The king of the dieting world is leading you down the wrong path. Calories are often the one aspect to losing weight that everyone understands in some way. Hold on though - calories might not be the supreme leader in dieting once you start to peel away the pieces of what it means to be in a healthy diet.
This article will focus on why the focus of calories might not be the best option for you and how you can find a way to live a life without needing to bow down the all-pow
What is a calorie?
A calorie is a measurement tool that we use to understand how much energy is in a given food or drink. Calories can also be defined as the necessary heat that the body needs to raise itself to, in order to “burn” and use the energy for the body's processes. The amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water, by 1 degree celsius becomes the caloric amount.
For example when you eat a piece of apple, the apple gets broken down while the energy gets released into the body and used in some fashion. This can look like various processes such as fueling your digestive system, your respiratory system, fueling your muscles during a workout or being stored for a later time (the body hates to waste energy!).
Now most of us know that a calorie is found in food and is something that we read on the label of foods. We might read that a ⅓ cup of oatmeal is “150 calories” and make decisions on whether to eat this food or not.
Calories are not inherently “good” or “bad”...they are simply a measuring tool to track the amount of energy that is required to break food or drink down. It’s in this way that so many people understand their nutrition, in a calorie based world.
Different values for different food types
Through your fitness journey you might have learned about the different macronutrients found in all foods. The big 3 are Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat. When we talk about calories and macronutrients it’s important to know the breakdown. For example the following is the standard:
Protein: 4 calories per gram
Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
Fat: 9 calories per gram
This means that protein and carbs have 4 calories (energy needed to breakdown) per gram of food/drink. When you weigh that piece of chicken at 10g, this will mean that there are 40 calories within it. What’s more important to understand though is the way that fat is broken down. As you can see above for 1 gram of fat there are 9 calories! This is more than double the amount of protein and carb calories from 1 gram of food.
I want you to take this in 2 different ways…
Fat is the most dense food that provides the most energy per gram of food.
Fat is an easy way to eat too many calories as it packs a bigger bang for its buck
If we consider taking 10g of avocado for this fat example, it will come out to 90 calories! This is a significant difference that is important to realize.
“Fat contains more calories” will suffice for your everyday life.
How many calories do you need per day?
The big questions that all fitness enthusiasts have questioned and practiced...how many calories do I need to ..”lose weight” or, “gain weight”.
Before you answer how many calories you need for either end of the weight spectrum you need to know what your Basal Metabolic Rate is. Your BMR is the energy that is required for your body to maintain itself throughout 1 entire day at rest.
Your body uses energy every second of the day. All systems in your body require a foundational amount of energy each day to operate effectively. For example your brain uses about 300 calories per day! You probably never thought of your brain needing energy but for most of us...our brains are very active!
This BMR number is different for everyone based on factors such as age, weight, gender, and body composition.
For example my BMR is determined by the following:
32 years old
BMR = 1959 cals per day
In order for me to maintain all my baseline functions each day I would need to consume 1959 calories per day through food to be able to maintain my internal systems.
Now this is different than my caloric needs per day because of active movement such as exercise, TEF (thermic effect of food), and NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
TEF is the energy that is required for us to chew food, as well as the heat that digesting food causes. This only makes up a small number of additional energy requirements. Think about that for a second though - the process of chewing your food actually increases your demand for more calories. I remember hearing the old wives tale of eating celery plain will actually leave you with negative calories because the chewing process uses more energy than what the celery is actually giving you. (Although cannot confirm or deny that at this point!)
NEAT is defined as a basic movement that you do throughout the day such as walking, vacuuming, cooking dinner, carrying groceries, and even typing on the computer! Just like with TEF, this adds necessary energy to your daily intake.
Lastly and most importantly, physical activity such as exercise requires more energy. I think most people will understand this clearly when they are exhausted after a workout or during a workout and feel hunger start to come on full steam.
Now if we take these last 3 factors into consideration, my actual BMR per day looks like this:
BMR = 3100 cals per day
That’s an additional 1000 calories needed everyday for me to maintain my body weight with my exercise, TEF, and NEAT combined. (I put down that I exercise 3-5 times a week which is under the moderate category).
If you are interested in looking at your daily calorie intake I use tdeecalculator.net
When it comes to figuring out what it might take for me to lose weight, normally we are required to eat 500 calories less per day to lose 1 lb a week. After 7 days you will have eaten 3500 calories less which converts to 1 lb of weight.
So for my example - if I wanted to lose 1 lb per week I would need to eat about 2600 calories each day.
So now you know the secret to losing weight! There it is...so simple because….MATH!
“But wait didn’t you say calories need to die…?”
So why are calories misleading?
So you are probably thinking “this seems like a post about what calories are and how they are important to understand”.
Well here we are now about to tear all that previous stuff down!
Or rather with the knowledge that we know we can better understand why the emphasis on calories when it comes to weight loss or weight gain can be detrimental for the everyday person.
First off - this stuff can be confusing. If you felt a little lost above with the numbers it’s no wonder why there are so many apps that conveniently figure all this stuff out for you in no time.
Now some of you might find comfort in knowing the numbers and breaking everything down into numbers but I want to argue that this is not representative of real life.
When you are making a decision for a meal how much time is spent thinking about how many calories are in it? If it’s more than 10 seconds of thought - you might be wasting valuable time and energy on something that isn’t necessary.
The first reason why calories are not the holy grail is because every food that you eat doesn’t have the exact calorie amount that is on it’s label. In some cases it’s been found that the actual calorie amount on your label of food is really 8-20% higher than what it reads! Foods are allowed to be inaccurate by up to 20%. Next time you eat that protein bar you might actually be eating up to 20% higher caloric count than what is on the label!
It’s also been found that the way food is prepared or processed will impact the total amount of absorbable energy. For example almonds that are roasted can be 19% less absorbed than the whole unroasted almond counterpart. Meanwhile the bag will label them with the same amount of calories.
IF this seems confusing...it’s because it is!
The second reason for why calories need not be your focus is because you don’t eat calories...you eat food! Let me explain this…
When you are preparing your meal, cooking up those delicious chicken , vegetables and pot of pasta are you then preparing yourself to eat a yummy dish of 500 calories? Or would you say that you are eating chicken parm with broccoli and pasta?
I think most of us are focused on what the food is rather than the calorie amount. This is an important realization because the food itself is much more important than the calorie amounts. As stated above, calorie amounts can be wrong. The food you eat however isn’t fake..it’s very real and it can help make you feel energized or bloated and lethargic. The feeling behind the food is far more important.
This plays directly in line with one of our biggest beliefs - mindful eating. Your body knows what it needs if you just listen to it. You don’t need an app to tell you what you need - you don’t need to constantly be adding up calories in protein, carbs, and fats to be successful at losing weight or gaining weight.
When you start to see food only in it’s caloric amount it drains the excitement out of eating that food. For example if you have ever eaten that piece of cake and thought to yourself “wow this is going to add a lot of calories to my day” you might settle for that and be okay with that additional amount. You might feel regret because you added up your calories for the day and see how that piece of cake put you over your daily amount.
The next day you are down on yourself and might find that you are giving up and “decide what’s the point of eating within my calories today?”
Calories make things appear cut and dry, black or white. The reality of life isn’t so black and white. There are plenty of reasons to have some cake one night, just as there’s plenty of reasons to not eat that piece of cake.
The important thing that I want to get across to you is that you need to recognize what will keep you in line with your goals in a sustainable way.
How you can rid yourself of calories control!
It’s time to break free from the chains of calories - it’s time that you take control over your life and over your food without the stress.
One of the best things you can do is to focus solely on the food that you consume...what’s on your plate?
We recommend that for most meals you have half of your plate be filled with vegetables, ¼ of your plate with protein, and then the remaining ¼ of your plate be filled with a combination of carbs and fats.
This puts the power back into the food and the focus back into what type of eating will allow you to stay in line with your goals. You don’t need to waste time measuring the food, logging it into your app and THEN eating your food. That just sounds exhausting to me and for most people that I’ve talked to about their habits with calorie counting.
I’m going to sound like a broken record here but so few people do this consistently….slow down your eating and stop when you are 80% full.
Most often people run into problems when they overeat and mindlessly eat even if they are tracking calories. Instead focus on your hunger level and allow your body to let you know when you are done eating. Your body wants to balance things out as best it can ...don’t get in it’s way to do this!
Finally - at the end of the day I want you to do something that is going to work for the long term. Doing a temporary diet where you track what you eat religiously, weigh your food and stay strict to your guidelines is a recipe for disaster.
This is not a long term strategy for most people (if you love tracking numbers, you can keep doing your thing but recognize the importance of listening to your body!)
From a personal perspective I have found that I need far less food per day to feel energized, strong, while also getting more lean. For me it was all about listening to my body and waiting to eat until I was truly hungry. What this looks like for me now is eating 2 meals a day that have large portions of protein and vegetables with a healthy helping of carbohydrates and some fat. I have no idea how many calories I’m eating per day, and I’m okay with that!
There are no numbers that determine if what you ate is good or bad for you - calories will not and can not impact your life nearly as much as mindful eating. The human race has gone through hundreds and hundreds of years without knowing anything about calories and still somehow managed to stay healthy.
There is a reason that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have any diet based ailments like diabetes and heart disease. They didn’t worry about eating 2000 calories everyday weighing their food before eating. They ate when they were hungry and stopped when they were satisfied.
So let’s get back to our roots and focus more on the food we eat, then the calories we consume. Quality foods will always be superior - choose your foods wisely, eat slowly, stop when you are 80% full and you will be well on your way to breaking free from the dominance of the calorie!