You’ve probably been told a lot about calories across your life, particularly in the last few years, as fitness influencers have taken centre stage in place of nutritionists and dieticians with their ‘hacks’ and ‘meal plans’ curated to encourage calorie deficits, low-calorie meals, and Weight Loss.
Your 20-something-year-old PT has probably told you to focus solely on your daily caloric intake and that despite your ambition to achieve certain physique goals, you can still enjoy a Big Mac and a large Coke if it ‘fits your daily macros’ and keeps you in a ‘calorie deficit’. The six-week online course they used to start their ‘coaching business’ probably doesn’t explain what active calories are, nor does it give an honest insight into how calories work.
Despite all of this talk about calories, you might come to the realisation that if somebody asked you to explain what calories are, you would fall short of an answer. We’re here to give you a full insight into what calories are, what they do, why you need them, and why they should not be feared.
We’re here to help you shift your mindset.
What are Calories?
Let’s start at the very top. What are calories? Turn off your calorie calculator and tune in.
While calories have become something that people monitor heavily with the calorie deficit calculators and kj to calories counters, they are nothing to be feared. High-calorie isn’t a curse.
A calorie is a unit for measuring the energy in the foods and drinks that we consume. Every meal, food, and drink we enjoy has energy in the form of chemical bonds, which are ingested, metabolised, and broken down in your body to generate energy. This energy is what allows your body to function, and it is fundamental to your survival and Performance. You’ve probably seen the term kcal printed on products that you consume. This refers to kilocalories. The calories turned into energy through food are known as kilocalories, which is a unit that equals 1,000 calories. The term kilocalories is generalised into calories, so while we might say something has 100 kcal, it would technically be 100,000 calories. Overall, it’s easier to refer to kilocalories as calories (Lingo, D. 2023).
Wondering where your macros fit into this? Let’s break down the macronutrient calories per gram:
Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
Fats: 9 calories per gram
Protein: 4 calories per gram
Carbohydrates are generally the body’s main source of energy, with simple carbs offering quicker, short-term energy and complex carbs providing longer-lasting energy. Fats are your body’s main source of long-term energy, while Protein is used by the body to repair tissue, create enzymes, produce hormones, and transport nutrients in and out of your cells (Lingo, D. 2023).
Why are Calories Important?
In the simplest terms, calories are used by your body to provide the energy to function. You need the energy from the foods you consume to perform on a day-to-day basis, whether in the office or on the job site.
Across today’s health & fitness landscape, calories have become something to be tracked, controlled, and feared. Gym enthusiasts turn to calorie calculators to track everything from their Sunday morning almond croissant calories, their late-night drive-thru Zinger Burger calories, and their carefully meal-prepped low-calorie meals. You’ve probably found yourself wondering how to eat in a caloric deficit or opened up a tab at work to check your daily caloric intake. While it can be no doubt helpful to track the kj to calories in the foods you eat, especially if you’re trying to achieve certain body goals, it can sometimes lead to more harm than good.
When it comes to managing your body weight, whether you’re looking to gain weight and Gain Muscle or lose weight and shred, the amount of calories you consume will play a role. If you’re consuming more calories than you consume on a regular basis, your body will store that extra energy as fat. On the other hand, if you consume fewer calories than you use, then your body will use that stored fat for energy (NHS. 2023).
While online PTs and Instagram influencers with 500 followers will try to sell you on their ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to bodybuilding (which usually involves 1,200 calories per day + heaps of protein), that isn’t a sustainable or healthy way to achieve your goals. Quite often, in the pursuit of a perfect physique, we’re told to consume the lowest possible amount of calories, starving ourselves to achieve picture-perfect abs. That simply isn’t how calories work (NHS. 2023).
An average man requires 2,500 calories per day, while an average woman requires 2,000 calories. Most importantly, despite what your coach tells you, this isn’t set in stone. Your age, weight, height, exercise frequency, and more all play a role in the amount that you need personally to perform each day. If you are curious about your daily caloric intake (which should be used as a guide and not the rule) and want to know how to determine calorie intake, the best way to calculate your daily caloric intake is by determining your Body Mass Index.
Dispelling the Common Myths About Calories
Today’s obsession with calories has led to a plethora of false narratives and myths that have created an unhealthy relationship with food and nutrition. While using a calorie calculator to follow your precise daily macros can be helpful in achieving your goals, it is important to ensure you have a healthy relationship with food and avoid vilifying or completely erasing certain food groups (and no, we’re not talking about drive-thru fast food chains that probably should be eradicated) from your diet.
Calories in vs calories out is the only way to lose weight
No, no, no. Calories in vs calories out, also referred to as a calorie deficit, has become the most popular method for trying to lose weight. While consuming fewer calories than you burn in a day, a calorie deficit can support Weight Loss, but the simplified method of ‘calories in vs calories out’ completely undermines the difference between calories. One calorie from a McDonald’s burger is not the same as one calorie from a piece of fruit. This formula oversimplifies the process of calculating energy intake and expenditure while also overlooking the response our bodies have to reduced energy intake (The University of Sydney. 2023).
When it comes to losing those extra kgs, calories in vs calories out has pretty limited value and, in most cases, will likely lead to you eventually regaining that weight. Realistically, for how long can someone keep this up? This method is neither consistent nor sustainable, despite the common media influence suggesting that it is the most effective method. More importantly, a simple calorie deficit isn’t enough on its own. It still comes down to the source of the calories that you consume. The source of calories plays a role in regulating your glucose levels, hormones like insulin and leptin, and overall health, which can play a role in weight management (He, Y. 2022).
This method of measure undermines the impact that hormones have on body weight. Sitting in a calorie deficit doesn’t erase the impact of hormones. Hormonal imbalances can lead to difficulties in losing weight, with certain conditions and issues making weight loss an incredibly difficult task. In some instances, stubborn weight imbalances are rooted in hormonal issues, and the way your body responds to diet and exercise is influenced by hormones that regulate many processes in the body. Hormones can regulate your metabolism, hunger and fullness, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. There are lifestyle changes that you can make to bring your weight and hormones into balance. Hormones like leptin, cortisol, insulin, estrogen, ghrelin, neuropeptide Y, and more play a role in your body weight (Weinberg, J. 2023).
If you’ve been following this method and you’re not losing weight in a calorie deficit, your calorie calculator isn’t broken, but your body is adjusting to your energy expenditure in response to lost weight and reduced calorie intake. This is because your body needs less energy to maintain basic metabolic functions when you have reduced body mass. While you may feel that restricting calories and banning certain foods is the way to go, it may actually set you back in the long run and may lead to disordered eating behaviour (He, Y. 2022).
All Calories are Equal
As we’ve already alluded to, this simply is not true. Calories are not all equal. You don’t need us to tell you that the calories from organic whole foods are better for you than those from a Quarter Pounder Meal. Or maybe you do… let us explain.
The idea that all calories are equal is a manipulation designed to give people the impression that it’s easy and convenient to achieve certain body goals. When it comes to losing weight or building muscle, it understandably takes a lot of discipline in terms of training and nutrition to achieve those goals. Unfortunately, a lot of people want to skip to the finish line without running the hard yards, and many young personal trainers prefer to indulge their clients’ cravings because they would rather be kind and accommodating than honest and upfront. If you’re paying your PT to add ice cream and processed food to your meal plan because you’re still in a calorie deficit, then you’re wasting a lot of money. Processed fast-food calories aren’t the same as the calories from fresh, lean meat. This myth is harmful and dangerous and compromises the everyday balanced, nutritious diet. If you compare 100 calories from soft drinks or salmon, you know what to choose (Manning, J. 2023).
You Need to Count Calories to Lose Weight
Same theme as above: counting calories is not a healthy or sustainable option. Ditch the calorie calculator, close the kilojoules to calories tab on your phone, and stop trying to imprison yourself in a calorie deficit. While it can be helpful once in a while to check your approximate energy intake, counting your daily caloric intake is not the way you’re going to achieve your weight goals. Is it possible to lose weight without counting calories? Absolutely.
If you know you’re consuming clean, healthy, unprocessed foods, and you’re not overeating to the point of nausea, then you can rest assured that you’re fuelling your body the right way. A lot of people think that you can cut kilograms by restricting calories, but that simply isn’t true. Furthermore, our bodies are all different; some of us have fast metabolisms, while others may have slow metabolism. Our gut microbiomes are also unique, meaning that if two people consumed identical calories, they could still have different impacts on your weight (Harvard Health. 2020).
We mentioned hormones above, and the same goes right here: counting calories won’t help you fix an imbalance in hormones. Whether you’re struggling to lose weight or failing to lose weight in a deficit, you might want to monitor your hormone levels. Leptin is a hormone produced in the fat cells that helps to keep your food intake and weight balanced in the long term. Low leptin levels lead to a slower metabolism, while leptin resistance prevents your body from recognising that you’re full, which can make losing weight incredibly difficult. Additionally, high cortisol can increase appetite and signals the body to influence metabolism to store fat. This can also lead to sleep issues, high blood pressure, and increased appetite. Insulin helps to maintain balanced blood sugar, so an imbalance can lead to cravings for sweet foods, headaches, mood swings, and unstable blood sugar (Weinberg, J. 2023).
You can only Burn Calories through exercise
We just want to start by telling you that if you’ve ever enjoyed an almond croissant, a plate of nachos, or a box of chocolate and said to yourself in the aftermath, ‘I’ll go for a run to burn these calories off,’ you’re not going to succeed. That isn’t how it works. You still ate those foods. And that’s okay because it’s important to treat yourself to the foods that you like.
We also regret to inform you that your FitBit is probably wrong and that it is very difficult to accurately measure how many calories you expend throughout the day. A fitness tracker may be helpful in gauging your approximate calorie expenditure during exercise, but that’s not where all the work is done. Unless you spend all day at the gym, the energy you burn through exercise will only account for a small part of your daily calorie expenditure. Here’s how your body expends energy:
Resting Metabolic Rate: This is the minimum amount of calories required to perform all of the functions that you don’t even think about during the day. From breathing to circulating blood, these are the calories that your body uses to survive every day (He, Y. 2022).
Thermal Effect of Food: This is the energy that you use to digest foods while absorbing and processing the nutrients you consume. This measure is usually stable unless you drastically change the amount of calories you consume. This is where calories in v calories in fails because it overlooks the different thermic effects of certain foods (He, Y. 2022).
Exercise: As you already know, exercise plays a role in burning calories. This is because your body uses more energy to meet the demands of these activities. Whether you’re walking, running, or playing football in the park, your body is going to burn more energy to maintain Performance.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: Also known as NEAT, this refers to the calories you expend on activities like typing, reading, fidgeting, and shivering. Basically, if you’re somebody who ‘can’t stay still’, you’re actually burning more calories in those moments. Andrew Huberman has talked about NEAT on his podcast, The Huberman Lab.
‘Negative Calorie’ foods exist
We’ll start by telling you that this is a myth. Here’s why:
Quite often, people assume that foods lacking the key macronutrients and contain a level of calories low enough that your body would theoretically burn more calories eating, digesting, and processing these foods that the food contains itself. This means that you would be consuming fewer calories than you’re expending. Fruits and vegetables with high water content are usually marketed as negative-calorie foods, but there is no genuine evidence to suggest that they offer negative calories. These foods are no doubt nutritious, but they still contain calories, and it’s unlikely that you’re burning more than you consume (Tinsley, G. 2018).
The key message? Forget about the calories and calories alone, and aim for whole, nutrient-rich foods.
Is it possible to lose weight without counting calories?
This one might sound uncomfortable, but you can achieve your weight goals while consuming a diet high in calories. You don’t need a calorie deficit or a calorie calculator to achieve that goal. By consuming a diet that is higher in calories, particularly those from clean, whole, high-nutrient foods, you can achieve your physique goals without restricting yourself. If you’re running off low-calorie meals to achieve a calorie deficit and find your energy levels plummeting, that’s a sure sign that you’re under-fuelling yourself.
It’s important not to restrict your diet to the point that you don’t have enough calories for your body to perform properly. Underfuelling yourself can damage your metabolism, which will restrict your ability to lose weight and can cause other negative impacts on your Health & Wellbeing. If you’re an athlete or regularly compete in team sports, underfuelling yourself can drastically reduce your ability to perform (Morris, T. 2018).
So, can you eat more and lose weight? Yes. Consuming a high-calorie diet of clean, whole foods can support your metabolism while also helping you promote Lean Muscle Growth, gut health, hormone health, and Weight Loss (Morris, T. 2018).
How Many Calories Do You Need?
Again, this depends on a range of factors, from age, gender, weight, exercise frequency, metabolism, gut health, hormone balance, and more. For women, the recommended daily calorie intake is 2,000, while for men it is 2,500. If you subscribe to any online personal trainer or influencer, that number may sound high, and it’s more likely you’ve heard them recommend 1,200-calorie diets to support Weight Loss. That isn’t necessary if you consume a balanced and highly nutritious diet (NHS. 2023).
As we said, all bodies are different, which means the amount of calories we need to perform will vary. If you want to know exactly how many calories your body requires each day, you can calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). In this instance, understanding how to determine calorie intake with a calorie calculator may help you. Use a BMR Calculator to calculate the estimated calories your body requires to function each day. You’ll probably find it much higher than any calorie deficit, but this plays a role in hormone health, metabolic health, cell production, nutrient processing, Lean Muscle Growth and recovery (Frey, M. 2022).
Supplements to Burn Calories
If you’re looking for supplements that can help you increase your metabolism and support lean Muscle Growth while helping you manage your weight goals, we’ve got a few solutions. Remember, these supplements aren’t here to replace a balanced diet, but if you’re consuming a well-rounded, nutritious diet, these supplements can provide an extra edge.
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey
Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard is a Whey Protein formula that can support your post-workout recovery and optimise your nutrition. With 24g of protein per serving, it promotes Muscle Strength, repair, and Lean Muscle Growth. Additionally, because protein has a high TEF (thermic effect of food), this formula is suitable for calorie processing and can help you achieve your physique goals without trying to restrict yourself to a calorie deficit. A high TEF means it requires more energy to digest, while this nourishing formula also supports appetite reduction and prevents cravings and overeating. Made from microfiltered WPI, ultrafiltered WPC, and hydrolysed peptides, this Gluten-Free Protein can help you increase your protein intake.
Evolve Lipo Whey
Evolve Lipo Whey is a comprehensive protein matrix designed to help you achieve your body goals without restricting your calories. With 24.3g of premium protein per serving, Evolve Lipo Whey's high-protein formula contains L-glutamine, L-Carnitine, green tea, and InnoSlim® to support your metabolic health and your body goals. InnoSlim®, a stimulant-free and plant-based ingredient, regulates glucose, tackling the root cause of weight gain. Protein's high thermic effect of food (TEF) aids in calorie processing and satiety while promoting Lean Muscle Growth to support your body goals. Whether used after training or as a meal replacement, Evolve Lipo Whey is a step in the right direction to enhance your diet.
EHP Labs OxyShred
EHP Labs OxyShred is a globally renowned Thermogenic Pre-Workout designed to help you achieve your body goals. With a powerful combination of Acetyl L-Carnitine, bitter orange herbal extract, hydroxy citric acid, conjugated linoleic acid, green coffee bean, and more, it supports thermogenesis, calorie processing, and promotes energy during exercise. This formula is vegan-friendly and ideal for anybody looking to maximise their outcomes during exercise or physical activity.
MuscleWerks D-Fine 8
MuscleWerks D-Fine 8 is a Thermogenic Pre-Workout that supports clean Energy without post-gym energy crashes and aligns with your physique and body goals. Its advanced formula, containing paradoxine, vitamin B6, taurine, N-acetyl-L-tyrosine, and more, promotes thermogenesis and may support calorie processing. With zero sugars, carbs, and calories, it's perfect for fasted morning workouts or for anybody looking to improve their Metabolic Health.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve ever watched a video on TikTok that went something along the lines of ‘Top 5 high-protein options that you can buy from McDonald's to lose weight’, then you are being misled.
We all want to achieve certain body goals, and we’re all unanimously trying to build the best physiques that we can, which is why the modern approach to bodybuilding has become dangerous. Whether we can help it or not, we all have our eyes on the easy option, and we’re all looking for a cheat code to fast-track our results, but there isn’t one. It’s going to take discipline to achieve your results. You can’t count Zinger Burger calories just because you’re in a deficit.
If you need more help understanding how calories work and how to improve your Weight Loss results or are looking for more information on the best supplements to support your goals, we’ve got you covered. Simply head in-store or reach out online for more help finding the right information.
Until then, unfollow that influencer boasting a 1,200kcal meal play filled with Guzman y Gomez and overnight oats, and fill your feed with honest, accurate, researched information. These modern trends do more harm than good.
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