Do you know the science behind calories and how to use that to help you achieve your goals?
Sure, you’ve probably seen the word on the nutrition facts on your food. I’m sure you hear people talk all the time about “counting calories” or “watching their calories” in regards to weight loss. Heck, maybe you do it yourself.
But what are calories, and if you’re trying to lose weight, what do you need to know about them?
If you remember back to your high school science days, you may recall that a calorie is a measure of heat or energy. All foods you eat bring them into the body. All activities you do burn them up as well. Calories help provide the energy and nutrients needed for our body to live.
So you think if you eat fewer calories than you burn up, you’ll lose weight, right?
Well… yes. But there’s a little more to it than that.
MYTH: Calories measure how much energy you take in and burn up.
Not quite. The definition of a calorie has changed over time from a measure of heat conservation with regard to steam engines (it was the unit of heat required to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius), to an estimate of a food’s carbohydrate, protein, and fat content.
The problem is your body isn’t a steam engine; it runs on chemical energy. So don’t just track your calories; also track your carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
MYTH: All calories are the same.
Actually, even if they have the same calorie count, saturated fats – like butter, whole milk, and fatty meats – may not make you feel as full as unsaturated fats that come from plants, like olive oil, avocado, and nuts.
One study (at Penn State) shows that even if the caloric intake is identical, dieters who ate more whole grains rather than refined grains lost more belly fat.
If you need quick energy, carbohydrates and fat are your best friends. But if you want a longer, slower burn of energy, protein is the way to go. So be aware that the quality of the food where you get your calories from is just as important as the number of calories you consume.
MYTH: To lose weight you have to count your calories.
Counting calories can sometimes seem like doing a really really hard math problem. So is it worth it?
In a study done at the Univ. of California, San Francisco, 121 women were assigned to one of four diets. Some tracked their calories (no more than 1200); another group ate normally but recorded their calories; the third group ate 1200 calories without tracking; and the last group ate normally, without tracking. After three weeks, the women’s cortisol levels were measured. As you might expect, the women who kept track of their caloric intake had increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. So did the women whose diets were restricted, without having to count on their own. Since cortisol increases appetite and cravings for fatty, sugary foods, it’s a sure bet that that makes it very hard to lose weight.
Another downfall with calorie counting is that it isn’t exact, no matter how you do it. The calorie content of food can be changed depending on many factors such as when a fruit was picked, how something is prepared, if it was frozen, or how it was grown. Any database that you come across has estimates of caloric values of foods depending on the one that was tested. Yours could be close, but probably not exact. In addition, calories burned through exercise is also an estimation. Therefore, any tracking that you do is an estimation. It doesn’t mean that calorie or exercise tracking is bad as it can help you gauge where you are; just remember that it probably isn’t exact.
MYTH: It’s the total number of calories that matter.
Not quite. If you binge on a big breakfast and a big dinner, with very little food in between, you’re not likely supporting your body as well as if you ate the same number of calories spread out throughout the day. That’s because your body is always using energy, and needing to replace that energy. Make sure you take in as many calories as your body needs to function optimally, or you will slow down your metabolism over time, which would actually make it harder to lose weight.
MYTH: Exercise is the best way to burn calories.
The truth is that there are 3 components to your total daily caloric expenditure. They include your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the thermic effect of food (TEF), and the thermic effect of physical activity (TEPA).
You see, most calories fuel your body’s basic processes: digestion, cell growth, healing, transporting oxygen, etc. Basically, all of the processes that help your body function. This is known as your BMR. Your liver, brain, and skeletal muscles use the majority of the calories in this category which is responsible for 60-75% of your total daily caloric expenditure.
TEF is the energy used to breakdown food into more energy or store it in the body. It accounts for about 10% of your total caloric expenditure.
Now, physical activity accounts for the rest, roughly 15-30% of your daily caloric expenditure. Even if you were a gym rat and in the gym for hours a day, you would still only burn a small amount of calories from exercise. I know you may be a little disheartened at hearing that, but worry not because I have good news. You also burn calories in your regular daily activities or NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) activities. These include gardening, walking the dog, chopping vegetables, dancing around when no one’s watching, and wrestling with your kids. The more active you are during the day, the more these little movements add up to burn some extra calories for you. So that means, get up from your desk or couch at regular intervals and burn off a few more calories!
Disclaimer: Now, I am in no way saying to quit hitting the gym. It’s no secret that working out is a fantastic way to get into a caloric deficit – and that is what most of us need to jump start the weight loss process. But it also has other added benefits such as building lean muscle, fixing posture, and strengthening joints.
The more you know about calories and how to choose them wisely, the better off you will be in achieving your health and fitness goals.
I’d love to help you sort through all the mysteries of how to apply this information in YOUR life. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to speak with me! I look forward to it!
PS, Yes, you do have to watch your calories, but there are a lot of misconceptions about how to manage your diet and exercise. Just shoot me an email and I’ll speak with you about your specific situation.
About the Author:
Hi, I’m Josh Davidson, owner of Personal Training Institute of Fort Wayne. I have been involved in health and fitness for over 7 years. I would love to help you start living a healthy lifestyle. You can learn more about my staff and I as well as how we can help you feel better by calling 260-338-2022 or visiting our website here. If you’re looking to start on your fitness journey now, sign up for a free consultation and workout today!