Lifestyle, Nutrition

What Are Calories?

Understanding what calories are and how they impact your body is an important part of achieving your health and fitness goals. Let’s dive in and discover the basic facts and how you can use calories to your advantage for weight loss, muscle gain or whatever your goal may be.

Calories - Basic Facts

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.

Calories And 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.

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 when you wish to achieve your goal by. 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.

1kg of body fat is equivalent to roughly 7,700 calories. So in order to lose 1kg of body fat per week, you would need to be in a calorie deficit of 1,100 calories each day for 7 days. As your weight drops, your daily calorie needs will also decrease which would make such a large deficit harder to maintain.

The average TDEE is around 2000 calories. A calorie deficit of 1100 calories would represent quite a huge reduction in energy intake by comparison, and could impact your ability to function dramatically.

Aiming to lose around 500g per week would require a calorie deficit of 550 per day, which is a much more sustainable goal.

Where Should My Calories Come From?

When it comes to losing body fat, a great place to start is by taking care of the foods that you eat, making sure that they are healthy and nutrient dense. However, the thing that will have the greatest impact on whether or not you lose weight will still be your calorie intake.

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, thus kicking you out of a calorie deficit.

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.

As a general guide to maintaining a healthy system, your calorie breakdown could look something like this:

  • 10% to 35% protein
  • 45% to 65% carbohydrates
  • 20% to 35% 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 and when you want to achieve your goals by.

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 breakdown of how they should look:

  • 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.

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 getting the desired effect.

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.