What You Need to Know About Calories
Calories are infamous for having a bad reputation. It’s as if they are the sole culprit behind weight gain and failed diets. Ask a person what they know about calories, and a common response would be that too many calories are harmful to your health. While this has some partial truth to it, calories do much more for us than we give them credit for.
What is a calorie, you ask? Put simply, a calorie is a unit of energy. This unit of energy can be used to measure not only food but also how much energy an item contains. For example, one gallon of gasoline has about 31 million calories. Calories provide humans with the energy needed to exist, just like we need air to breathe. Without calories, all of our metabolic processes (like breathing, moving, cell repair, and cell growth to name a few) wouldn’t have any fuel to function.
The measure of a food’s potential energy level can be measured by its mass, or weight. Carbs contain 4 calories per gram, protein 4 calories per gram, alcohol 7 calories per gram, and fat 9 calories per gram. Nutrients like vitamins and minerals, and h20 do not supply calories.
Calories from solid fats (like butter, milk fat, beef fat, and shortening) and added sugar (like those found in soft drinks, candy, and pastries) provide you with no nutritional content and are filled with empty calories. Think of it this way, you could guzzle down a can of orange soda that is filled with added sugar and lacks nutritional content or you could sip on a small glass of orange juice and reap the benefits of vitamins and minerals (albeit some natural sugars). Choose your calories wisely, as empty calories count for big losses in gaining important nutritional content. A good rule of thumb is if the food product is processed, it is probably filled with more empty calories than necessary.
Understanding the Math and Science Behind Calories
When you read a nutrition label, the daily intake values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This generalization for the average person (not a recommendation) costs people hundreds of unwanted calories because the data is misinterpreted. Since each individual person needs different levels of energy to function, we all need varying quantities, particularly if we are trying to lose weight or maintain the same weight.
To find out how many calories you are supposed to consume, there are a few factors to consider.
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – the amount of energy your body needs to function at rest. This is determined by your age, weight, height, diet, and exercise habits.
- Active Metabolic Rate (AMR) – the number of calories you normally burn in one day
- Level of Physical Activity – how many calories your body burns for all activities you perform (yes, that includes vacuuming the living room)
- Thermic Effect of Food – the amount of energy your body uses to digest food
- Find your BMR by using the Harris-Benedict formula.Adult Male: 66 + (6.3 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
Adult Female: 655 + (4.3 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
- Determine which physical level of activity best matches your day-to-day lifestyle.
- Sedentary Physical Activity Level – Do you sit at a desk all day or do work that requires you to be seated for most of your work day? If yes, your score is 1.1.
- Light Physical Activity Level – Are you on your feet for half of the day? If yes, your score is 1.2.
- Moderate Physical Activity Level – Are you on your feet for most of the day, with very little sedentary breaks? If yes, your score is 1.3.
- High Physical Activity Level – Do you perform physical laborious tasks all day (carpenter, construction worker)? If yes, your score is 1.4.
- Find out how many calories you burn during exercise. Most people tend to overestimate how many calories they burn (we like to be lofty). Use this chart to help you determine your exercise expenditure.
- To find your AMR, take your BMR and multiply it by your physical level of activity score. Then add your exercise expenditure. This number tells your total energy requirement for each day.
For a quick calculator, or to compare your math with an online calculation, see the Mayo Clinic’s Calorie Calculator.
Example: According to these formulas, I currently need roughly 1,953 calories to maintain my current weight. Suppose on a single day I consume 2,000 calories. I have consumed 47 more calories than my body has expended. Regardless if these calories came from protein, carbs, alcohol, or fat, my body will take these calories into a reserve and store it until needed for energy. For every 3,500 extra calories stored, my body gains one pound of weight. Conversely, for every 3,500 calories as a deficit, you lose a pound of weight (you also lose some muscle and tissue as well).
For more information on reducing the amount of calories in your diet, see this calculator on calorie deficits.
Knowing Your Caloric Intake
You know how much cash is in your wallet, right? Well, you should also know how many calories you consume in a day. This information helps you make better decisions about what you choose to eat, the quantity of how much you eat, and makes you aware of the nutritional value of your food. Most of us know what is unhealthy right off the bat (that bag of chips you ate with your sandwich was probably more than one serving). But sometimes there are hidden calories in foods that we believe are healthy (like peanut butter, for instance). The only way to really find out how your eating habit affect your health is to analyze it.
- Keep a food journal. That’s right, and don’t skip out on a single item that you eat. Try keeping the journal for more than two weekdays and one weekend, that way you can get a well-rounded idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are. While many foods caloric data is listed on the label, you can also check food databases for their caloric content.
- Wear an activity tracker. Activity trackers will tell you how many steps you’ve taken in a day, how your activity levels affect your calorie burn, and if you’ve met your daily goals. Check out a FitBit or a Nike Fuel Band.
- Measure your food. Buy a digital scale and measure out how much food you will eat at each sitting. This will guarantee that you are not over eating and can help you accurately measure your caloric intake for that meal.
- Download an app. You know, there’s an app for that. Check out some amazing apps for your fitness and health.