What are calories?
Calories are essentially a way to measure the energy that comes from food. This will be measured in kilojoules or calories depending on your location. They are both the same thing, 1 Calorie = 4 kilojoules. All foods are made up of three ‘macronutrients’ they are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The cover photo shows 4 different foods in very different portion sizes all containing 200 calories!
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories for every gram
Proteins contain 4 calories for every gram
Fats contain 9 calories for every gram
So for example, a serving of food might contain 40 grams of carbohydrates, 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat. The total calories would equal
40grams carbohydrates X 4 = 160 calories PLUS
10grams protein X 4 = 40 calories PLUS
5grams fat X 9 = 45 calories
Altogether the serving will have 245 calories.
Counting calories can be helpful
Whether you like it or not, the body weight of a human is determined in the most part by calories in vs calories out. I will admit there are some things that can alter the metabolic rates of humans, but these changes are small in comparison to the overall effect of food energy. There are a lot of people now who will try to glance over the importance of calories but regardless of what animal you are, your total calorie intake will be the single biggest factor in your losing or gaining weight.
Different people require vastly different amounts of calories. A small women may only require 1500 calories a day whereas a tall, muscular and highly active male might require 4000 calories a day. Different foods are also processed differently so that the packet might say 500 calories but our body can only utilize 400 of these calories. Many of these differences are brought up in reference to the calorie debate but none of them change the basic premise, overall caloric intake is the most important thing for body weight increases or decreases.
I don’t think long term calorie counting is a great idea for most people, but the concept of calories is something that is helpful to understand. This is especially true on a larger scale, the different between 2000 and 3000 calories is vast and could be the reason that you are continuing to gain weight even when you are trying to lose it!
Most diets are essentially calorie counting.
Many well-known diets are calorie counting in disguise or made to seem easier than counting calories. Weight watchers is an example of this. Instead of counting calories you count points. Most other diet plans are based on a low calorie food plan. If these are stuck to long term they pretty much all work, it defies physics for them not to work especially if the calories are very low. This doesn’t mean it is necessarily a healthy way to live.
Counting for short time periods
Counting calories can be a great way to get a picture of just how much you are eating. Knowing that you are eating 3500 calories a day can be a great way to understand the rough volume of food you are eating and how that relates to calories. It is easy to think we are eating differently but the numbers don’t lie! Research has found that most overweight people dramatically underestimate the food they are eating and underweight people do the opposite. Tracking calories for even a few days can be an eye opener. I would not recommend counting calories long term unless you are a very dedicated athlete or you need to for some specific reason.
Understanding calories, not counting
Many diets such as paleo work because they favor low calorie, high satiety foods over high calorie, low satiety foods. Examples are chicken breast compared with soft drink. Chicken breast has minimal calories and leaves you satisfied whereas a soft drink has a huge amount of calories but will barely change your hunger level.
We can use an understanding of calories to help guide us in our food choices. Understanding calories means having a ‘rough’ idea of what sort of calories are in different foods. Foods such as vegetables have almost no calories and can be eaten in endless amounts. Foods such as grains, meats (especially fatty cuts) and dairy products are more calorie dense and should be limited more if you are trying to lose weight. Processed food is very calorie dense for no satiety benefit, therefore eating these foods will often lead to weight gain.
A newer idea of calorie counting has taken the form of counting macronutrients. This is also known as dieting by ‘IIFYM’ – If it fits your macros. This form of dietary control is very popular among bodybuilders and other fitness fanatics but can be useful for anybody. This approach means working out how many grams of each of the 3 major macronutrients you need each day and then trying to eat roughly this number day to day. For example, you may have 150 grams of protein, 200 grams of carbohydrates and 100 grams of fat. This equals 2400 calories. This means each day you would eat to those amounts.
Putting it into practice
The most practical approach to calories is having a generalized understanding of calories. This means knowing roughly how many calories are in foods as well as a rough understanding of how many calories you would eat in a day. The only way to be sure how much you are eating is to track it. This means writing down everything you eat throughout the day and adding up the total calories. This should only ever be used as a short term way toward understanding food better.
How do I know how many calories are in foods?
The easiest way to work out the calories in a packaged food is by looking at the nutritional label. This label will give a breakdown of how many calories are in the food. It is also the best way to see exactly what is in the food by reading the ingredients list. There will be two columns, one with the PER SERVING amount and one with the PER 100GRAMS amount. Unless the serving size is something easy to measure like 2 pieces of bread or 2 biscuits, the 100 gram column is usually a better indicator to use when comparing foods as you can compare foods on an even scale.
In this nutrition label we can see that there are 3 serves in the package. Each serve is 150grams which is bigger than the standardized 100grams. When you come across KJ (kilojoules), divide this number by 4 to get the calories. In this label, there are roughly 100 calories per 100 grams of the product, or 150 calories for each serving. If you ate this whole packaged food you would be consuming 450 calories in total.
If a food doesn’t have a label then check the food on a site such as http://nutritiondata.self.com/ or http://www.calorieking.com.au/foods/ Once you have checked the food a few times you will remember how many calories are in it.
Calories are the single biggest factor in determining your body weight. Whether you want to gain, lose or maintain your weight, an understanding of calories is a very useful tool. Calories may seem confusing at first but they are very basic once you read a few nutrition labels! Never let calorie counting take over mindful eating, but use it as another tool to understand your body and the food you eat.
Do you ever track how much you eat?