A calorie is a calorie is a calorie… right? Wrong! All calories were not created equally. The quality of your food is far more important than the calorie content. If you ate a 500-calorie meal that consisted of instant noodles and a chocolate bar, and maybe even a soda, you will not be providing your body with a lot of beneficial nutrients. If the 500 calories came from nuts, some dark chocolate, and eggs, for example, you will be getting beneficial nutrients that will help your body perform optimally.
A calorie is simply a unit used to measure energy and does not take the quality of the food or impact of the food on your health into account. In my house, the term “It’s about calories in, calories out” is a trigger phrase, and whenever we watch a video where someone claims that it is all about calories, Jonathan will often get fired up and start going on a rant. There is usually some pacing around the room involved.
Do not get me wrong, we still think the energy content of food should be considered when making food choices and I get annoyed when people claim that calories do not matter at all, but food quality just comes first and matters a lot more.
How Many Calories Do You Need in a Day?
The number of calories that you consume in a day is still important when you are trying to lose fat. The math suggests that in order to lose around half a kilo or a pound of fat, you must burn 3500 calories more than you consume. This doesn’t take anything else into account, such as what you are eating, the macronutrient content, nutritional value, hormonal responses, etc. that all have profound effects on fat loss.
However, it is an estimate you can use to help you plan and figure out roughly how much you should eat in order to help you get closer to your goals. If you are new to nutrition, you might want to give yourself some time to learn what your body’s requirements are, what is in the foods you are eating, and which foods are calorie dense.
The first step to working out how many calories you should eat is to work out your BMR or an estimate of it. It stands for basal metabolic rate and refers to the number of calories that you burn in a day at rest. This does not take any movement throughout the day into account. You want to work out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is your BMR plus the calories you burn while moving throughout the day.
You can find online calculators if you do a simple search (I recommend using at least five different ones and then taking the average). A lot of BMR calculators actually do include your activity level, but you can also just search for a TDEE calculator online.
If you have a fitness tracker that gives you an estimate, that works too. Some gyms, doctors, dietitians, and sports facilities can do assessments that also tell you your BMR and TDEE. Once you have an idea of how many calories you burn in a day, you can work out how much you want to eat based on your goals.
If you want to lose or gain a pound or half a kilo a week, then you can aim to eat 500 calories less or more than you burn, depending on your goals. You do not have to count calories, but it is helpful if you just take a week or two to track what you are eating and to read labels, and learn how much is actually in your food. You can use a food-tracking app to make it easier.
While most people only start becoming aware of calories and how many they are eating in a day when trying to lose fat, it can be greatly beneficial if you are trying to gain as well.
Gaining weight is something that a lot of people struggle with, and it can be difficult to consume enough calories without feeling so full and bloated the entire day and force-feeding yourself. Instead of eating a large volume of food, the challenge is to consume more calories, but packed into a smaller amount of food.
Desserts can make this easier, especially if they are high in fat. Fat contains 9 calories per gram compared to protein and carbohydrates, which only contain 4 calories per gram.
Do I Have to Count Calories?
Calorie counting is completely optional and it is not necessary for your health, but even just doing it for a few days and then switching to eating intuitively can be very beneficial for your health, as you will start to realise just how many calories your favourite foods might be adding to your day, and will maybe only have half of the 500-calorie slab of chocolate next time.
If you have been struggling to gain weight or lose fat, maybe tracking what you eat using a calorie-counting app for a few weeks will give you some answers as to why you aren’t losing or gaining, depending on your goals.
I also think it is a brilliant idea to take a food diary with you when you first talk to a doctor, nutritionist, or trainer, so they can see what you are eating, how much you are eating, and what kinds of foods you like. It will also give them insight into your eating patterns.
Personally, I like doing it, but my nerdy self has always liked numbers and math. You really don’t have to count calories.
The aim is to eat consciously. I am happy to cycle between counting my calories and macronutrients and eating intuitively, depending on where I am in life and my current goals.