What Exactly IS a Calorie and Why You Should Count Them (Not Sheep)?

If I asked you to define what a calorie was, could you?

It’s amazing to me how prevalent the word is in our culture and yet diets and doctors often don’t explain what it is and how it is used in the body. We have “zero calorie” foods, “low-cal” foods, and we are told that we are all supposed to eat 2000 calories a day. We are ruled by it, but we are also uneducated about it.

Calorie – Noun

  • Small calorie (abbr: cal) The energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius.
  • Large calorie (abbr: Cal) The energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree celsius.

The second is the Calorie that is on all the boxes of our food and how we measure bodily energy. Essentially by processing these calories through digestion our body creates energy that is either used throughout the day or stored as muscle or fat.

The average human needs 2000 calories a day to have enough energy to function without extra storage, but that also means that there are many people who need less than that and many people who need more. It can be difficult to figure out what your number is since all bodies are not created equal, but the more active you are, the more you need. If you’re taller, male, or younger, odds are you need more than your shorter, female, older counter parts.

To lose weight or gain mass, you need to consume less or more than your metabolism uses in a day. This is why people count calories. It is a way to track your eating habits and make sure that they are in line with your goals. It might be mundane and time-consuming, but it’s the most accurate way to see how much you are eating on a daily basis. Meal-tracking is a good habit to develop when getting into fitness, as it is a constant reminder to pay attention to what you are putting in your mouth.

My favorite way to track my calories is through MyFitnessPal. It is a user-friendly app that allows you to track the foods you are eating at each meal through manual entries or bar code scanning. It also allows you to set weight and nutrient goals for yourself and offers easy access to charts showing your progress. However, MyFitnessPal is only as accurate as you make it. If you only eyeball measurements or skip tracking meals all together, you will never get a truly clear picture of your dietary habits. Thus, my advice is to be completely honest with yourself and use measuring cups or a scale in order to get an accurate amount that you are eating. Because let’s be real, no one ever just eats one serving of cereal or ice cream.

I say this because when I first started counting my calories years ago, I was surprised to find that I was eating about 500 calories over what I thought I was getting in a day. It was an eye-opener, and it suddenly made sense to me why I hadn’t made as much progress towards my goals as I had wanted. I can’t stress enough that it’s a great tool for beginners.

Do I still count calories to this day? Sometimes. After doing it for so long, you tend to get a pretty good idea of what to aim for and what portion sizes actually look like. When I first started tracking, I did so for three months. Once I felt like I understood proper portions and nutrients, I started eating intuitively. To this day, I cycle between eating intuitively and tracking calories, usually three months at a time. I find that after a few months of eating intuitively, I start getting a little more lax in my eating and use tracking to reset myself.

If you are looking to lose fat or gain muscle, it should be done slowly and at a pace that is healthy. If you are looking to gain muscle, you should aim for a surplus of 250 calories a day of quality, high-protein, whole foods. This will result in a half a pound of mass gain a week. If you are looking to lose fat, you should aim for a decrease of 500 calories a day, while still eating whole, healthy foods. This will result in a pound a week loss. Both of these are maintainable ways to change your physique.

Never attempt to eat below 1200 calories on a regular basis to lose weight faster. People who consume under this amount consistently put their body into a “starvation state”, where their body believes that they are truly starving and holds on to all of its fat stores for protection. Thus, when people crash diet, their body prefers to burn muscle as energy rather than fat. So while they may lose ten pounds quickly, most of it will be muscle mass and water weight.

Changing your body doesn’t happen over night. It’s not something that you can only do in the short-term and expect it to last forever. It takes determination, perseverance, and discipline. And it takes a plan that can be followed for life.

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