Chances are if you’re here, you’ve probably got a little bit of an interest in nutrition. It’s definitely something that goes hand-in-hand with cooking, whether you’re trying to cook healthy or not. I’d like to give a few basic lessons in nutrition, starting with the calorie. Whether you’re new to healthy eating and therefore new to nutrition and dietetics or well-versed and have been counting calories for months or years, let’s break it down!
The Impact Calories Have On Our Lives
You’ve heard of the calorie. Calorie counting to lose weight or stay in a weight class for sports is infamous for being tedious and horrific, but if you’re a little patient and learn how it’s done, it isn’t all that daunting. Calorie control is important for weight control, regardless of whether you’re trying to lose, gain, or maintain. Your body burns calories just by existing by performing metabolic functions like breathing and digesting food. The more active you are, the more your body is working and the more calories you burn throughout the day. Plus, muscle burns more calories than fat, even when you’re just sitting there, because muscle requires more energy to maintain. That means if you’re skinny but have little muscle, you may be burning fewer calories than someone heavier who has more muscle than you! Body composition – the ratio of muscle to fat in your body – totally matters!
How to Manage Calories to Manage Your Weight!
What even is a calorie, anyway? Technically, it’s the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water by 1º C. Uh, who cares? That information means nothing to me, because scientists have already done the hard work and figured out the rest of the good stuff – how many calories are in food, and how that translates in our bodies.
See, it takes 3,500 calories to burn off one pound of weight from our bodies. 3,500 calories = 1 lb (2.2kg). Most Americans are familiar with the “2,000 calorie diet” that we see on our food labels – an estimated average of how many calories our bodies burn in a day. This number varies with your age, height, sex, physical activity level, wellness, etc. You can find a good estimate of how many calories you burn in a day with a Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) calculator, like this one! But what can we do with that information?
To maintain your current weight, you would need to consume your TDEE. If you were to consume more calories than your TDEE, your body would store it for later. As fat. And you’d gain weight. The opposite would happen if you consumed fewer calories – your body would take from its fat reserves (and lean body mass/muscle/proteins as a last resort) and you would lose weight. This is why you need to know your TDEE – you need a starting point from which to adjust your caloric intake in order to gain, lose, or maintain weight.
How would you know how many calories to adjust, if you were looking to lose or gain weight? Well, we know that 3,500 calories is equal to one pound of body weight. We also know that weight loss and weight gain are slow processes. Those articles in magazines that promise “10 lbs shed in just 5 days!” are not realistic, and most of us are keen to that concept. For most of us, losing or gaining .5 – 2 pounds per week is a healthy, steady adjustment.
For simplicity’s sake, say you were wanting to lose one pound per week. If we took 3,500 calories and divided it evenly among the seven days of the week, that would put us at a deficit of 500 calories per day. So, if your TDEE is 2,000 calories per day, and you consume 500 fewer (1500), you’ll lose a pound a week!
Yeah, it’s really that easy.
Where do Calories come from?
But wait, you ask, how do we know if we are consuming fewer calories?! Where do calories come from?! How do I know if I’m making a low-calorie choice?!
I’m glad you asked!
There are six major nutrients – Carbohydrates, Protein, Fat, Vitamins, Minerals, and Water. Three of these are energy-yielding nutrients, meaning they provide calories. Carbs, protein, and fat. One gram of carbohydrate and protein are equal to four calories, whereas one gram of fat is equal to nine calories. On a food label, you will see how many grams of each of these macronutrients the item contains. From there, you can do the math to calculate how many calories there are!
BUT IT GETS EASIER!!! If there’s a food label, they’ve already calculated it for you! Sure, they may have rounded a bit (food labels allow up to 20% error on grams of nutrients and calories…but I digress), but it’s close enough to where you need to be, especially if you’re just starting out.
If a food doesn’t come with a label – like a piece of fruit or a vegetable – all you need to do is type “how many calories in an apple” into google and you’ll have your answer. There’s still some guesswork there, though, unless you know your portion size. This is where a kitchen scale comes in handy! A 100g apple is going to have fewer calories than a 180g apple. I like to use this website to calculate calories and so much more! There are a ton of databases out there.
Put it to use!
There are many ways you can keep track of the calories you consume. There are a lot of apps and websites out there that make it so easy – there will be plenty of days where you don’t need to do any math, you’ll just have to know your measurements like ounces or grams or tablespoons. Many people have success with My Fitness Pal, but there are so many out there I can’t even name them all.
So, what’s giving counting calories such a bad rep? Why do people groan when people who have successfully lost weight say “I just counted calories!”? We aren’t literally picking through each bean and counting them – we’re measuring, inputting that amount into a database, and it’s doing all the work for us. It takes, ooohhh, an extra five minutes out of your day at most.
If you’ve never counted calories before, I challenge you to do it for a day, or even just a meal. Sign up for a calorie tracking site and just see what it’s like. You might find that it’s not as daunting as you thought, or be surprised to find out just how many calories are in your favorite food (or how few are in your second favorite food!)
Don’t be afraid of calories. They aren’t bad, just misunderstood.