Can you lose weight without counting calories?

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1. Do you have to count calories?

It's common knowledge that if you eat more calories than your body needs you will gain weight. But counting calories accurately is difficult and time consuming.

The good news is that it is easy to make yourself 'calorie aware'. This basically means understanding roughly how many calories you need to consume each day and which foods are surprisingly high in calories.

But are all calories the same when it comes to weight gain and loss? And how much does exercise help? This guide explains the facts behind the myths.

2. How do you lose weight?

It's important to have an idea of how many calories your body needs, based on your age, body size, sex and levels of physical activity. There are lots of online calorie calculators to help you do this.

The NHS advises that trying to lose about 0.5-1kg (1lb-2Ib) a week is a safe target for most people who need to lose weight. Do this until you reach a healthy weight for your height. To lose this amount you need to take in about 500-600 kcal less than you require each day.

Eating 500-600 kcal more than you need each day will make you gain weight at the same rate.

3. Not all calories are the same

It's not simply the calorie count we consume that we have to think about. The type of food we eat can make a difference to our daily calorie intake too.

The calories in processed sugar are digested quickly. Sweets, snacks and fizzy drinks can all cause a surge in blood sugar levels, which then crash soon after eating, making us tired and hungry again.

Fibre is your friend

Brown bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, fruit and other natural foods that are high in fibre are digested more slowly.

They provide slow-release energy and make you feel full for longer, which helps you to avoid snacking.

Swap sweet snacks for fruit, choose brown bread instead of white, and have porridge for breakfast instead of sugary cereal.

4. How much exercise is enough?

Calories in food and exercise

Exercise doesn't use calories as quickly as you might imagine. Energy used varies from person to person, but these figures are a good guide. Heavier people use more calories than lighter people.

5. Are nutrition labels reliable?

By law food labels are allowed to be slightly inaccurate, as minor variations from pack to pack during manufacturing are difficult to avoid.

Compare labels using the 'per 100g'

You’ll want to compare brands to see the differences in calorie content. But make sure you compare the ‘per 100g’ values. The alternative ‘per serving' and 'per portion’ values can be misleading, as brands vary in serving sizes. You may be surprised by how small a ‘portion’ of food is. Many foods are sold in increasingly large packets, which can make it difficult to keep track of portion sizes.

Reference intake

Nutrition labels sometimes provide information about how much of your body's daily calorie requirement a food provides. This is referred to as 'Reference intakes' (RIs), and unless the label says otherwise it is based on the energy requirement of an average-sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity: 2,000 kcal per day. The RI is not intended to be a target, as energy requirements are different for all people.

Label terms

If a food is labelled 'light' or 'lite', it should be substantially lower in at least one typical value, such as calories or fat, than standard products. But you may be surprised by how little difference there is between foods that carry claims to be 'light' or 'lite' and those that don't.

6. Easy ways to cut 100 calories or more a day

Simple swaps can be all you need to cut enough calories to lose weight.

Snack swap

Have fruit instead of a biscuits or chocolate at snack time.

Snack on an

apple

Swapping a chocolate bar (240 kcals) for an apple (60 kcals) will save you 180 calories a day.

Choose water

Cola and similar drinks have about 10 teaspoons of sugar in every can.

Choose

water

If you're hooked on sugary drinks, retrain your brain. Try tap water, or plain fizzy water. Each can of cola you drop saves you 140 kcals, or more.

Check the label

Don't be tricked by nutrition labels – compare ‘per 100g’ not 'per portion'.

Check

the label

Compare the ‘per 100g’ values on food labels rather than the 'per portion' values, as brands vary on portion sizes. Better still, cook your own food at home.

Fibre is key

Feel more full and improve your digestive health by eating more fibre.

Eat more

fibre

Make a third of your plate veg and switch from white to brown bread to increase your fibre. You'll feel fuller for longer, and be less tempted to snack.