Calories – let’s break it down
A calorie is a unit of heat used to indicate the amount of energy that food will produce in the human body. Say what? A simpler definition for a calorie is the amount of energy required to warm one gram of water one degree Celsius. Didn’t really help much?
Calories are units of energy, plain and simple. All foods have units of energy – a caloric value. Our bodies burn calories to create energy for thinking, moving, organ function, body repair. Let’s put it into perspective. When we are gaining weight we are consuming more units of energy (calories) than we are burning. We have a surplus of energy. Since our bodies are miraculous and brilliant, the body stores it as fat for later use so that if we should ever be in a ‘fast/starvation’ situation or at a deficit, we could survive.
If we are maintaining your weight, you have created a balance of energy units (calories) being consumed and calories you are ‘burning.’ If our goal is to lose weight, we must create a deficit – we must burn more than we are consuming. Here’s the tricky part. Our bodies are built to withstand a deficit which the body sees as a starvation period even though you are clearly not starving it.
To trick the body into allowing us to burn some ‘emergency’ fat storage, you need to gradually decrease the number of calories (or units of energy) being consumed. If you go from eating 2500 calories to 1200 calories, your body will see this as an emergency situation, freak out and store more ‘emergency’ energy units. The body doesn’t realize we are in the 21st Century and not in the Middle Ages.
How do you know how many calories you need each day?
This number is not an exact science and everyone is different. Don’t assume you need the same amount as your spouse, your sister/brother, cousin, uncle or best friend. This magical number is a product of a large variety of what makes us unique: genetics, muscular build, age, gender, physical efficiency, job, medical history, activity level now and in the past; the list goes on and on.
You can reach out to a health professional, who will ask you a bunch of questions and provide you with a caloric range designed for you, but you can do this at home as well. Start by asking yourself a few questions.
Are you losing, maintaining or gaining weight?
- If you are losing and want to lose – continue doing exactly what you are doing (unless you are losing more than 5 lbs per week – that’s not good and you need to increase calorie intake by a little bit).
- You are maintaining, but want to lose or gain – increase or decrease calorie intake (eat more or less).
- If you are gaining and don’t want to be gaining, cut back on a few meals per day.
- If you begin to gain and don’t want to, try not to have a knee jerk reaction and cut out too much food, it will send your body into that “emergency situation” where the body will burn organs and muscle but store more fat! You have other options. I love the options.
Let’s just say you like your food and prefer not to mess with it – you eat how you eat and that’s that. Fine. Option 2: You can create a surplus or deficit of calories (energy units) by adding exercise into your day. Then there is Option 3 which I believe is the most balanced option for achieving long-term weight loss & healthy lifestyles. Create a deficit of energy units by a combination of increased activity and decreased calorie (energy unit) intake.
Why do I think this is the best?
To lose 1 pound of fat you need a deficit of 3500 calories per week. That is a 500 calorie deficit per day. If I cut out 500 calories just using the calorie intake, I would have to cut out a whole meal or two, depending on the size of my meals – that’s a lot. With option 2 I would have to walk/jog over 5 miles or 2-2.5 hours of group exercise classes. That is a huge time commitment on top of kids, work, chores, etc. Option 3 is to split the 500 – eat 250 calories less and burn 250 calories more. This is equal to about out one snack or eating smaller portions at one meal and adding in a 2.5 mile walk/jog or 10-15 minutes of body-weighted squats.
Wow, that’s a lot of info. So where do you begin? Let’s break it down.
1. Keep a food journal. Journal-ing is one of the best ways to observe your habits so you know where to make changes. Write down everything that you eat and drink for 4-7 days; it is also good to include any exercise you do too. There are calorie counters apps on our smartphones too.
2. Are you losing, maintaining or gaining weight? Make the necessary adjustments based on your goals.
3. Tune out all outside advice, criticism and negative chatter.
4. When in doubt – seek advice from a professional.