amount of nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fat, protein and salt. The nutrition table also shows how high the proportion of calories is in relation to the average daily requirement of 2,000 kcal.

Foods such as meat, nuts, vegetable oils, avocado, butter, high-fat dairy products, dried fruit, fruit juices, pasta, rice, muesli and legumes have a medium to high energy density.

Conversely, fruit, vegetables, lean meat and low-fat dairy products have a lower energy density. They often also contain less fat.

Empty calories are mainly found in sweet drinks, alcohol, desserts, salty snacks and fast food.

You can also find detailed nutritional information on various foods, for example, in the Swiss Food Composition Database (Schweizer Nährwertdatenbank).

To the Swiss Food Composition Database

Save calories with the Helsana Coach app

In the Helsana Coach app, you’ll find exciting content on nutrition, exercise and mindfulness. For example in the “Saving Calories Made Easy” unit, you’ll discover how you can easily cut calories in everyday life – without having to give anything up.

How useful is calorie counting?

Counting calories is useful when you want to get an accurate sense of the energy you’re consuming. This can be important when you start to change your diet or if you feel that you are not gaining or losing weight, even though you think you’re already doing enough to achieve this. Generally, however, you don’t need to make an effort at calorie counting if you eat a balanced diet.

Tips for a balanced diet

Counting calories comes with several challenges:

  • Calorie counting is time-consuming. You need to weigh all the quantities to calculate the exact calorie count. However, this isn’t possible if you’re eating out.
  • If you want to count calories, you’ll need to know exactly how much you consume. This is often over-estimated. Even fitness trackers only provide approximate information on this.
  • The amount of calories says nothing about how many valuable nutrients a food provides. Or how long it fills you up for. That's why it makes more sense to pay attention to quality, not quantity.

Calorie counting can also lead to compulsive eating, or in the worst case, to an eating disorder. The joy in eating is diminished because the focus is only on the number of calories. Individual foods are quickly judged as bad or even forbidden. This is not good for either physical or mental well-being. It is therefore better to eat intuitively. In other words, listen more to your body’s own feelings of hunger and fullness. And pay attention to what your body needs or what you feel like eating.

Read more

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