I feel sorry for Calories.
They get a lot of hate, they’re the bane of millions of dieters lives, and they live in a world where they’re completely misunderstood.
Which brings me on to the point of today’s blog.
You see, many nutrition fads, myths, and misconceptions get to the top of the dieting food chain for one simple reason:
Lots of us don’t really understand what Calories are all about, largely because of all the confusing, conflicting, and often straight up miss-information that gets spread about.
If you don’t understand what Calories are all about though, you’re putting yourself at risk of falling for the countless dieting myths and lies that plague the fitness world.
So today I’m going to straighten up a thing or two about Calories, starting with what they actually are before moving on to common questions I get like whether a Calorie really is a Calorie.
So Calories: What Are They?
Simply put, a Calorie is a unit of measure that we use to express the energy content of food/drink.
Not some mystical creature in your closet sewing your clothes that little bit tighter each night, or your reflection in a car window that instantly adds inches to your waistline.
If you want to get a little more technical, a Calorie is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
But to be frank, you don’t need to know that. Just remember that Calories are a unit of measure for energy, much like kgs are to weight, or a mile is to distance.
So a KitKat that adds up to 110 Calories contains more energy than an apple with 70 Calories.
What are Calories used for?
Now, you know those things called organs? Your heart, intestines, muscles, brain etc….
Well they use up energy to carry out their multiple functions that keep us alive:
- your heart needs energy to pump
- your intestines need energy to digest food
- your muscles need energy to contract
Now if we put all that energy together (ie: the total amount of energy used for your body to carry out all its daily processes: eating/drinking, moving, thinking, just staying alive in general etc), it adds up to your total daily energy expenditure (AKA your metabolic rate).
So to stay alive and do everything you do, you need a certain amount of energy.
And the amount you need is governed by what your body requires to move, stay alive etc.
Where do you get this energy (Calories) from?
2 places my friend:
1. The food and drink you consume.
Cake, chicken, fruit juice, and all that other stuff you shove down your gob contains macronutrients (aka: macros). They are: protein, fat, carbs, and alcohol.
When you digest and process the food/drink you consume, you break chemical bonds in these macronutrients. This breaking of bonds releases energy (Calories) that your body can use to do all those cool things it does.
2. Your bodies energy stores.
You know that fat you’re so desperate to get rid of? Well, that’s one of your bodies stores of energy/Calories. When needed, your body breaks down this body fat of yours for energy. Your body can also store and break down carbohydrates for energy, and can break down muscle and organs to use the protein they’re made out of for energy.
So when your body isn’t using the energy from the food/drink you consume to carry out all those bodily processes I mentioned earlier, it draws energy from its own stores: body fat, stored carbs, and protein in muscles/organs.
Over the course of the day, your body jumps between predominantly using its own energy stores as fuel and the energy that you consume from your diet.
Whether you’re burning your own body fat for energy or the energy you got from your morning croissant at a particular point in time isn’t overly important though; it’s the balance between your bodies use of its own stores and your dietary intake over days, weeks, and months that matters.
So you could wake up, go for a fasted run and consequently burn a load of fat during the exercise, but in the grand scheme of things, your fat burning workout wouldn’t dictate your fat loss.
Likewise, most of the other stuff you’ve been told about dieting is nonsense.
I’m talking carbs causing your fat gain, detox shakes being slimming, and coconut oil turning you into a fat-burning machine; you know, all the stuff your favorite IG fitness celeb tells you.
“Ok, cool. But why is all that stuff wrong then Tommy?”
I’m glad you asked.
You see, back to brass tacks, dropping weight and body fat comes down to a game of Calories in vs out:
- If you consume more Calories (energy) than you burn off over a prolonged period of time, you will have an excess of energy. Your body won’t waste this extra energy and it won’t just disappear into thin air. So you will therefore store it, mostly as fat. This Calorie surplus is the reason you get fat; not carbs, not insulin, not gluten.
- If, however, you consume fewer Calories than your body requires to carry out all its functions, then your body will have to compensate for the deficit of energy by offering up more of its own energy stores. This leads to a net loss of stored energy (mostly body fat loss) and as a result, you lose weight and fat.
^^^ that is regardless of how many carbs and donuts you eat, and whether or not you get your fasted cardio in every morning. Sure, the specific foods you eat and how your train can have an impact on your results, but if your Calorie intake isn’t in line with your goals, then you can forget about making any progress.
So when someone tells you you’re not dropping fat because you haven’t cut out carbs, dairy, or whatever else, they’re wrong; you’re simply eating too many Calories in relation to the amount you burn.
“But how come all these diets seem to work then?”
Simple. By cutting out carbs or any other food/food group that makes up a large part of your diet, your Calorie intake goes down by default. It is this drop in Calories that causes the results you see in the mirror, not the absence of the victimized ‘fattening’ food.
“Oh, ok. So carbs won’t make me fat then?”
Nope, not if you’re in a Calorie deficit.
“What about sugar?”
No, not even sugar.
“Hey, but some guy told me if I put coconut oil in my coffee I’ll burn fat and get ripped. Are you saying that’s not true?”
Geez, common man; did you listen to a word I just said?
So long as you consume fewer Calories than you burn, you’ll drop the pounds. Sure, you can put coconut oil in your coffee if you really want to, but other than screwing up a perfectly good tasting cuppa and adding a shed load of Calories, it won’t do a lot.
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense. So if Calories are such a big deal in the whole weight loss game, how do I work out how many I need?”
That, my friend, is a great question. Here, have a read of this; it’s just what you need.
(If you want to gain muscle, use the same method I outline in that blog but instead of multiplying your maintenance Calorie needs by 0.8, multiply it by 1.1).
Now, enough with the questions as I’ve got to cover a couple more things before I lose your attention and you end up going back to watching cat videos on facebook.
1. Is a Calorie a Calorie?
This question crops up a lot and seeing as we’re discussing Calories here, it’s as good a time as any to address it.
Going back to what I said earlier, technically a Calorie is a Calorie, just like a mile is a mile. Like how the hilly and slurry ladened miles I used to crawl up on my school’s annual cross country run were a much different experience to a casual jog in the park, the source that you get your Calories from will influence their impact on your body. This is because the sources of Calories (protein, fat, carbs, alcohol) are processed and used differently by your body.
- Protein has the highest thermic effect (25-30%), meaning it burns the most Calories to be digested (ie: if you were to consume 100 Calories worth of protein, your net gain of Calories would be 70-75, as 25-30 Calories would be burnt to digest and process it). Some of protein’s major roles include building muscle and repairing bodily tissue.
- Carbohydrates are largely used as energy and they typically have a smaller thermic effect than protein (6-8%).
- Fats are also a major energy source and have many other roles like helping transport nutrients throughout your body. Fat has the lowest thermic effect of (2-3%).
- Alcohol has a similar thermic effect to protein (10-30%), but obviously doesn’t do a great deal of good from a physiological standpoint.
So a Calorie IS a Calorie whether it’s from a beef burger, leaf of lettuce, or cheesecake
But the impact it has on your body can vary depending on the source you get the Calories from.
2. Is there more to weight loss than Calorie in vs Calories out?
From the above, it should be pretty clear that there IS more to weight and fat loss than Calories in vs out.
Sure, you’ll drop weight/fat if you eat a deficit of Calories over a prolonged period of time (as i’ve said above), but the proportion of your Calories coming from the various macronutrients can make a big difference too.
So you could have two diets that both added up to 2000 Calories but they could have different effects on your body depending on the foods and macronutrients you eat to make up those Calories.
As a generalisation, a diet higher in protein will lead to greater fat loss and more muscle gain/retention than one lower in protein.
So if you’re keen to max your results from a fat loss, or muscle gain standpoint, you should shoot for a high(ish) protein intake. That’s anywhere from 1.5-3g of protein per kg bodyweight (I suggest most people go for around 2g/kg).
When it comes to carbs and fat, in the long term most people won’t see a great deal of difference between a diet that’s higher in one or the other provided total Calories and protein are the same (in the short term, lower carbs will = more weight loss as stored carbs will be burnt quickly causing weight loss). For that reason, I generally suggest most people go for a relatively balanced intake of the two by shooting for around 1g/kg bodyweight of fat, and then filling up the rest of their Calories with carbs (I give an example of how to do this here).
Now, I will admit that there are lots of ifs and buts with these numbers here, but as a general starting point, they work damn well and you will get sweet ass results if you consistently apply the above.
Just like those seen by myself and my clients:
If you really want to get to the nitty gritty of your nutritional requirements though, you’d be better off having a blonde curly haired nutritionist take over the reigns from you (FYI, that’s me, and if it’s what you’re looking for, fire me an email and we can have a chat: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Anyways, that just about covers up everything I wanted to go over (what Calories are, how they’re used by your body, and what impact different sources of Calories have on your results), so I’m going to leave it there for now.
Again, here’s that blog on what you need to do nutritionally to drop the pounds. It breaks down personalised Calorie requirements, macronutrient recommendations, and how to track your intake, so I recommend you give it a read if you want to see your abs anytime soon.