Calories In vs. Calories Out
Calories are the measure of how much energy any given food contains.
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram
Protein contains 4 calories per gram
Fat contains 9 calories per gram
If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably tried calorie counting as part of your weight loss efforts and perhaps it's worked at some point in your life. After all, it’s simple math. You must reduce overall calories and increase energy output/physical activity. In that case, fat loss should technically be a predictable process and anyone with basic math skills should have no problem getting slim. Not so fast...While calories are important and you should be mindful, there are some very big misconceptions when it comes to calories and how it directly affects fat loss and impact on your overall health.
Calories aren't the end all
The normal consensus is eating too many calories without expending energy will equate to weight gain. This is true, however there are many missing pieces that don’t quite play out that simply. High caloric foods such as nuts, grass-fed beef, whole eggs and avocados are rich in micronutrients needed to feed your body on a cellular level - not just to fill up your belly. They also tend to keep you fuller for longer, as opposed to processed foods containing refined grains and sugars that are not as satiating. Calories coming from a 100 calorie snack-pack versus a whole egg for example is quite different. The type of calorie we eat will directly affect the energy that is expended (or how many calories we will burn).
What does this mean? Your body works harder (uses more energy) from whole foods compared to processed foods simply because there is more food components such a fiber to break down and in the process = burns more calories via digestion. Regarding macronutrients, proteins and fats also take more energy to digest than carbohydrates.
There are several variables to consider when thinking about how calories burned which paints a much bigger picture.
Thermic effect on food
The energy that is used to digest and assimilate nutrients.
Active energy expenditure
The energy that is used during activity from walking, weight lifting, or running to smaller activity that includes unconscious movements such as fidgeting.
Resting energy expenditure
The energy that is used on a daily basis to accomplish basic physiological functions at rest.
The 1200 calorie rule
You might be familiar with the golden rule that 1200 calories is the bare minimum intake to physiologically function daily if we did nothing else but lye in bed all day with zero activity. Does this mean we need to dip down so low in order to lose the weight? Many health professionals will advocate for a low cal diet for desired results. I don't doubt that you'll hit that number on the scale. However, the new question then becomes how are you going to maintain this? The problem is that you've dipped so low in calories for a prolonged period of time that your maintenance calories have now been lowered and your body has metabolically adapted to use less energy in order to create homeostasis. You're likely to gain the weight back once you've returned to a more sustainable pattern of eating. This is the phase most people have trouble with - the maintenance phase. Keeping the weight off long term.
Female Athlete Triad
One issue you may encounter if you dip too low in calories for too long, combined with excessive physical stress (exercise) you are going to eventually hit a brick wall.
Very active women who engage in extreme exercise in combination with low calorie intake, restrictive diets or who have disordered eating are at risk. This is known as the female athlete triad, which is a syndrome caused by low energy availability (you use more energy than you consume).
Hormone imbalances may occur that that can quickly cascade onto other issues from adrenal fatigue to thyroid issues. Amenorrhoea/oligomenorrhea (absence of a period) may occur, decreased bone mineral density (osteoporosis and osteopenia) and having chronically low energy (fatigue).
What to do instead?
Ditch the calorie counting. Obsessively measuring your calorie consumption and using diet trackers likely create more disordered eating for many people than not.
You you still need to create a level of awareness for yourself and the food you eat. Becoming familiar with proper portion sizes for different ingredients and understanding macronutrients will help you understand your daily requirements for optimal energy and health. You will be able to identify which foods or products to buy or pass on. Learning how to cook simple meals and how to batch cook for the week.
The bottom line -
Eating whole foods, organic (where possible) in their original form, and minimally processed will never steer you wrong. A bonus, your cravings will also diminish, and cause you to naturally eat less. We are already equipped with the tools we need, we just have to stop looking outside of the box.