Do Calories Matter?
How many calories should you eat each day?
Will you wither up and blow away? Will you & your partner hit a rough patch because you're hangry if you don't eat every two hours?
Why do some folks continue to gain weight if they barely eat anything?
And why do some others eat their face off all day and seem to never gain a pound?
Oof, that's a lot of heavy questions, but it's merely the tip of the iceberg of the nutrition-related questions that are tossed around every day.
Here I'm going to answer some of these questions by providing a framework with which you can answer related questions in the future. After all, this stuff isn't rocket science. Learn and follow these basic principles and you'll be well equipped for the rest of your life!
Now let's get going!
In the basic terms, a calorie is simply a unit of energy.
The food you eat is made up of three macronutrients - protein, carbs, and fat. Both proteins and carbs provide the body with 4 calories/gram, while fats provide 9 calories/gram. Within each of these macronutrients we receive micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
So quick math lesson, if you were eating the following meal, how many calories would be consumed?
4(38)+4(50)+9(15) = 487 Calories
Now for the hard, uncomfortable truth:
The nutritional sciences field, almost every fitness influencer, and all the supplement companies out there would have you believe that if you want to lose weight, you should eat less than you currently do. If you want to gain weight, eat more! It's just math, right?
The trouble with the "calories in/calories out (CICO)" model is that it's based on the belief that the human body is a closed loop system.
Input Food -> Perfect reaction based on calories eaten vs. calories burned magically happens -> Goal Accomplished
Unfortunately, the body doesn't work like that. Here are a few other things happening inside the "black box" that is the human body:
BMR: Basal Metabolic Rate - the bare minimum number of calories you need to exist
NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis - This is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating, or structured exercise.
TEF: Thermal Effect of Feeding - It actually requires calories in order to ingest food. This is how many calories it takes to digest the food itself.
EEE: Exercise Energy Expenditure - This is the amount of energy someone uses during activity or structured exercise.
TDEE: Total Daily Energy Expenditure - All of the above combined together (BMR + NEAT + TEF + EEE)
Having said all that, there are still a lot of pieces still missing from that puzzle. Things like:
- Number of times you chew each bite (more is better, should be at least 20-30 chews per bite. Don't inhale it like I do sometimes!)
- Are you sitting down, in a calm state, with no distraction? (Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is very beneficial)
- Are you eating with friends or family? (believe it or not, this is a good thing)
- Are you part of the actual preparation of the food? (the more the better)
- Do you limit liquid intake to before and/or after the meal?
These may seem like strange things to account for when we're talking about what exactly you're putting in your face, but these all aid in the digestive process.
So you could have a seemingly perfect amount of calories, but if you slam them down the gullet while you sprint anxiously from one commitment to another, guess what's not happening? Digestion, absorption, and assimilation of all those accompanying micro- and macronutrients.
All of this, and we haven't even touched on the issues to the digestive process created by metabolic dysfunction, hormone disruption, autoimmune conditions, etc.
So what is counting calories good for? Not much. You're stepping over quarters to pick up pennies.
So don't worry about calories?
Yep. Don't worry about calories. Don't worry about how much you consume, or how much you burn. Don't look at your apple watch that says you burned 600 calories and then turn around and hit up Culver's. That's not the whole picture, and it doesn't work to make lasting change.
Instead, focus on things that move the needle more long term that are sustainable. That's why it's important to utilize the Basic Nutritional Guidelines: Food Hygiene, Water, Variety, and Meal Rhythms. We'll hit more on that next time, but here's a sneak peek: