Updated: Jul 4, 2018
Whether your goal is fat loss, muscle gain, improved performance, optimising your recovery from training sessions or even managing your heath via nutrition, there is one overriding factor which pretty much trumps everything else.
Get it wrong and you can be wasting away years of progress in the weight room and in the kitchen, struggling to get the results you are after.
Get it right however, and you can watch your physique and health transform in a matter of weeks.
What am I talking about?
"What?! Calories are an outdated concept. You just have to cut out carbs if you want to lose weight right?"
"My best friend lost a ton of bodyfat and she never once counted a calorie"
"How can it all be about calories? 100 calories from doughnuts can't possibly be the same as 100 calories from broccoli?!"
"Weight loss can't be as simple as calories in vs calories out. What about if you eat after dark? Surely more fat will be stored then as you're less active?"
"I heard fat loss and muscle gain is about hormones, not calories?!"
As you can see there is a lot of confusion, misinformation and misunderstanding about the topic of calories and these quotes above are not uncommon to hear when talking about calories.
Let this article clear things up for you once and for all.
Here, you'll get the low down about why you need a basic understanding of calories if the way you look and feel is of importance (which is of course why you're here)
What is a Calorie?
A calorie is simply a unit that measures energy.
The foods and drink you consume on a daily basis all contain calories which make up your total daily energy intake.
Why should I care?
We can manipulate calories and our energy balance to change our bodyweight. In fact doing so (consciously or not) is the only way that we can gain, lose and even maintain our current weight. This is relevant because if your goal is to gain muscle, over time this will mean that the scales will go up and thus you'll want to be eating in a slight caloric surplus to support this process, thus adding weight. Conversely if the goal is fat loss - more often than not, that will mean the scale going down over time as you are essentially losing 'matter' (body fat hopefully) and we can influence this process by putting ourself in a calorie deficit and eating less than our current energy requirements.
Just so we are clear:
- Eat more calories than your body needs on a regular basis = Weight gain
- Eat less calories than your body needs on a regular basis = Weight loss
- Eat ~ the same amount of calories as your body burns on a regular basis = Weight maintenance
Why are calories so important?
You know all the stuff you think is super important to getting a kick ass bod?
- Which protein supplement you use
- HIIT cardio
- Fasted cardio
- Eating late at night
- Whether or not you need a multi-vitamin
- Free weights vs machines
- How many times per week you should train
- What rep range you should do
- Whether you should eat carbs pre workout
- If white rice is better than brown rice
- The Glycemic Index
- If you take creatine or not
- Whether or not you should invest in some fish oils
Etc Etc Etc
NONE of that ^ matters in the slightest if you haven't nailed your energy balance and your caloric intake over a a weekly basis. (1)
One of my mentors Dr Eric Helms talks about the pyramid of importance as it pertains to nutrition and changing your body. Guess what is at the foundation of his pyramid that literally holds everything else up? You guessed it - calories. Without this in place everything else falls apart. For more on this concept and his staple book in the world of nutrition, The Muscle And Strength Pyramids, check out the link. (2)
The Dirty Secret...EVERY diet works
Have a think about every possible diet that has been popular in the last 5 years. Atkins, Paleo, Juicing, Intermittent fasting etc the list goes on. I want you to have a think about the common theme surrounding all of these approaches. Even the ones that seem at polar opposites to each other, such as a ketogenic diet on one side (super low carb and high fat) vs a high carb, low fat traditional style diet... They all have one underlying principle.
A. Calorie. Deficit.
No calorie deficit, no fat loss.
Food quality matters, don't get me wrong. For health, mental and physical function, more stable energy levels, food cravings etc but if that organic avocado you eat everyday for lunch that yields an extra 400 calories is the factor that consistently takes you out of maintenance into a surplus, you will indeed add body fat regardless of how 'healthy' it is. With that in mind then, labelling foods in isolation as 'healthy' or 'unhealthy' is some what misleading because it lacks context. To further illustrate the point:
- Professor Mark Haub successfully lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks following a diet comprising of Twinkies and M&Ms. The only stipulation was that he only ate 1,800 calories per day and thus put himself in a calorie deficit and lost weight despite his sub par food choices.(3)
- More recently a science teacher in Iowa lost 56 pounds in 6 months eating nothing but McDonalds. Why did it work? He was limited to 2,000 calories per day and went on a daily 45 minute walk. Again, he dropped weight because he was in a calorie deficit despite eating fast food.(4)
"There are no inherently bad foods. But there are bad diets..."
(As per the infographic, the best diets also emphasise whole foods and a high protein consumption within the context of a calorie deficit. These types of foods also positively affect our ability to feel full and satiated after eating them as well as providing a whole host of health benefits so win win)
The problem comes because no one actually likes being told that they need to eat less food - that's not going to sell a lot of books. Instead, they get you to buy into their method of calorie restriction, whatever angle they are trying to sell and get you to eat less without you realising. Here is a great quote by Lyle Mcdonald - Nutrition Author from his article 'All Diets Work, The Importance Of Calories'
Most (diet books) follow a fairly standard organization (the first chapter always explaining that YOUR FAT IS NOT YOUR FAULT) and, with very very few exceptions, most will tell you that ‘calorie restricted diets don’t work for weight loss’ and that whatever magic they are selling is the key to quick, easy (and of course permanent) weight loss.
Whether it’s insulin, dietary fat, the protein:carbohydrate or insulin:glucagon ratio, partitioning or whatever other bullshit, they will make it sound like caloric intake is not the key aspect in whether or not someone gains weight.
In almost all cases, the idea that food intake must be restricted in any fashion is dismissed; if it is mentioned it is generally as a short aside late in the book that nobody pays any attention to.
This is purely a psychological ploy; it sucks to have to consciously restrict food intake and this causes mental stress. Simply knowing that you can’t eat what you want when you want it blows; I hate it as much as the next person. Many people will feel hungrier simply because they know that they can’t eat what they want when they want it.
Yet the fundamental fact is that the body will NOT have any need to tap into stored body fat unless the individual is burning more calories than they are taking in. Of course this means that either energy expenditure has to go up, caloric intake has to go down, or both have to occur. (5)
To further illustrate this point, in 1964 a group of medical researchers in Oakland, California, set out to study the impact of different macronutrient compositions on weight loss in obese patients.
- There were 5 obese patients in a metabolic ward (meaning they were under complete supervision of medical staff)
- The patients were fed a formula containing 800 - 1200 calories depending on the patient.
- Every three or four weeks the investigators changed the formula to vary its content of protein (from 14 to 36 percent of calories), fat (from 12 to 83 percent of calories), and carbohydrates (3 to 64 percent of calories).
- The results? ALL of the obese patients lost weight at the same rate, regardless of the nutrient composition of the diet; whether fat or carbohydrate intake was high or low – The key was the total caloric deficit, not the composition of the diet.*** (6)
***Note: This point is purely to illustrate the importance of calories on weight loss. For fat loss, muscle gain and indeed muscle retention - manipulation of macronutrient does indeed have an impact on the type of weight lost. I.e bodyfat vs muscle.
In 2009 a similar experiment was carried out with the conclusion:
Reduced calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss, regardless of which macronutrient they emphasize. (7)
Now we know that different people 'feel' subjectively very different on low carb vs low fat diets and there are also considerations for fuelling training performance but in terms of weight loss, you really can pick the type of calorie restriction that suits your preferences and lifestyle the best (so long as protein is adequate).
I have had clients achieve fantastic results eating a very low fat, high carbohydrate approach, and others on completely the other end of the spectrum with a higher fat, lower carb approach. This is also supported by a large body of research that shows when calories and protein are matched, the differences in fat loss between a low carb vs low fat diet are completely negligible. (8) How to determine which type of diet you should personally select, I will save for a different article.
So What Happens When We Overeat Calories Then?
Shock horror we gain weight! Now, the interesting part is that the degree of weight gained between two individuals in the same circumstances on the same caloric surplus can vary massively. This isn't due to differences in metabolism per say, but more so the fact that some people's bodies are more resistant to weight gain and thus effectively 'fidget' off a large amount of extra calories ingested. Some people however seem to store every extra calorie as pure bodyfat! (9)
However, the increase in subconscious energy that some people exhibit in the face of a significant caloric surplus is never enough to offset the increase in extra calories. Some weight is aways gained no matter what.
In every single study know to man, in tightly controlled scenarios when people are overfed they gain weight, and when people are under fed they lose weight.
Ok I get it, I get it....How many calories do I need per day then?
I calculate all my client's energy needs on an individual basis as everyone and every situation is very different and thus a one sized fits all approach when it comes to prescribing energy needs will simply not do. Saying that, I hope you find the infographic below helpful as a good starting point for most when it comes to working out your energy needs so long as you monitor and adjust as you need to based on your goals.