Calories indicate how much energy a food contains. This is energy that we need on a day-to-day basis. But how many calories exactly does our body need? How can I calculate my own calorie requirements? And does it even make sense to count calories?
Calories get a bad rap. Be careful you don’t eat too many! But how much is too much? How many calories do you need as an individual? This depends on your age, gender, weight and height.
Another key factor is how active you are. Do you have a sedentary job? How much do you move in your day-to-day life? Do you exercise regularly? All of these factors have an impact on how many calories we need. We can only control our activity level. So if you want to burn more calories, you need to move more, for example through endurance sports and weight training. This is because muscle mass burns almost three times as much energy as fat tissue – even at rest.
In very general terms, the rule of thumb is that the taller, stronger and more active someone is, the more calories they need. Men burn an average of around 500 calories a day more than women. Women need fewer calories for biological reasons: their metabolism and hormones are different. Female bodies also tend to be composed of more fat and less muscle on average, which impacts how they burn calories.
Your individual calorie requirements change in the course of your life. Children and adolescents, as well as women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, require more calories. They need additional energy for growth. After the menopause and in older age, a person’s basal metabolic rate decreases because their metabolism is slower and they lose muscle mass.
For example, you can calculate your approximate calorie consumption with the Swiss Society for Nutrition calorie calculator (in german).
If you want to lose weight, you should consume fewer calories than your body burns – this is referred to as a calorie deficit. If, on the other hand, you consume more calories than your body burns, you will be in a calorie surplus and will gain weight.
So what does that mean specifically if I want to lose weight? Tip: increase the calories you burn by leading an active lifestyle and make sure you eat a balanced diet with lots of high-quality, plant-based and regional products. Focusing on these aspects is healthier and more sustainable than constantly counting calories. Depriving yourself will only leave you feeling frustrated. And after you’ve been on a diet, you will often face that familiar yo-yo effect. This is because, as you have drastically reduced your calorie intake, your body keeps running in energy-saving mode for some time and literally gobbles up every extra calorie – to build up life-saving fat reserves for the next time food is scarce.
So don’t keep checking how many calories you need. Rather, help yourself reach your ideal weight by changing your diet or using intermittent fasting.
Use our free health consultation service for Helsana supplementary insurance customers. We’ll provide you with some specific tips and help on how to reach your ideal weight.
So what should you do instead of calculating how many calories you need? Tip: take a look at your eating habits. Are you getting the right proportion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats? Does your diet provide you with all the nutrients you need? Might your goal be to reduce excess empty calories in the form of sugar, soft drinks or alcohol? The term empty calories means that, apart from energy, the food or drink in question offers virtually no essential nutrients.
Unconscious eating habits also have an impact on your weight: do you eat because you are genuinely hungry, out of pure habit or in response to a certain emotion? Do you feel full of energy – or are you always feeling sluggish? Nutrition counselling helps you to identify unhealthy eating behaviours and to adopt habits that are better in tune with your body.
Attempts to calculate our exact calorie requirements often fail because we do not know exactly how many calories we burn. No fitness tracker out there is that precise. You would also have to weigh every meal and record all of the data. And finally, 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.
Focusing exclusively on your calorie requirements can lead to compulsive eating behaviours. 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 is good for your body.
Be it face-to-face or online: you can reach your goals faster with a professional nutrition course. With COMPLETA supplementary insurance cover, you receive 75% of the costs, or up to CHF 200 per calendar year, for nutrition counselling and courses that are recognised by Helsana.
Tanja Micheli, an expert in this field, provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article. Tanja Micheli (registered nurse, postgraduate degree in health promotion, IKP holistic nutrition expert) works for Helsana’s health consultation service. She supports customers on questions to do with nutrition and health promotion.