What Are Calories
While many people want to get into the nitty-gritty on calories like carb cycling, refeeds, intermittent fasting, diet fads, and everything in between, the vast majority of people would get the appropriate results by understanding the basics. If you find yourself trying to hack your way into weight loss with some craze you never tried before, thinking this will somehow be the secret answer but do not understand how to count calories, then you are looking at the wrong things.
I hate to break it to you but any diet or nutrition plan can work, so long as you know the basics and know what plan works best for your food preferences and schedule. For me, I am open to any nutrition plan but I also understand that not any one plan is bullet-proof or necessarily better than another as you can accomplish (or not meet) these goals no matter which route you take it. Really, it boils down to preferences, what you can stick to you, and knowing your goals.
To get a good understanding of what you’re eating, you should, at a minimum, know how to count your macros. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all macronutrients, which means they are required by the body to function properly. Yes, this does include carbohydrates, even though they get a bad rap. What is slightly different though is their calories differ per gram. Four calories are contained in one gram of carbohydrates and proteins but 9 calories are in fats. As a result, it is critical to keep track of how many grams of each macronutrient you consume in order to stay within your daily calorie allowance. This is something you should also know if you are going to make an effort to lose weight or maximize your calories for muscle gain or muscle retention while in a caloric deficit. An adjustment to any one of these macronutrients will have an effect on your total calorie consumption as well as how much you can eat of the other.
Tracking calories and knowing how they impact your daily caloric intake is the absolute best way to navigate your consumption. If you want other ways to attempt this, without tracking, read to the end.
How To Determine Your Caloric Intake
Carbohydrates 1g = 4 Calories
Proteins 1g = 4 Calories
Fats 1g = 9 Calories
Now that you understand how many calories are in one gram of a macronutrient, you can calculate this independently. Yes, you can make this easier by using a food calculator, which I recommend, but you should have a general understanding as a foundation.
Let’s use this breakfast example. If you were to consume; 2 eggs, and 2 pieces of toast (I will use Dave’d bread for my example, delicious and nutritious), with 1 tbsp of peanut butter on each piece, your caloric makeup would consist of the break-out below and this would equate to 589 calories. Here is what the caloric content specifically looks like.
Protein 30g (4 calories per gram)
Fat 29g (9 calories per gram)
Carbohydrates 52g (4 calories per gram)
So in a nutritional plan where we’ve determined the person’s Basal Metabolic Rate is 2210 Calories, they would have consumed approximately 27% of their daily needs in this meal.
Want to calculate your caloric needs? Go here
Why are Macros important?
Monitoring these simple nutrients determines if you are nutritionally working towards losing weight, gaining weight, or maintaining your current weight. If you do not know where you are starting or what you need to accomplish your goals, then how do you know what to do to get there? Saying you “eat well” or “I don’t eat badly” means different things to different people and the only way to know what you are consuming is by tracking it. Also, if these “eat well” and “I don’t eat bad” plans have not worked, then you need to be more in tune with what you are really consuming. I understand adding things up takes time and effort but if you continue to fail in meeting your fitness goals, you have to track what you are doing to know what changes must be made.
What Should You Count?
Everything except for water and black coffee! Yes, you heard me.
This is where most mistakes are made as the majority of people do not count liquid calories (this includes salad dressings), snacks, foods consumed on the weekend, cheat meals, and other little things. All of this adds up and some items have more calories than you think. If you consume something, you need to track it as they all contain calories. If you have tried to lose weight and have failed numerous times, the first thing I would look at for a client is a food journal and tracking absolutely everything, even that one Kit Kat bar you had for a snack – 218 calories!
How many calories do you need to lose or gain 1 pound?
It takes cutting, or adding, approximately 3500 calories from your diet, in a week, to lose 1 lb of body fat or to gain 1 lb. This can contribute to muscle gain if you strength train of course. So most people start by attempting to cut 500 calories per day, resulting in a 1 lb-a-week loss.
500 calories x 7 days = 3500 calories. Do you see how one cheat day or even a cheat meal (or 218-calorie kit kat bar) can blow up your progress?! The good news is you can load in snacks or a cheat meal by modifying what you consume the rest of the day. No, I am not saying starve yourself for an entire day just to eat that deep-dish pizza later. Starving yourself is not going to work and you can enjoy things you like, however, you do have to be mindful and smart about how you consume your calories. I love ice cream and if I know I am going to consume it after dinner, I can modify what I eat beforehand to accommodate the snack.
Different nutrition plans to try
There are so many options out there including; high-protein, low-carb, Keto, Carnivore, and many, many more. What works best is what is easier for you to follow and meet your goals. If you love carbs, a low-carb or Keto diet is just simply not going to work for you. That’s ok, all diets can work you just need to know what is best for you. You can learn more about some of these diets here.
Other options if you don’t want to count calories
While counting calories is your best bet to track your macros, there are other options you can try.
- 1. Consume; meats, vegetables, and fruits for your caloric needs. Eating wholesale and low to unprocessed foods is a great way to reduce caloric intake, meet micronutrient needs, and hit your fitness goals. This is a balanced meal approach.
- 2. Reduce or eliminate the foods you know you should stay away from. Candies, high-calorie drinks, alcohol, and a number of other things you know you should stay away from, outside of a once-in-awhile treat. While you are at it, stop grabbing candy and other things off desks in the office.
- 3. Increase your protein intake. Protein is essential to your body’s functioning and also critical for adding muscle and is your friend for losing weight and gaining muscle. Get more of it, no matter what nutrition plan you follow.
- 4. Only snack when you are actually hungry, not bored.
- 5. Have some healthier snack options available. I am not sure why only Little Debbies and cookies are considered snacks nowadays. Apples, bananas, and other fruits are great options that taste good.
- 6. Improve your grocery shopping skills and habit – here is an article on how to do just that.
- 7. Watch your Latte as many of these have significantly high carbs and sugars. Many are over 500 calories!
- 8. Ask for salad dressing on the side. While most dressings have good fats on them, pouring a full 4 ounces of dressing on adds significant calories. Only pour on what you need for some flavoring.
- 9. Drink a glass of water pre and during meals. Research has shown that increasing water intake is an effective way of increasing fullness, thus helping you reduce your total calorie intake.
- 9. Get adequate sleep. This is taken for granted, and shouldn’t as sleep has a dramatic effect on all of our bodily functions. Poor sleep messes with hormones, including those related to hunger.
While understanding macronutrients may at times feel like earning a master’s degree, understanding the basics can land you the results you are after. It does not have to be complicated and there are a large number of tools out there to help you and make it easier. If you have a better understanding of how calories work and add up, you will have a better idea of where you are today and what you have to change to get to where you want to be.