A Closer Look at Calories

Jan 11, 2023
Understanding Calories and Calorie Intake

For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, calories are of the utmost importance. In the simplest of terms, a calorie is a unit (amount) of energy that food provides to the body. In other words, calories are a way to measure how much energy your body can get from the food you consume. The average person needs about 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight.

The word "calorie" comes from the Latin word "calor", which means heat. In nutrition, a calorie is sometimes called a kilocalorie and shown often shown as ‘kCal’. 

What are calories used for?

Calories are used for 2 things:

  1. To provide energy for the body so it can perform basic functions like pumping blood and digesting food (basal metabolic rate). 
  2. To support physical activity, like running, cycling, and lifting weights. 

Calories: Fuel for Your Body, Not the Enemy

Calories are not the enemy when it comes to weight loss and health. In fact, they are an essential part of a healthy diet and should be viewed as fuel for your body. Calories provide the body with energy and are necessary for proper functioning. 

Without enough calories, your body will not have the energy it needs to perform its daily activities. Additionally, eating too few calories chronically can actually slow down your metabolism and make it harder for you to lose weight in the long run.

The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is to eat a balanced diet that includes nutrient-dense foods and regular physical activity. Eating a variety of healthy foods will provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to function properly. Additionally, regular exercise can help you burn calories and maintain a healthy weight.

The Myth of the "Empty" Calorie

The myth of the “empty” calorie is one that has been perpetuated for years. This myth suggests that some foods are “empty” of nutritional value and should be avoided in order to maintain a healthy weight. However, this is simply not true. All calories provide energy and fuel for the body, regardless of their source. 

While it is important to be mindful of how many calories you consume, simply avoiding “empty” calories will not necessarily lead to weight loss - if that is your goal. 

How to Make Peace with Calories and Promote Sustainable Weight Loss

Making peace with calories and promoting sustainable weight loss can be achieved by understanding how calories work and making informed decisions about your diet and lifestyle. If you are an athlete, this is where an experienced sports nutritionist can come in handy. Instead of focusing solely on calorie restriction, it is important to focus on eating a balanced diet that includes nutrient-dense foods. And, to fuel for the training that you are doing on a day to basis. 

Eating a variety of healthy foods will provide your body with the energy and nutrients it needs to function properly. Additionally, regular physical activity can help you burn calories and maintain a healthy weight.

It is also important to be mindful of portion sizes and not to overindulge in calorie-dense foods. Eating too many calories can lead to weight gain, so it is important to be aware of how much you are consuming. Finally, it is important to remember that all calories provide energy and fuel for the body, regardless of their source. By understanding how calories work, you can make informed decisions about your diet and lifestyle that will promote sustainable weight loss.

A few final thoughts on calories

Society really does need to change its (often) hurtful perception of calories and recognise that they are an essential part of a healthy diet. Calories provide the body with the energy - necessary for physical activity and daily functioning. They should not be viewed as something to be feared or avoided, but rather embraced as a source of nourishment and fuel. 

We must also recognise that everyone's caloric needs are different and that sustainable weight loss is achieved through a balanced diet and regular physical activity. By understanding how calories work, we can make informed decisions about our diets and lifestyles that will promote true health and well-being.

We answer the Internet’s most common questions about calories

"What are calories?"

 Calories are units of energy that are found in food and beverages. They are used by the body to perform various functions, such as fueling physical activity and maintaining body temperature.

"How many calories do I need per day?"

The number of calories an individual needs per day can vary greatly depending on a number of factors, such as age, gender, weight, height, and level of physical activity. A general guideline is that adult men need an average of 2,500-3,000 calories per day, while adult women need an average of 2,000-2,500 calories per day. However, these numbers can vary based on an individual's specific needs and this is no more true than that of athletes or increased needs of exercising for energy and recovery. 

"What is a calorie deficit?"

A calorie deficit occurs when an individual uses more calories than they consume. When this happens, the body must use stored energy sources, such as fat, glycogen stores and even protein (muscle!) to make up for the lack of calories from food. A calorie deficit is often the goal of weight loss plans, as it can lead to weight loss over time.

"What is a calorie surplus?"

A calorie surplus occurs when an individual consumes more calories than they use or expend. When this happens, the body stores the excess calories as glycogen and as fat A calorie surplus can lead to weight gain over time.

"Are all calories the same?"

No, calories are not exactly the same. Different types of calories can have different effects on the body. For example, calories from healthy, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may be more nutrient-dense and have a different impact on the body compared to calories from processed, sugary foods. 

It is all about balance and calories are not just what we should be thinking about. If an apple is matched to a low-calorie cereal bar which provides better quality nutrients? Which is more satiating? 

So let's think beyond the calorie and more about the quality and meeting energy needs. Some calories such as in some plants are not fully digested and absorbed. This is called the coefficient of digestibility. The co-efficiency of digestibility for protein from an egg is 97% but in legumes only 78% - in other words, it is not fully absorbed.

"Can I eat as many calories as I want and still lose weight?"

No, it is not possible to eat as many calories as you want and still lose weight. To lose weight, it is necessary to create a calorie deficit by using more calories than you consume. This can be achieved through a combination of diet and exercise. But decreasing calories too long for extended periods may halt weight loss and have a negative impact on body composition (fat-to-muscle ratio) and may have health consequences, including increasing rates of injury in athletes and a decrease in performance. This is quite individual with regard to our metabolic rate and how quickly our body uses energy

"Can I eat fewer calories and still maintain my weight?"

Yes, it is possible to eat fewer calories and still maintain your weight, as long as you are not consuming too few calories. It is important to consume an adequate amount of calories to support your body's needs, as well as to provide the necessary nutrients for good health. Remember decreasing calories below 1200kcal will unlikely meet micronutrient needs and can lead to deficiencies long term.

"What are some ways to reduce calorie intake?"

 There are many ways to reduce calorie intake, including choosing lower-calorie foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins; eating smaller portion sizes, and cutting back on added sugars and unhealthy fats.

"What are some ways to increase calorie burn?"

 Some ways to increase calorie burn include increasing physical activity, such as through exercise or simply moving more throughout the day; building muscle mass, as muscle uses more energy at rest; and incorporating activities such as interval training or resistance training. Some macronutrients like protein use more energy for metabolism plus it can help us feel fuller. 

People often avoid high-calorie foods when they are being mindful of body composition. However, consider something like nuts or an avocado. Higher in calories than other legumes of fruits yes, but more nutrient-dense than a calorie-match quick-release carbohydrate snack such as popcorn for example. If we are looking at what gives us more nutrition, then the nuts and avocado win but the answer is; really it depends. 

It depends on what or why you are limiting calories or trying to increase. 

Protein and fat for example keep us fuller for longer. Although fat is higher in calories per gram, when matched to protein and carbohydrates, if it was from a nutrient-dense source such as nuts or olive oil then this may make us feel fuller for longer meaning the knock-on effect may be eating less overall, reducing our calorie intake!

"Can I still eat my favourite foods while trying to lose weight?"

 Yes, it is possible to still enjoy your favourite foods while trying to lose weight. Instead of completely cutting out the foods you love, try to incorporate them into a balanced diet in moderation. It is also important to focus on overall healthy eating habits, rather than just trying to cut calories.