Lifestyle, Nutrition

What Are Calories And How Do I Count Them?

Understanding what calories are and how they affect your body is the key to achieving your health and fitness goals. By identifying the calories that you are consuming, and tracking them in accordance with your goal, you set yourself up with every chance of success.

A calorie is a unit of energy. It describes the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

In terms of the foods we eat, calories provide energy in the form of heat so that our bodies can function properly, even while resting. We need to consume a certain amount of calories each day to sustain life.

The total number of calories that you burn each day is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

Things that contribute to this are calories burned through movement (exercise included), calories burned during digestion (called the thermic effect of food) and the calories used to maintain your basic bodily functions, such as your heartbeat and breathing.

There are calculators that you can use to find out this number. First step is to calculate your resting metabolic rate, which is the base number of calories that you burn to stay alive. Then you can add in a rough estimate of how much you exercise to find out your TDEE.

How Calories Affect Your Weight

Your daily calorie needs depend on your age, body size and how active you are each day, with the average number being around 2000 calories. The bigger you are, the more calories you will need to maintain that weight.

If you want to gain weight, you need to consume more calories than your total daily expenditure. Not surprisingly, if you want to lose weight, you need to consume less calories than what you use in a day.

Calories and Weight Loss

If you eat less calories than you burn in a day, you create a calorie deficit. For example, if your body uses 2000 calories today but you only ate 1800, you are in a deficit of 200 calories.

Similarly, if you at 2000 calories but you spent an hour at the gym and ended up buring 2500 calories that day, you are in a deficit of 500 calories.

When you are in a deficit, your body has to make up the difference by taking energy from sources other than what you’ve eaten. In the case of weight loss, you want your body to be using your body fat for energy.

The amount of calories that you would need to reduce in order to lose weight will depend on your age, height, gender, activity level and the time frame that you are working to.

Once you know your TDEE, you can begin reducing your daily calories in relation to this. The greater your calorie deficit, the faster you will lose weight.

It’s important not to push yourself too hard to lose weight in a short span of time. Drastically cutting calories can be quite dangerous for your health, as it can lead to nutrient deficiencies and can greatly reduce your capability to function.

Restricting too many calories can also result in unhealthy weight loss where your body will begin to destroy muscle tissue instead of fat!

1kg of body fat is equivalent to roughly 7,700 calories. So in order to lose 1kg of body fat in a week, you would need to be in a calorie deficit of 1,100 calories each day for 7 days.

You can go about this in two ways – either you eat less food or exercise more so that you burn more calories.

A balanced approach is the most sustainable option as you don’t want to rely on exercising to the point of exhaustion every day, nor do you want to have to constantly starve yourself.

By getting a rough estimate of how many calories you are burning each day in the gym in a sustainable way, you can taper down your consumption of calories so that you are eating enough quality nutrition to fuel your workouts without going to extremes.

Where Should My Calories Come From?

When it comes to your food, all calories are not created equal. Take broccoli for example. Four cups of broccoli have 100 calories, which is the same as a medium sized doughnut. Now, the broccoli is packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals, whereas the doughnut is largely made from refined carbs and fats.

Imagine sitting down and eating four cups of broccoli. It would take you a good 15 minutes to eat and afterwards you’d be feeling pretty full, compared to finishing a doughnut in a couple of minutes and still feeling hungry afterwards.

Calories from foods that are rich in fibre help to keep you feeling fuller and satisfied for longer, which helps to avoid the temptation to over eat.

Calories from protein are beneficial in building and maintaining lean muscle. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn simply through your daily activities as your resting metabolic rate will be higher.

Complex carbohydrates help to put energy in to your muscles before and after exercise to help you train at your best and recover quickly. They also provide fuel for your brain and essential vitamins, minerals and fibre.

Healthy fats are beneficial at providing sustained energy and reducing inflammation, as well as helping to lower cholesterol and reducing any food cravings that you might be having.

As a general guide to weight loss, your calorie breakdown could look something like this:

  • 20% to 35% protein
  • 35% to 55% carbohydrates
  • 15% to 30% fat

Calories And Muscle Gain

Weight gain occurs when you are consistently in a calorie surplus, consuming more calories than you need each day. When it comes to building lean muscle mass, it is important to consider the types of calories you are consuming as well as the overall number.

The exact amount of calories you need to eat to gain muscle will depend on how you train and where your starting point is.

There are a number of online calculators to help you dial in the exact number you should be aiming for, based on where you are starting from your timeframe for success.

Generally speaking, we associate overeating with gaining body fat. For the purposes of muscle gain, we want to try and make sure that we are using the extra calories to build muscle as much as possible.

The way to do this is through paying attention to the ratio of macronutrients that you are eating – protein, carbs and fats.

Each macronutrient has a different caloric value attached to it. Fats have a higher caloric value, with 1 gram of fat providing 9 calories in energy. Protein and carbs have a lower value, giving you 4 calories per gram.

Here is a general guide around how much of each to consume:

  • 1-2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight
    • The average recommended intake would be 1 gram of protein for most people who are starting out, increasing to 1.5 grams if you are more athletic and to 2 grams if you are really burning a lot of calories in the gym
    • For example, a 100kg adult would need between 100-200 grams of protein per day on a bulking diet.
  • 30% of calories from fat.
    • For example, if you need 3000 calories per day to bulk, 30% of these calories should come from fat.
      • (3000 x 0.30)/ 9 calories per gram = 100 grams of fat per day
  • Remaining calories from carbs.
    • Calculate your remaining calories by subtracting calories from protein and fat. Then divide by four to get your grams of carbs per day.
      • In the case of our 100kg adult consuming 2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight, they would nee roughly 325g of carbs per day.

How To Count Calories

Keeping a record of your daily calorie intake helps you to better understand what you are eating and how it is affecting your weight. Whatever your goal, knowing how many calories you are eating is key to achieving it.

One way to count your calories is by keeping a food diary and writing down everything you eat, then looking up each item's calorie count. Another option is to download an app that counts calories for you such as Myfitnesspal.

With SwoleFoods, keeping count of calories is as simple as scanning the barcode with your phone. The meal will automatically show up in Myfitnesspal, helping you to clearly see what you’ve eaten in a day and how it stacks up towards your health and fitness goals.