What is a Calorie?
In the nutritional sense, a “calorie” can come from any type of food.
Fat, protein, carbohydrates, and sugars are all sources of calories.
In the simplest terms, a calorie is a unit of energy and it’s what fuels our body. Without calories, our bodies would cease to function.
Storing & Burning Calories
The explanation of a calorie often leads people to a good question: If our body can’t function without calories, how do people survive a fast?
The answer to that question provides great insight into the fat burning process.
When you eat on a daily basis, your body takes any excess calories that it doesn’t need to burn right away and puts them into storage.
Calories can be stored in your liver, your muscles, and your fat cells.
When your body is in a fasted state, which means you aren’t consuming any calories, it will begin to pull from these sources and consuming stored calories.
Obviously, the idea behind weight loss is that you want to create a calorie deficit, by eating less than you need, so that your body will have to go into the stored calories.
The hope is that it will go into the fat cells and begin depleting them so that you begin to lose weight and look more toned.
Unfortunately, our bodies don’t always work the way we want them to.
Depending on your diet, health, and the circumstances, your body will most likely go to your liver first and use up your stored glucose.
Whether it opts for muscle or fat cells next will depend on your exercise routine and whether or not what you are eating is promoting the preservation of muscle mass.
How Big Is A Calorie?
Calories are defined by joules, which are units that physicist use to describe how much work is needed to force a newton through a meter.
This is why calories are sometimes called “kilojoules” in Australia and abroad.
Basically, a single calorie equals 4.18 joules. That scientific definition doesn’t do you much good, though.
Instead, you can better understand how big a calorie is by knowing that a single gram of protein is made up of 4 calories.
So is a gram of carbohydrates. Meanwhile, a gram of fat has 9 calories in it.
What Role Do Calories Have in Weight Loss?
Fad diets have continued to be a popular topic in the world of weight loss for decades now, and the reason is simple.
Even if it’s something they’ve been thinking about for a while, when most people get the sudden urge to start losing weight, they kick things into high gear and they want results fast.
For a short period of time, most of these people will have super high motivation levels and will be willing to go to extreme lengths–for the short-term–in order to get the weight off.
Fad diets cater to this mode of thinking with a solution that they promise is “quick, easy, and brings great results!”
From eating a certain type of soup for two weeks to only eating eggs for three days, fad diets range in premise, promise, and difficulty.
Of course, anyone who has tried to lose any substantial amount of weight (i.e., more than 5 pounds) and keep it off knows full and well that these fad diets don’t work, at least not in the long-term.
Usually, they’ll result in dropping a few pounds of water weight at most and, at their very best, may lead to a dip on the scale that will be instantly regained as soon as you resume your normal eating patterns.
That’s because they either extremely limit carbs, which results in your body dropping a few pounds of water weight, or they extremely limit calories, which might be effective for a couple of days, but can very quickly lead to a plateau.
And that brings us to a very important conclusion: calories are an absolute necessity for weight loss.
Possibly the most extreme case of “quick results weight loss” is fasting.
When done solely for the purpose of weight loss, fasting will be a major disappointment and a huge challenge.
Whether you choose to fast for 24 hours or even a full three days, the results are similar to the above.
Any weight you lose will be regained quickly when your body finally gets to feed its starved self again.
This doesn’t even begin to touch on the binge/diet cycle and the curse of yo-yo dieting that many have suffered from.
So, what’s the role of calories in weight loss?
It should be a healthy balance.
Set a calorie goal for yourself that creates a sight deficit and stick to it.
As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.
How to Figure Out How Many Calories You Need Per Day
Wondering how many calories you need everyday?
The answer isn’t as simple as some nutrition labels make it seem.
While the general guidelines state 2,000 calories for men and about 1,500 for women, there is so much more to the calculation than that. Your gender, your age, your height, your health, and your metabolism will all factor in.
Fortunately, there are some calculators online that will take many of these variables into account, as much as possible, but you’ll still want to tweak whatever numbers they put out in order to make sure that you aren’t overeating or undereating.
The Harris-Benedict equation is the most popular:
- Males: 66.5 + 13.8 x (weight in kilograms) + 5 x (height in centimeters); 6.8 x age
- Females: 655.1 + 9.6 x (weight in kilograms) + 1.9 x (height in centimeters); 4.7 x age
Once you get your answer, multiply it by 1.2 for a sedentary lifestyle (little to no exercise), 1.3 for a moderately active lifestyle, and 1.4 for an active lifestyle.
The final number you get is the number of calories you should be eating in a day.
However, these equations may over or underestimate your needs because they are just that–an estimate.
You should take the number this equation produces and then prepare to experiment.
In order to lose weight, you’ll need to create a calorie deficit.
Say that the equation tells you to eat 1,950 calories every day.
That would be the number you need to maintain your weight.
If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less than that so that your body has to go into your fat stores to make up for the difference. A 250-calorie deficit would put you at 1,700 calories intake everyday.
That’s enough to lose .5 pounds a week (a 3,500 calorie deficit = 1 pound of fat).
You can also increase your deficit by burning calories through exercise.
So, if you’re eating 1,700 calories a day and you want to add another 250 calories to your deficit (so you have a 500 calorie deficit daily), you just need to burn 250 calories through exercise.
You can do that with a variety of moves, like about 20-25 minutes of jogging every morning.
Of course, if you’re eating at a deficit and you don’t seem to be losing weight or losing it at the speed you expected, the equation may have overestimated your calorie needs.
That means you need to lower your intake and monitor your results until you figure out your true caloric needs.
How to Track Your Daily Calorie Intake
You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.
That’s a saying that many should take to heart, but it’s definitely easier said than done.
Most people would agree that spending a little bit of time working out each day is a lot simpler than tracking what you eat around the clock, but the latter is extremely important to reaching your body goals. So, how should you go about it?
The old-fashioned way of doing things involves paper and a pen.
In other words, either buy a journal where you will commit to writing down everything you eat, in addition to its total calories, or print out a calorie-tracking sheet so that you can do the same quickly.
Always track before you eat or right after you eat so you don’t forget anything.
That’s also important for knowing where you stand throughout the day.
Plenty of websites exist to help you log your food very quickly.
MyFitnessPal and LoseIt are two of the most popular.
Use them on your desktop or download the app and you can scan the barcode of a product to instantly add it to your diary.
You can also use their extensive search interfaces in order to find just about any other food, whether it comes from the shelf or from the restaurant.
Tips for Tracking
No matter which method you choose, the key point is that you’re tracking just how much you’re eating everyday and ensuring that nothing slips by.
The primary reason why people give up because they think they aren’t losing weight all links back to their insufficient calorie counting.
If you’re really serious about losing weight and/or gaining muscle, you need to do more than eyeball your servings.
Read the nutrition labels and measure things out to be sure you’re on track.
Oftentimes, tracking your food in itself can lead to healthier eating habits simply because it will make you realize just how much and how often you’re eating, especially if you’re doing things right and tracking as soon as you eat (or, even better, right before).
When you track before you take the first bite, you also give yourself a second to appreciate how much you have eaten and maybe even have a second thought about that second serving.