Cut down on your calories

Many of us are eating too much, and not being active enough. That's why nearly two-thirds of the adult population in England is overweight or obese.

Find out how much you should be eating and how to cut the calories.

Latest figures show more than half the UK population – 67% of men and 57% of women – are overweight or obese. That means many of us are eating more than we need and need to eat less.

Over time, consuming more calories than we need leads to weight gain. Carrying excess weight puts us at greater risk of a whole range of serious health problems. And it's not just food we need to cut down on: some drinks can also be high in calories.

When we eat and drink more calories than we need, our bodies store the excess as body fat. If this continues, over time we become overweight and can become obese. Being overweight or obese causes an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

Most adults in the UK need to lose weight, and to do this they need to eat and drink fewer calories. Combining these changes with increased physical activity is the best way to achieve a healthier weight.

The term calorie is commonly used shorthand for kilocalorie. On food packets you will find this written as kcal. Kilojoules (kJ) are the metric measurement of calories, and you’ll see both kJ and kcal on nutrition labels – 4.2kJ is equivalent to approximately 1kcal.

How much should you eat?

The amount you need to eat to maintain your body weight depends on a range of factors, including your size and how physically active you are.

An important part of a healthy diet is eating the right amount of calories so you balance the energy you put into your body with the energy you use.

As a guide, men need around 2,500kcal (10,500kJ) a day to maintain a healthy body weight, and women need around 2,000kcal a day (8,400kJ).

If you need to lose weight, aim to lose about 0.5-1kg (1-2lb) a week until you reach a healthy weight for your height. You should be able to lose this amount if you eat and drink about 500-600kcal fewer a day than you need.

You can find out whether you are a healthy weight by using the BMI calculator. If you are overweight, the healthy weight calculator will give you a personalised suggested calorie range.

If you are very physically active because of your job or you do a lot of exercise, you may need more calories to maintain a healthy weight. If you do very little physical activity – for example, you are housebound – or if you are overweight or obese, you may need fewer calories.

A healthy diet is not only about eating the right amount. It also means eating a wide range of foods to ensure you get all the nutrients you need. You can still eat less when following a balanced diet. Learn more about a balanced diet in The eatwell plate.

How much are you eating?

Most of us are eating and drinking more than we need, and we often think we are more active than we actually are, too.

It's estimated the average adult has between 200 and 300 more calories than they need every day. This might not sound much, but over time it will cause significant weight gain. 

Foods and drinks that are high in fat or sugar can contain lots of calories, and eating or drinking these often or in large amounts can make it easy to have more calories than you need.

If you are overweight or obese, you could be eating over 500kcal more than a person of a healthy weight does every day. So it's time to think about where your extra calories are coming from and make changes to your diet to reduce the number of calories you consume. 

It's probably not just one snack, meal or drink that you need to change: you are likely to be having more calories than you need across the whole day.

In England in 2011:

  • 65% of men and 58% of women were overweight or obese.
  • The average (mean) height for men was 175.3cm (5ft 9in) tall while the average height for women was 161.6cm (5ft 3in) tall.
  • The average (mean) weight for men was 83.9kg, while the average weight for women was 71kg.

Use the BMI calculator on this page to see if you're a healthy weight for your height.

How you can eat less

You can reduce the number of calories you eat by making healthier choices when it comes to food and drink.

Often, that will mean swapping high-fat or high-sugar foods for alternatives that contain fewer calories, or eating these foods in smaller portions or less often.

It's not just foods: drinks can be high in calories, too. To consume fewer calories, you should choose drinks lower in fat and sugar, or consume high-calorie drinks less often. Don't forget alcohol is also high in calories.

As well as choosing foods and drinks lower in fat and sugars, also think about reducing the size of your portions. Research suggests we tend to eat more when we are served more, even when we don't need the extra calories.

When serving yourself food at home, resist filling your plate, and think about whether you're really hungry before having an extra helping. When eating out, avoid supersizing or choosing large portions of food or drink.

Knowing the calorie content of different foods and drinks can be useful when it comes to achieving or maintaining a healthy weight. It can help us keep track of the amount of energy we put into our bodies and ensure we are not eating too much.

The calorie content of many foods and drinks is provided on the packaging as part of the nutrition label. You can look at the calorie figure to assess how a particular food or drink fits into your daily intake. 

Find out more in Understanding calories.

These tips can help you get started:

  • Swap sugary fizzy drinks for diet versions with low or no calories. Even better, swap some soft drinks for sparkling water with a slice of lemon.
  • Swap the frying pan for the grill when cooking meat – you don't need to add any oil.
  • Swap creamy or cheesy sauces for tomato or vegetable-based sauces on your pasta or meat and fish dishes.
  • Choose wholegrains, including wholemeal and wholegrain bread, or wholegrain breakfast cereals. Wholegrain foods contain more fibre and other nutrients. We also digest wholegrain foods more slowly, so they can help make us feel fuller for longer.
  • Swap a cake or biscuits for a currant bun or some malt loaf, plain or with reduced-fat spread.
  • Read food labels: they can help you choose foods that are lower in calories, as well as lower in saturated fat and sugars.
  • Alcohol is also high in calories, so cutting down could help you control your weight.

Remember to combine eating fewer calories with more physical activity to gradually lose weight and help you keep it off.

More healthy eating advice

If you currently eat too much, making changes towards a healthy, balanced diet will also help you reduce the number of calories you eat and drink, as well as help make sure you get all the nutrients you need.

Page last reviewed: 15/10/2015

Next review due: 15/10/2017


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The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

DukeAmirOften said on 07 March 2014

I am really shocked to see that the NHS does not mention BMR and TDEE.....Why are people not taught that they must consume more than their BMR...which for most is higher than you recommended 1400 - 1500 cals per day. For instance, my BMR is 1572...however to lose 1lb per week i must consume over 1900 cals per day. If you only eat 1400 to 1500 surely your body will not function and the first thing to go will be metabolism? Also, how can you base 2000 cals per day on the 'average' woman?

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pearlian98 said on 27 December 2012

Nice and Great information

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Fire1 said on 01 August 2012

I am amazed that a diet high in breads and cereals are still being promulgated. A high-carb diet may be fine for the strenuous occupations common in the past but how many of us are blacksmiths or manual ditch diggers today? An hour of exercise a day is not going to move that bread. Your minimum recommendation of 150 minute a week works out at 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. I think at that level of activity, the portion of the plate devoted to carbs should be rather smaller than it is in your eatwell plate. That is a diet more suited to someone who spends eight hours or more a day doing strenouous physical labour. The reality is, most of us today spend most of our day sitting on our butt, and we don't have a great deal of choice about that.

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Leyah26 said on 27 April 2012

around 5 years ago I visited a nutrition expert and she told me that my plate should always containt green, red and white :) meaning all sorts of vegetables and fruits :) By the way, excellent article, I fully support the changing of our diet :) Keep up the good work! ?

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Leyah26 said on 27 April 2012

for me breaking up food did not work :( 5-6 times a day only kept adding to my weight so I tried the opposite :) First my weight got stuck, then I started losing the pounds as I worked out harder and harder. what I'm trying to say is that there are no workout plans or diets that will fit all :) ?

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grumpya said on 24 March 2012

Average person is who??? At least give us a clue! I am sure that a tall person burns up more calories than a very petite person but is it a significant difference? I am sure that people who weigh more use more calories. I know slimming clubs base your food intake on your weight the larger the person the more calories/points/syns etc they get but do I really have to find a slimming club to get this info! Why can't you have something similar to the BMI calculator that tells you how many calories "on average" you as an individual need for weight maintenance or weight loss. All the preaching we get from the nhs about weight it should be much easier to get free info on healthy dieting. Its no good just saying to make healthy swaps if you have a load of weight to lose, if it was why are they getting every manufacturer & restaurant to print its calorie contents on food??

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User363614 said on 04 November 2011

If the Eatwell Plate proportions were correct, wouldn’t most peoples’ appetite determine whether they’d had enough to eat? I eat more protein/fat and fewer starchy carbs than are recommended, and any carbs I do have are low/moderate GI; I don’t get too hungry and I’m a healthy weight/body composition as a result.

You don’t get many wild animals looking in the mirror and thinking “I’m getting fat; I must eat less/move more”, yet they don’t tend to overeat?

If you eat foods in the right proportions, it’s easy to control how much you eat without getting hungry, and consequently control your body composition. In the UK, protein and fat has reportedly decreased as a proportion of people’s intake over the last 40 years (FSA’s research), whereas carbohydrate has increased; the obesity problem has also increased. Wouldn’t it seem sensible to encourage people to change their macronutrient proportions to reverse that trend?

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Fitnessqueen said on 04 November 2011

Found the article extremely helpful and sensible with some good ideas for switching high calorie foods. My husband has just had a glucose test come back with quite a high result so am looking into all foods for their sugar content.

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Calogenetic_balance said on 19 October 2011

Some of these statements 'feed' the confusion in the field! How does an AVERAGE man or woman looks like?) ! It is well known, that the amount of energy (calories) a person needs, is VERY individual! It depends on its basal metabolic rate (calories a person burns at rest, which is partially genetic-dependent) and on the physical activity. The personal metabolic rate influences the calories a person can burn with a given physical activity! Thus two person can exercise equally long and intense and burn different amount of calories!! Thus, a person can eat healthy, exercise... and dye obese!
Average greetings from Switzerland
Leoluca Criscione

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