Calories In vs. Calories Out.
Eat less calories.
Eat more calories.
Eat these calories and not these calories.
Eat your calories at this time and not after this time.
The list goes on and on.
In today’s world, the statements on calories are ENDLESS. They range on many extremes and come from a wide array of research studies, textbooks, and recommendations from the industry “know-all’s.”
With all the statements on calories, it’s no surprise obesity has become such a large problem for Americans.
And nobody has stopped to look at or explain why calories are so important in the first place!
Today, I want to use this blog to help you better understand the importance of calories in research-proven truths.
So let’s start with the most important…
What Is a Calorie?
According to Merriam-Webster, a calorie is defined by the following:
- “The amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius that is equal to about 4.19 joules.”
- “A unit equivalent to the large calorie expressing heat-producing or energy-producing value in food.”
Now, the term calorie wasn’t NEW to me when I entered the nutrition space. In fact, it’s been a buzzword for a LONG time, but it was always in relation to food…
Therefore, when I went to 9th grade Physics and we were talking about calories, I was SO confused.
You see, calories aren’t just the building blocks of food.
Quite simply put, calories are a unit of energy.
Calories are a unit of energy that yes, does supply the human body, but also supplies countless other processes throughout the world.
It’s like the “juice” for the human body.
The voltage or charge of battery.
The joules or watts to a light bulb.
Calories are energy, and the energy they supply to the human body makes them vital for human life.
Why Are Calories So Important for Fat Loss?
More than likely, you’ve tried this whole fat loss thing before, so you’re aware of the fact that calories are important.
But has anyone ever taken the time to explain WHY calories are so important?
As a coach, I can’t stress the importance of calories enough, but I’ve summed it up to 3 reasons calories are so important.
Calories Supply Our Body with Energy
Calories are a unit of energy; therefore, putting them into our body, we are supplying our body with energy.
Humans are a big blob of energy.
Sufficient calories allow for the building of muscles and bones, brain function, and all bodily processes.
Quite simply, without calories, humans could not survive.
But if I’m being honest, the value of a calorie as an energy unit has been completely lost in the eyes of Americans.
Today, calories are what make us fat.
In our minds, consuming less means we lose weight, get skinny, and “look better,”
Those views and beliefs aren’t completely wrong.
Yes, consuming too many calories leads to weight gain.
Yes, eating fewer calories leads to weight loss.
No, those aren’t the only characteristics of calories!
In every situation – the make-up of the human body, a Physics class experiment, or in the food in your refrigerator – CALORIES ARE ENERGY.
Calories Supply Our Body with Vitamins, Minerals, and Fiber
It’s possible you can deduce that in addition to supplying our body with energy, calories also supply our body with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
If you didn’t realize that, that’s OKAY!
Vitamins, minerals, and fiber come from the foods we eat and drink.
What makes up the foods we eat and drink?
In its simplest, most broken down form – CALORIES!
Now, for the haters and naysayers out there, you can take zero calorie vitamins, minerals, and fiber supplements, but the best and most natural way for the body to take these in is through food calories.
The amount of vitamins, minerals, and fiber contained in food items is how we assess food quality at Complete Performance (Circle Pines, MN).
Some foods provide more calories and fewer nutrients.
Other foods provide fewer calories and more nutrients.
Finally, some foods provide more calories AND more nutrients.
So, what makes a high- and low-quality food?
In all honesty, it has very little to do with the amount of calories, as the amount of nutrients is what dictates the quality of a food.
What that means is that we’re looking for the foods that provide the MOST vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Let’s do a little comparison game to help you out here:
Fried Chicken Tenders vs. Grilled Chicken Breast
Well, when you fry food items you burn up a lot of the nutrients as compared to grilling it. Add to that the fact that you’re adding a very poorly nutrient dense batter for the coating, and those fried chicken tenders are NOT a high-quality food item.
But let’s take that a step further.
Let’s say you’re out at a restaurant that doesn’t really have many high-quality food choices, so you’re left with the following 2 choices:
Fried Chicken Tenders vs. Mozzarella Sticks with Marinara
2 fried foods, which means a lot of nutrients have been fried away…
But as a coach, I coach my clients to make the best possible choice; therefore, the fried chicken tenders would make the best possible choice because the tenders will still retain some nutrients in the protein.
The Calorie Game isn’t THAT hard.
It’s about selecting the foods that provide the MOST nutrients in a situation.
Once you’re able to do that so well that it nearly becomes instinctive, then we can look at the portion sizes and amounts.
The Type & Amount of Calories Determine Our Body Composition
Speaking of portion sizes and amounts, here we are!
Calories provide our body with energy and nutrients, but that’s not what you care most about…
No, you care about how calories influence the way you look.
So, let’s explain exactly how that relationship works:
This means your weight isn’t going up or down or does so in a negligible way.
In order to achieve weight maintenance, you need to balance the calories IN and the calories OUT.
The calories IN are calories you put into your body through food, beverages, supplements, etc.
The calories OUT are the calories or energy burned from exercise, day-to-day activity, and bodily processes required to keep you alive.
When you are maintaining your weight, it means that the calories you are taking in are evenly balanced or matching the calories you burn.
This means your weight is going UP and that you’re adding mass or size.
In order to gain weight, you need to shift the calories in versus calories out relationship to favor the calories going IN.
There are 2 ways to achieve this:
- You take in more calories (AKA eat more)
- You don’t burn as many calories (AKA exercise or do less).
If you look at the traditional American diet, it’s no surprise weight gain has become an issue.
Meal sizes are larger than ever AND we’re more sedentary than ever before, which means we’re hitting on both ways to achieve weight gain.
Weight Loss (AKA what you’re really here for)
This means your weight is going DOWN and that you’re decreasing size and body fat percentage.
In order to lose weight, you need to shift the calories in versus calories out relationship to favor the calories going OUT.
Again, there are 2 ways to achieve this:
- You take in fewer calories (AKA eat less)
- You burn more calories (AKA exercise or do more).
Now, it should be noted that the quality of the calories put in CAN impact one’s ability to maintain, lose, or gain weight.
Low quality foods can lead to inflammation, bloating, and water retention, which means you might think you have the right balance or ratio of calories in versus out, when in reality it’s just a result of the quality of the calorie.
What Are Some Important Notes About Calories?
Okay, so you get it – calories matter, but what else do you need to know in order to get the most out of the calories you eat, stay one big, energized machine, and lose body fat?
Here the 5 most important things about calories in my opinion:
#1 The Amount Does NOT Determine the Quality
This was briefly touched on earlier, but it needs to be restated.
The quality of a food is NOT determined by the number of calories in it.
Does it matter?
But here’s an example of how that comes to light:
If I eat 1 serving of Double Stuffed Oreos that’s 2 cookies and 140 calories.
If I eat 1 serving of lightly salted Blue Diamond Almonds that’s 28 almonds and 170 calories.
Now, in the assumption that you’ve been around the dieting world and attempted fat loss a few times before, it’s no brainer that the almonds are the higher quality choice.
The food quality game cannot be determined on calories alone.
The number of calories in a food item does inform you the amount of energy you’re taking into the body, BUT it does not give any insight into the vitamin, mineral, and fiber density to any food item.
#2 Calories Are ALWAYS King
Then there’s this…
Calories may not determine a food item’s QUALITY; however, calories are ALWAYS king in the fat loss game.
Let’s use the Oreo vs. Almond example again.
It you have 150 calories left in your nutritional plan for the day, those Oreos will actually fit into your caloric intake BETTER than the almonds.
Now, it should be noted that this is a bit of an exaggeration as we’re never 100% certain the number of calories in any given food item, so a 30-calorie difference in a day isn’t going to make or break your fat loss for the week. (In all honesty, the caloric difference between these 2 items is completely negligible, but it was the snack choice I had to make while writing this blog.)
At the end of the day and week, what matters most in fat loss is that the Calories In vs. Calories Out scale was tipped to favor a higher caloric output.
Could you eat ALL Double-Stuffed Oreos, hit your caloric deficit goal, and lose weight?
Would you feel like absolute trash because of it and probably miss out on being your LEANEST physique?
Absolutely (This is coming from a MAJOR Oreo lover too).
The overall reason this takes place is because CALORIES ARE KING, and if that relationship is in check (while not entirely recommended), you can see the fat loss results you desire.
#3 Basal Metabolic Rate & Maintenance Level Calories are #1
Please don’t skip over this section just because you don’t know what a Basal Metabolic Rate is and because you saw the word “maintenance” in the title.
I understand you want fat loss, but knowing these 2 numbers might be the SECRET TO YOUR LONG-TERM FAT LOSS RESULTS.
First, let’s take care of some explanations.
According to Oxford Language, basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the rate at which the body uses energy while at rest to keep vital functions going.
According to Jordan Davies Language, basal metabolic rate is the number of calories your body needs to stay alive while doing nothing more than lying in bed all day.
It quite literally is the number of calories your body needs to breathe, stay warm, keep up with bodily processes, manage involuntary muscle contractions, and THINK.
Your BMR is calculated from your weight, height, age, and biological sex.
It takes all the straight facts about you and puts them through an incredibly dense equation to provide you the number needed to live.
The problem in today’s society is that BMR is grossly misunderstood and neglected, as too many people are eating for fat loss BELOW their BMR. In doing so, your body is so significantly underfed that at some point it will not be able to support fat loss because its #1 goal becomes survival.
So, before we move on, I want you to give you a clearer picture on BMR.
As a 165#, 5’6, 28-year-old female my BMR is 1,537 calories.
“But I’m older.”
“I’m not fit like you.”
Sure, I understand that, but that doesn’t mean you need to eat 1,000 calories per day for fat loss.
If you kept my weight, height, and sex the same, I’d have to be OVER 130 years old to have a BMR of 1,000 calories.
Now, let’s manipulate the weight.
I’d have to be 60# to have a BMR under 1,100 calories! (That’s like my right leg?).
Now, for a more realistic understanding.
Let’s take a 150#, 5’5”, 45-year-old female.
Her BMR is 1,385 calories.
And before we wrap this up, age is the only thing bringing your BMR down, so if you’re taller or heavier than this example, you can expect your BMR to be higher…=
#4 Online Calculators & Apps are CRAP
Talking BMR gets me pretty fired up, but not quite like talking about online apps and calculators that calculate calories and macros.
Those things are bullshit.
Can I say that?
Of course I can, this is my blog where I speak the truth about fitness and nutrition.
I can’t deny that they’ve improved in recent years, but so many of these apps and calculators are STILL crap.
It’s because they don’t take into account ANY of your individual characteristics.
Now, I LOVE MyFitnessPal, I recommend it to ALL of my clients for easy menu and diary sharing, but let’s take a look at how it determines your calories and macros.
It asks for your current weight, your goal weight, your weekly goal, and your activity level.
Here are some of my issues with their intake process:
- There’s no consultation or guidance on whether or not your goal weight is realistic for you.
- There’s no consideration of height.
- There’s no guidance on a weekly goal in determining what’s realistic for you (If you’ve gone about this process, I’m sure it’s set for lose 2#/week because it’s either the default or you’ve locked it there because you’re desperate for results).
- Your activity level is totally up for interpretation as there are no qualifying metrics to determine what is active.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of my feelings around its use of a default setting for determining your macronutrient goals.
Look, I wouldn’t recommend any other free app to my clients, but I do believe it’s important for you to understand just how inaccurate and lacking in individualization these online calculators and apps are.
#5 Less Is Not Always More
I’m coming down off my heat from talking BMR and online calculators/apps AND this could be the topic for an entirely separate blog, but it is something I cannot ignore.
Less is NOT always more.
Yes, taking fewer calories in and burning more calories leads to fat loss.
However, at some point your body says “enough is enough.”
Once you dip into BMR range, you’re just putting your health in jeopardy as you’re running the risk of doing some serious damage to your GI, brain functioning, hormonal health, muscular profile, and SO MUCH MORE.
Then there’s something to be said about the fact that it may not be you needing to eat less calories at all to eat less results.
You might need to look at things like:
- Food Quality
- Stress Levels
- Bodily Recovery
- Lifestyle Choices
- Macronutrient Make Up
That list isn’t all-inclusive, but it’s important you look at these things before you start slashing more calories from your diet.
About The Author
Jordan Davies is the Co-Owner of Complete Performance. Jordan has her B.S. in Exercise Science and Psychology, and her M.A. in Holistic Health Studies. She is a CSCS certified strength and conditioning coach, and a PN-1 and NCI-1 certified nutrition coach. She loves to study how the human body needs to be moved and nourished and making that fit to your unique lifestyle. Click Here Now to Apply for Coaching with Jordan.