Calorie counting, calorie deficits, calorie intake; there is no escaping the C word when it comes to the chat on nutrition and healthy eating. There are millions of articles, books, and other types of media concerning the central component to our diets.
It is ridiculously easy to get overwhelmed with all this information about calories, and with so much content kicking about, it is a bit of a task sifting through the biased opinions and skewed beliefs on the topic. Actually digesting (pun intended…) the stuff that is legit ends out becoming a needle-in-haystack scenario….
In this way, I thought I would put together a comprehensive, simplified guide to the Calorie, and its impact on our daily lives and health living endeavours. The best place to start, in my opinion, is stripping it right back to the sheer basics…
What actually is a Calorie?
Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. In the world of science, 1 calorie is the amount of energy required to heat 1 quart of water by 1꙳C, but that doesn’t really matter when it comes to nutrition.
Whenever you look on the packaging of food, you will usually see two figures when it comes to calories: the amount per 100g of the product and the amount per serving size stated. The former is used more to compare different foods accurately, whereas the latter comes into play when determining your caloric intake from your daily diet.
You will notice that the unit of measurement on food packaging is kilocalories (kcal). This is because a single calorie is such a minute amount of energy, it would be a bit of a mouthful whenever explaining the content of individual foods.
You may not have known, but the standardised figure for daily caloric intake is 2,000,000 calories (2000kcal)…
OK, So Why should I Care?
Calories often have negative connotations given the fact we are told to “cut calories” if we want to lose weight. However, even if you are dieting to shed a bit of timber, everyone should be mindful of how important calories are to our daily lives…
We need calories. We need a lot of calories. Think of your body as the furnace of a steam train; with no fuel to re-stoke the boiler, the train will simply come to a stop. It’s exactly the same principle when it comes to the human body.
Even on those lazy Sundays, when all you do is chain-watch Breaking Bad in the comfort of your bed all day without moving a muscle, your body burns calories through the physiological processes that keep them working like clockwork. This is referred to as Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), and varies depending on gender, age, height, and weight.
It is important that you take in the right number of calories according to your goal, whether that’d be gaining muscle, losing fat, or maintaining a stable weight. Whatever you want to achieve when it comes to health and fitness, the number of calories you consume plays a large role in getting you to where you want to be.
You will not be able to function as a human being, let alone smash a weights session or a run, without the correct number of calories going.
So yeh, you kinda should care…
Silent But Deadly : The Plight of Hidden Calories
Now, although calories are vital to sustain a healthy life, problems arise when we consume too many calories than that which suits our individual goal.
I have a friend who shall remain nameless, but for the sake of the story let’s call him Jack. When I met Jack, he had a few excess pounds on his frame, and therefore wanted to lose a bit of timber before his sister’s wedding. We went through the motions, came up with an exercise and nutrition plan, and he started his journey to better health.
4 weeks into the programme, the scales failed to show all of his insane work in the gym and efforts in the kitchen as part of a dietary overhaul of the cr*p he used to put in his body. After going through his food diary, I discovered the sneaky culprit that was sabotaging Jack’s progress: drinks…
I’m not talking booze, either; Jack had kicked the liquor in the new health regime. Upon further inspection into his daily routine, he revealed that at work he averaged 2-3 coffee runs every single day. His order: a standard size Caramel Latte. Laden with sugar and excess fat, each drink boasts approximately 250kcal.
Just 2 of these calorie-bombs every day was cancelling out the deficit we had planned through other parts of his diet. As soon as Jack ditched the Latte in favour of a cup of plain ol’ joe, the weight melted off just as he had planned!
Jack was by no means alone, though; a huge number of people underestimate the calories they consume through drinks. Check out this infographic to demonstrate how drinks can be hidden calorie bombs à
It isn’t just drinks, either. The ONS revealed that us Brits underestimate our total caloric intake by around 50%. According to registered dietician Duane Mellor, much of this can be attributed to hidden calories in drinks, sauces, snacks and dressings.
One of the biggest errors people make when assessing their daily diets is portion size. Take the picture on the left; you probably see the title Fruit & Nut Muesli and automatically switch off your inner portion control regulator, which may end out cranking up your daily intake above your maintenance level.
So just beware of accidentally skyrocketing your calorie intake thanks to these silent health assassins!
A Calorie is NOT A Calorie….
There is a growing army of Fitness Zealots who taut the “Calories In, Calories Out” approach as the best diet for weight loss: the theory that, so long as you stay within a certain daily calorie goal, it doesn’t matter whether it comes from doughnuts, cookies or broccoli.
This, in my humble opinion, is one of the worst ideas going…
Take it on face value, each food has a given caloric value; yet the way in which it is broken down and absorbed by the body differs massively. The use of energy from food is dependent on the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), which explains the amount of energy lost as heat when food as broken down. The TEF values of each macronutrient are as follows:
- Fat : 2-3%
- Protein : 25-30%
- Carbohydrate : 2-3%
This basically means that 100 calories of protein ends up as 75 calories, while 100 calories of fat would end up as 98 calories as less energy is lost as heat. This, in a nutshell, is one of the reasons why people advocate high protein diets for weight loss.
Furthermore, the CICO crowd also fail to take into account the nutritional content of the calories we are taking in. Their diets may be heavily lacking key micronutrients (vitamins, minerals etc.) as a result of eating crappy foods. In order to support a healthy, active lifestyle, getting your calories from quality, whole food sources for the majority of the time will optimise your health and promote high levels performance in the gym.
I am not the biggest fan of the CICO/If it fits your macros approach, as you can probably tell…
The Final Word
Calories are the fundamental component of our daily diets, and thus have a mahoosive effect on our levels of both physical and mental health. Many people misunderstand things like recommended daily caloric intake, how to count calories effectively, and the number of calories contained within foods and drinks that are eaten daily.
The best place to start in optimising your daily diet is to work out the amount of calories you need to maintain your current weight, taking into account your BMR, Physiological Measurements, and Activity level.
From there, you can adjust your calorie intake according to your goals; if you want to gain muscle, add 200-500kcal per day, and if you want to lose fat, subtract the same amount. Follow this link to gain your own personalised plan as to how to achieve your goals:
When it comes to how you get your calories, my favourite approach, and the one I believe to be the most sustainable in the long term, is The 80:20 Rule:
- 80% Of the Time = Healthy, whole foods that are nutrient-dense
- 20% Of the Time = Foods that you consider as treats, that still lie within your daily calorie goal.
And, last but not least: Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff. If you have a couple of off days calorie-wise, don’t beat yourself up. It is all about consistency for the majority of the time
If you have any questions or feedback, don’t hesitate to contact me: email@example.com