Do calories matter?
How many calories should you eat each day?
Will you wither away and die due to hangry-ness (a very official term that I just trademarked, by the way…) if you don’t eat every 2 hours?
Why do some folks continue to gain weight if they barely eat anything all day?
And why do some others eat their face off all day and seem to never gain a pound?
Man, that’s a lot of heavy questions, but it’s merely the tip of the iceberg of the nutrition-related questions I’ve gotten in my 20 years in health and fitness.
Today I’m going to answer these questions by providing a framework with which you can answer related questions in the future. After all, this stuff isn’t rocket science. Learn and follow these basic principles and you’ll be well equipped for the rest of your life.
Now let’s get going!
In the basic terms, a calorie is simply a unit of energy.
The food you eat is made up of three macronutrients – protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Both proteins and carbs provide the body with 4 calories per gram consumed while fats provide 9 calories per gram consumed.
And within each of of the macronutrients we receive micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
So for a quick math lesson, if you were to eat the following meal, how many calories would you be consuming?
38 grams of protein
50 grams of carbohydrate
15 grams of fat
38*4 = 152
50*4 = 200
15*9 = 135
The answer is: 487 calories
Now for the hard, uncomfortable truth:
The nutritional sciences field, almost every fitness influencer, and supplement company out there would have you believe that if you want to lose weight, you should eat less than you currently do. And if you want to gain weight, eat more than you currently do.
The trouble with the “calories in/calories out (CICO)” model is that it’s based on the belief that the human body is a closed loop system.
Input Food -> Perfect Reaction based on calories eaten vs. calories burned Magically Happens -> Body Composition or Health/Fitness Goal Achieved
The body doesn’t work like that. Here are few other things happening inside the “black box” that is the human body:
BMR = Basal Metabolic Rate. This is the bare minimum number of calories you need to simply lay around like a vegetable and survive.
NEAT = Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. This is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating, or structured exercise.
TEF = Thermic Effect of Feeding. This is how many calories it takes to digest the food itself
EEE = Exercise Energy Expenditure. This is the amount of energy someone uses during activity or structured exercise. Spoiler alert – you are not burning 300 or more calories during your workout. No matter what your Apple Watch, Garmin, Whoop, Oura, or any other “smart” device is telling you.
TDEE = Total Daily Energy Expenditure. This is all of the above combined together (TDEE = BMR + NEAT + TEF + EEE)
Having said all of that, there are a lot of pieces still missing even from that puzzle above! Things like:
- Number of times you chew each bite of food (more is better, should be at least 20-30 chews per bite)
- Are you sitting down, in a calm state, with no distraction? (Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is hugely beneficial)
- Do you commune with others while eating? (this is a good thing)
- Are you part of the actual preparation of the food? (the more, the better)
- Do you limit liquid intake to before and/or after the meal? (if you “need a beverage” to swallow your food or moisten your pallet, it’s due to a lack of all the previous points)
You know what all of the above pieces aid in? The digestive process.
So you could have a seemingly perfect amount of calories, but if you slam them down the gullet while you sprint anxiously from one commitment to another, guess what is not happening? Digestion, absorption, and assimilation of those macronutrients and the accompanying micronutrients.
And we didn’t even touch on the issues to the digestive process created by metabolic dysfunction, hormone disruption, autoimmune conditions, etc.
So what are calories good for? Honestly, not much really, beyond what I just taught you earlier. Focusing on them is like missing the forest for the trees. Or stepping over quarters to pick up pennies. Or…
Ok, I think you get my point.
Am I saying don’t worry about calories?
Yep, I sure am. Don’t worry about how much you consume or how much you burn. Counting calories and staring at your watch just doesn’t work if you want to make lasting change.
Focus on things that move the needle more long term, that are sustainable. It’s why we teach people to master the BNG’s, or Basic Nutritional Guidelines: food hygiene (outlined above), water, meal rhythms, and variety.
That’s a different blog for another day, but here’s a sneak peek: