It's time to stop counting calories and focus instead on the nutritional value of foods we eat. That's according to a new report by leading health experts, published in the journal Open Heart.
Their argument? The importance of calorie-counting has been overplayed at the expense of wider public understanding of the benefits of a nutritionally balanced diet.
Fear of putting on weight has seen people eschew relatively high-calorie but nutrient-rich foods in favour of low-calorie options that offer far fewer benefits. And this obsession with calories may actually be feeding the obesity epidemic.
'Shifting the focus away from calories and emphasising a dietary pattern that focuses on food quality rather than quantity will help to rapidly reduce obesity, related diseases and cardiovascular risk,' they write. 'Primary and secondary care clinicians have a duty to their individual patients and also to their local populations. Our collective failure to act is an option we cannot afford.'
How to change your diet
So what should we be eating for optimum health? The report's authors – who include Dr Aseem Malhotra, an NHS cardiologist and public health campaigner – recommend a Mediterranean-style diet that's rich in fruit and vegetables, as well as 'healthy fats' found in nuts, olive oil and oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and fresh tuna. These fats are among the best sources of heart-boosting omega-3 fatty acids – but consider their calorie content alone and you could be misled into avoiding them.
Find out more about healthy fats
To illustrate the point, the report cites recent research from the University of Cambridge that suggests consuming just one sugary drink, at around 150 calories, each day can significantly increase risk of type 2 diabetes. Consume 4tbsp extra virgin olive oil at approximately 500 calories, on the other hand, and you can greatly reduce risk of stroke and heart attack.
Dr Sally Norton, NHS weight loss consultant and founder of Vavista (www.vavista.com), agrees that a focus on calorie-counting can be detrimental. 'Calories aren't always easy to calculate, so people naturally gravitate towards the foods labelled 'low-calorie' in the supermarket,' she says. 'These are often processed products that are nutritionally deplete, eaten at the expense of real, healthy foods. Fat contains more calories per gram than other food groups, so tends to be removed – and bulking agents are added to make the food more palatable. Or sugar is replaced with artificial sweeteners, which also do us no good. Focusing on real food and cooking from scratch is a much healthier option.'
Find out how to reduce sugar in your diet
Can calorie-counting ever be useful?
Nevertheless, the NHS recommends an approximate daily intake of 2,500 calories for men and 2,000 for women. So should we still be trying to adhere to these guidelines? Or ignoring them completely?
'Neither,' says Dr Norton. 'By all means, use them as a rough guide but do remember that everyone is different. Your height, age, metabolism and physical activity levels can all impact on your calorie needs, so the most important thing is to tune into your body. If your weight is stable, you're eating the right amount of calories for you. If you want to lose weight, just up your exercise levels or slightly reduce food intake.'
Do you need to go on a diet?
Ultimately, calorie-counting offers one way to monitor your diet – but it's only one thing to consider alongside a number of factors that can affect your health and wellbeing. And it's entirely possible to count calories and still choose nutritionally valuable foods. 'That's the ideal,' says Dr Norton. 'By all means, count calories from time to time as a rough check on what you're eating. But remember that all calories are not equal. Make sure yours come from nutritious and delicious food. Don't just calorie-count. Make your calories count.'