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The truth behind ... calorie claims - Part 2

By Dr Janet Aylott BSc (Hons) PhD RNutr

You're eating less calories to lose weight but then hear that if you don't eat enough, your weight loss might stop! Or that all calories are not the same....no wonder we're confused!

I invited members to send me their calorie concerns and I would try to shed some light on these confusing questions.

In theory if you don't go over your calories each day, you'll still lose weight no matter what you eat, but surely it's not a healthy way of doing it long term?

This is a good question! Staying within your calorie allowance, whatever you eat, may in theory lead to weight loss. However you are absolutely right that this isn't a healthy way of doing it long term. One of the positive things about using a food diary system is that you can include all the foods you like to eat, so there are no 'off limits' foods or drinks. But if you want to lose weight and change your attitude to food for the long term (which means you're much more likely to be successful and keep the weight off), then you should approach the diet with a healthier outlook.

Choosing healthy, lower calorie options will mean you'll not only be staying within your calorie allowance, but you'll be getting the broadest range of nutrients to maintain your health, and to provide variety to your diet.

If I eat fewer calories and exercise more over a week, how do I still manage to weigh more than the week before!?

This is a question that I am often asked! Our bodies are incredible things and they do adjust very well to changes in our calorie intake, and calorie expenditure. On a week by week basis you may well see fluctuation in your weight if you are someone who exercises a lot, however in the long term the extra exercise is very much a positive thing.

As you exercise you are building muscle in your body - muscle is the metabolically active tissue that actually burns calories - so the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn! In the short term this could result in no weight loss, or even a bit of weight gain - this is because muscle is denser than fat (so it basically weighs more). But keep up the good work because all this exercise will mean a difference to your body shape and weight over the next few weeks and months.

I've got a plethora of questions on starvation mode. By eating below what amount would trigger this? And does how much activity you do factor into that at all?

Starvation mode is a very individual thing and it's impossible to put a figure on what amount you'd need to eat below to trigger this. In one person this could be 1,500 calories, whereas in another it could be 800 calories. It will depend on the weight, height, activity levels, age, gender etc of the individual as these all have to be taken into account.

Starvation mode is the point at which the body recognises that it just doesn't have the right level of calories coming in to remain healthy. At this point, the metabolic processes in the body will adjust to 'hang on' to the calories that it has in storage i.e. fat stores.

The 'average' person will need around 1,000 calories per day just to function - so things like keeping our hearts pumping, blood circulating, digesting food, our kidneys working etc. normal everyday things. On top of that we need extra calories to move and do things such as walking, driving, cooking and doing sport. This 'fuel' will vary from person to person, which is why we wouldn't advise you to eat below 1,200 calories per day, and our lowest allowance is 1,400 calories per day.

If you are very active we give you extra calories to compensate so that you are able to work out effectively and so you don't become deficient in calories and go into starvation mode.

We have to treat this on a person by person basis because what happens in one individual may not happen in another.

Plateaus! How, when and why?

Plateaus are a bit of a mystery! Some people can lose weight steadily and reach their goal without any blips, whereas others can be losing quite happily and then suddenly hit a plateau. Sometimes there is a reason for a plateau (e.g. a holiday, weekend away, forgetting to record everything), whereas other times there is no obvious reason.

Our bodies do adjust to changes in dietary intake and exercise regimes, so a plateau can just be your body telling you that it needs a bit of a kickstart. It maybe that you need to reduce your calorie intake a little or perhaps increase or change your exercise plan. Often swapping your usual gym session for a swim, or a bike ride for a Zumba class can be enough to give your body the boost it needs. Often too, a plateau is just one of those things that by sticking to your calorie allowance for a week or two will be enough to ride the storm and come out of the other side.

Are there such things as good calories and bad calories? People say calories are calories, but if you ate 100 cals of chocolate as opposed to 100 cals of carrots, surely you get more benefit from the carrots? So are calories just calories no matter where they come from?

There are certainly different benefits from eating 100 calories from different types of foods - the calories themselves are no different from a carrot or from chocolate, however it's what else is present in the food that is important.

100 cals from chocolate will provide you with some saturated fat, some sugar, a little bit of calcium and possibly a tiny bit of salt. 100 cals from carrots will provide fluid, vitamins and minerals and also lots of fibre. When you weigh up the goodness of one type of food over the other, you can see why we would encourage you to eat more calories from fruit and vegetables etc, and perhaps less from high calorie foods such as chocolate.

Also, the amount of food you would get from 100 calories of chocolate would be much less than 100 calories of carrots as the chocolate is very calorie dense. 100 calories of chocolate is just 20g, however 100 calories of carrots is approx 300g!

That said, I don't believe there are good and bad foods - there are just good and bad diets - so it's how you put the foods together in your overall calorie intake that is important.

Still have some unanswered questions? Check out Part 1 and 3 for Food Myths and Exercise Doubts

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