Counting calories: useful or not?


Counting calories is boring, tedious – and unnecessary. We explain which methods are more effective for eating healthily and maintaining your weight.

Calorie requirement: what does it depend on?

The level of a person’s daily calorie requirement depends on various factors: height, weight, gender, health condition, and whether they are physically active or not. Age plays a role too. The older a person is, the fewer calories they need to maintain their weight at a constant level. This is because metabolism slows down with age. In addition, our body composition changes and muscle mass decreases. Although the process takes place gradually, the result can be quite significant.

Food as an energy supplier

There’s no doubt about it: “The human body needs energy to function and develop” states the Swiss Society for Nutrition, SSN. We get this energy from food.

Calculating calorie requirements

Anyone wishing to know how many calories they need can refer to the Harris Benedict formula. However, experts say that this calculation only gives an approximate impression as genetic predisposition and lifestyle aren't given enough consideration.

Track the nutritional quality of food with an app

A group of researchers at ETH Zurich has developed an app that analyses a person’s daily shop. Based on NutriScore, a rating developed in France, the app can evaluate the energy density and nutritional quality of a food. While not entirely undisputed, it can be used as a guide to assess how healthy the food you’ve just bought is. With a Cumulus card or Supercard you can use the app, which is available online, free of charge. Anyone interested can also register and support the ETH's research on the subject at the same time.


Counting calories makes limited sense

As a rule, an adult person needs between 1,800 and 2,500 kilocalories per day. Those who eat and drink more than they need will gain weight. But keeping meticulous records isn't necessary. After all, counting calories isn't only a tedious process but, according to numerous studies, is often done incorrectly.

Quality is just as important

This is because the calorie count alone says nothing about the health benefits of a food. For example: a piece of cake and a bowl of chicken salad can have the same number of calories, but the latter provides the more valuable nutrients. It therefore makes sense to not only watch quantity, but also quality.

Three principles of a balanced diet

  • Use fresh and natural ingredients instead of processed food.
  • Reclaim the kitchen, cook for yourself more often.
  • Eat mindfully and be aware of when you are full.

Models such as Harvard’s “Healthy Eating Plates” make it easier when it comes to choosing what to eat. According to this model, vegetables, fruits, whole grain cereals and proteins (legumes, fish, poultry) should be eaten on a daily basis. It is also important to use plant-based oils and avoid trans fatty acids. And to choose water and unsweetened teas over sugary drinks.

Refer to energy density

Those still seeking a guideline can look at a food’s energy density. This refers to the energy content per defined quantity, usually expressed per 100 grams in kilocalories (kcal) or kilojoules (kJ). The general guideline is: foods with low and medium energy density (up to 225 kcal per 100 grams) should form the basis of your daily diet. Cut down on foods with a higher energy density, as they often contain a lot of – inferior – fat and sugar.

Prioritise satiating foods

Instead of goods baked with white flour, choose wholemeal varieties. Treat nuts and the above-mentioned plant-based oils as an exception. Although both have a high energy density, they form part of a healthy diet when consumed in small quantities. The advantage of this method is that you don't have to starve on a certain number of calories, but can eat your fill provided you choose the right foods.

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