Not all calories are created equal!! Negative calories! Not all calories count! Such a jumble of instructions and information. Let's slow everything down and take a look at what calories mean and talk about why they are important. Once you have a good grasp of what calories are, how many you need, and some basic comprehension of how your body works, it will be a lot easier to understand why a lot of these claims are garbage, why a lot of guidelines are extreme and unnecessary and where a lot of these weird myths come from. So let's get started.
So What is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of measure of energy. That is IT. It is the amount of energy required to raise 1 g of water by 1 degree at 1 atm pressure. Saying "good calorie/bad calorie" is like saying "good centimeter/bad centimeter" or "not all degrees Celsius are created equal". It makes no sense. Saying "some calories "don't count" is like saying the elevator won't drop if it's over the weight limit because "some pounds don't count". It is JUST a unit of measurement of energy. There is no mystery around it. Now the nutritious value of a food IS a valid concern, but that is a completely separate issue. So for starters, let's be clear - the energy measurement of a meal and its nutrient density are two completely different things. Not all nutrient-dense foods are low in calories (looking at you avocado, you delicious bastard), and not all nutrient-void foods are high in calories. These words also do not make ANY of these foods "good or evil", but that is a topic for another post.
Hundreds of studies, years of research and the conclusion is always the same - thermodynamics are KING. Eat in a caloric deficit and you will lose weight... eat in a caloric surplus and you will gain weight. Easy right?
Well... not quite. How many times have you heard people complain that "calorie counting doesn't work"... "I eat 700 calories a day and I'm gaining weight"... "I have a horrible metabolism". I am also guilty of going through a phase where I was SURE something was clinically wrong with me. There HAD to be. I was eating whole unprocessed foods... I haven't had bread for 2 years... I was training my butt off doing 8-9 workouts per week... And my weight stayed the same AT BEST. What the hell was happening? There are multiple issues that people don't consider when counting calories.
You are not tracking accurately.
Happens to the best of us. People who have trouble "gaining weight" persistently over report how much they eat, people who have trouble losing weight under report. Unless you are in a clinical setting and someone is giving you the food, chances are there have been times when you have been erring on the side of what's comfortable. That. Is. Normal. It does not make you a bad person, just a normal human being. Accept that there might have been times when this happened and move on. The solution is simple. Weigh/measure and track every morsel that goes into your mouth. No exception. Do this for a few days and you will see the real numbers. Better yet have someone else do this for you for a couple of days and hand you the food servings to get a more accurate idea - we are our own worst enemies with this stuff.
The best online calculator will NOT tell you how much YOU need to be in a surplus or a deficit.
The online calculators to calculate your daily calorie needs do not know you. Stop thinking they do! These are a ROUGH ESTIMATE. Now, they ARE a GREAT starting point. But it is just so you have a BASELINE. If you are using these numbers and are not getting the results you want, don't blindly persist and say "no THAT IS MY CALORIE REQUIREMENT TO LOSE WEIGHT I DON'T CARE THAT I HAVE MAINTAINED MY WEIGHT FOR 5 MONTHS ON IT", clearly, it is not. If you are consistently maintaining your weight, BY DEFINITION you are in maintenance. Not a deficit. So you HAVE to adjust your intake.
You know what's much worse?
The calories you require on a daily basis... fluctuate EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
Because your daily caloric needs are a combination of your
Basal Metabolic Rate/BMR (bare minimum to keep you alive. This is a fairly stable number that is proportional to your weight)
Exercise Expenditure (EAT) (calories you burn off at the gym... which is SOO painfully fewer than you think. Even if your Garmin tells you otherwise)
NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) - your daily walk around life. Taking the stairs, scratching your back... the "everything else" apart from the other 3.
TEF - the thermic effect of food - energy required for digestion, makes up approximately 10% of daily energy expenditure. (Image from Trexler and Norton, 2014)
Now your BMR is pretty consistent and those online calculators come pretty darn close... TEF doesn't fluctuate much either and is dictated by the macros ingested. The other 2 factors are a complete gong show and where most people go astray with their assumptions:
Your exercise expenditure is a LOT LESS than even the most accurate HR monitor will tell you. The technology is not magic, and this is a harsh reality check... but eating those calories back is the number 1 reason (apart from poor tracking) why people "maintain/gain" when they are convinced they should be losing. To make matters worse - the fitter you get, the more efficient your body becomes at doing the exercise... (yay progress)... and the fewer calories you burn doing it (dammit). So do not eat back exercise calories.
Now "NEAT" is even worse - some days you are just more active and some days you are less active... and here is where things get even more tricky - when you are in a caloric deficit... your body undergoes some metabolic adaptation. Not DAMAGE... ADAPTATION. Subtle things you might not notice... feeling a little more chilly than normal? Feeling a tad more sluggish getting off the couch? A little less bounce in your step? Your body will TRY to conserve some energy if it is feeling a lack of energy input... that is FINE. It will obviously not go for your organs... so it will try to make little changes to drop your requirements with other tiny changes. Tiny changes that ADD UP. The deeper you go into weight loss... the more you feel these effects.
"Well with all these changes... what am I supposed to do? What's the point of counting?"
Because although the body is in CONSTANT flux... there are still overall trends. But these trends take time to figure out. I know this is not a sexy solution... but the only way to figure out how many calories YOU need is trial and error. Use the calculator... pick a starting point.... stick to those numbers for at least 3 weeks and see what happens. Are you losing/gaining/maintaining? Go from there. Try again... and again... and again... to consistently and sustainably get the results you want.
A good starting point is taking your current body weight in pounds and multiplying it by 12.5-14 (depending on your average daily activity). This might not sound overly accurate, but NO approximation is. This is a STARTING POINT. Treat it as such.
"Screw that. I will just checkmate my body, eat 1000 calories because I KNOW that is a deficit and lose weight".
This is how crash diets work. (apart from the ones that just have you drop water). Be forewarned, the more aggressive your approach... the less you will get the result that you want. First of all, this is not sustainable, so the rebound and weight regain is on the horizon. Second of all, with such a harsh drop you are going to be seeing loss of muscle mass... which will give you that wonderful skinny fat look... and third of all... well... why make yourself miserable? Doing cycles of this type of thing makes you feel like crap... physically and emotionally. People waste YEARS doing these cycles... YEARS. Each cycle seems short but what you are doing to your body in the long run is creating a bad result. Remember - the long road is the fastest road. Blindly chasing short term goals destroys long term success.
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