There is so much information out there about calories, especially in relation to weight-loss, but it can be so difficult to know what information is trustworthy and reliable and what is just myths and old wives’ tales. Today we are going to break it down for you, give you the hard facts and help you to understand the basics to get you started.
What are the calories?
Calories are a unit of energy, more specifically a unit of heat energy. Most people associate calories directly with food as this is by far the most commonplace use of this measurement. The calorific value of a food is the amount of energy, in the form of heat, that it provides your body with and so all of our bodies rely upon sufficient calorie-intake to survive. Although there are generic recommended daily calorie intakes, the amount of calories you require is massively variable depending on your lifestyle, your body and your goals when it comes to fitness.
Our bodies require a basic level of energy to function day-to-day, using up energy to do things such as digesting food, fighting illnesses, repairing itself and keeping your vital organs working. Beyond this, the required daily calories required will be unique to each person. For example, someone who is incredibly active will need significantly more calories to sustain their current physique than someone who moves around very little in everyday life. Equally, someone very active who is looking to lose weight and someone less active who wishes to sustain their current physique may require the same amount of calories. That is why it is so important to understand what calories do, how they work and how to adjust your calorific intake in order to achieve your goals.
Understanding calorie deficit and calorie surplus
Many people count their calories with the goal of losing weight, but simply measuring how much you eat will not help you to lose weight. As we have more and more access to information, we are starting to hear the terms ‘calorie deficit’ and ‘calorie surplus’ far more often…but what does that mean exactly? Well, in order to lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit which means that you are consistently burning more calories (energy) than you are consuming.
This means your body must begin using the energy it has stored in the form of fat (and also muscle) in order to function efficiently. A calorie surplus, on the opposite end of the scale, is when you are consuming more energy than you are expending. Many people assume this is a bad thing as it means your body stores that excess energy as fat. However, it can also allow your body the spare energy to build more muscles.
The act of purposely eating in a calorie surplus is known as ‘bulking’ in the fitness world and is commonly used by bodybuilders and other athletes to grow muscle mass and strength. Once they have been ‘bulking’ for a certain period of time, they will then enter the ‘cutting’ phase (eating in a calorie deficit) to shed excess fat whilst maintaining muscle mass and become more lean.
Understanding maintenance level
If you are neither in a calorie surplus or deficit, then you are eating at your ‘maintenance level’ and should not gain or lose any weight (although there are exceptions to this such as illness or losing muscle mass which would cause you to lose weight).
The best way to figure out how many calories your body requires to burn, cut or maintain is to track your calorie intake, daily activity and your weight. If you usually consume 2400kcal a day and have been slowly gaining weight, then this is a calorie surplus for your current physique.
If you wanted to maintain your current weight, then you could try dropping this down to 2200kcal per day and seeing what impact that has on your weight over a few weeks. Then, if you wanted to lose weight you may decide to either lower your calories to 2000kcal per day and continue your current activity levels, or continue eating 2200kcal per day but increase your activity levels to burn more calories than you are consuming.
If you want to take your understanding of calories and nutrition to the next level, then you might want to learn about macronutrients (and micronutrients too if you want to go really in-depth). If you learned in school about the importance of a balanced diet of carbohydrates, protein and fats then you already know the basics of macronutrients.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals which help to keep your body healthy, supporting your immune system, bone health, growth and much more! People with specific fitness goals often track ‘macros’ to ensure that the fuel they are putting into their bodies is providing the components needed to reach their goals.
You probably already know that protein is important for boosting recovery and growing muscles as they can rebuild themselves more quickly with plenty of protein. However, some people would argue that protein is becoming over-glorified as there is a growing misconception that if you drink a protein shake your muscles will automatically grow overnight. The bad news is, you still have to put in all the hard work before the protein can repair and grow your muscles!
Fat & Calories
Fats are usually quite underestimated and lots of people who don’t understand nutrition are concerned that eating any high-fat food will automatically store fat in your body. Fats are actually a great source of energy and are essential to your body! Finally, we have carbohydrates – the most demonised macronutrient of them all! There is a huge stigma around carbs causing weight-gain and being bad for you and it simply isn’t true. Carbohydrates are the main energy source in food as they are the sugars, and they provide essential energy for your body to function your brain and all other vital organs.
It is therefore important to note that by counting calories and finding the right balance for your body, this does not guarantee that you are eating a healthy diet which is beneficial to your goals. Eating 2400kcals of mainly carbohydrates and fats will not be the most effective way to build muscle during a bulk so you must be mindful of where your calories are going too!
Understanding how each of the macronutrient groups aid your progress and keeps your body healthy is important to help you maintain a healthy, balanced diet and reach your goals as quickly as possible. We hope this article has helped you to understand that although being mindful of calorie intake is helpful, it is not a fool-proof way to achieve your goals. It is always best to carry out research and really learn about nutrition to help you make well-informed decisions to suit your needs.