Calories: What They Are and Everything You Need to Know About Them

numbersThe amount of calories you eat in a day, along with the amount of calories you burn, directly relates to the shape you’re in.

The word “calories” is one you need to know more about if you want to get in and stay in shape. A calorie is a unit of energy. Calories are consumed by eating, and are used or burned through physical activity. The more you eat, the more calories you take in. The more active you are, the more calories you use up. Pretty simple, right? Well, there are some other important things about calories you need to know.

Why Do I Need Calories?

Many people mistakenly give calories a bad rap as being “bad for you”, because calories are what make you put on weight – but that’s only when you’re taking in excess calories. In fact, your body needs calories in order to survive. Calories give your body energy and without them, you wouldn’t be able to live. So, learn to appreciate calories.

So How Many Calories Am I Supposed to Eat?

Once you understand that the number of calories (along with those burned) account significantly for your weight, your first question is probably “Well, how many calories am I supposed to eat then?” The answer to this is not a simple one, because it can be different for everyone. Each person is different, your fitness goal may be different from someone else’s, and you may be more or less physically active than someone else. These factors mean the number of calories you should be taking in through the day is greatly varied from your brother’s or friend’s. When you don’t track your calories is when you will end up losing or gaining weight, so you can either skip it and keep getting frustrated, or you can track your calories and meet your fitness goals.

The first step to determining your number is figuring out your BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate. In the simplest terms, this is the rate of energy expenditure of your body at rest. In other words, it’s how fast your body burns fat when you’re not working out. Many factors affect this calculation, including your sex, age, height, and weight.

Once you know your BMR, you can determine your calorie maintenance level (how many calories a day you need to consume in order to stay at your current weight) by multiplying your BMR by the appropriate activity factor, which is dependent on how active you are through the week:

    Sedentary (little to no exercise through week) – 1.2

    Lightly Active (1-3 days of exercise through week) – 1.375

    Moderately Active (3-5 days of exercise through week) – 1.55

    Very Active (6-7 days of exercise through week) – 1.725

    Extra Active (2x training 6-7 days of exercise through week) – 1.9

You can also use a TDEE calculator to help you easily determine your calorie maintenance level.

If you want to lose weight (you should aim to lose about 1 pound a week in order to lose weight safely) you need to consume 3500 fewer calories than you burn through the week. So if your daily calorie limit is 2000 calories (just for example), you need to consume no more than 1500 calories each day in order to lose 1 pound per week (500 fewer calories per day x 7 days in the week = 3500). Of course this is only a calculation, but it’s the ONLY surefire way of losing weight.

On the other hand, if you want to gain weight, you need a caloric surplus instead, so you’re taking in more calories than you’re burning each day. The aim of a caloric surplus is to maximize muscle gains and minimize fat gains. You want to take in enough extra calories to build muscle effectively, but not take in so many calories that you’re putting on extra fat as well. Although again, the exact calculation can vary based on your own personal factors, the ideal caloric surplus for men is around 250 calories per day, and for women only 125 per day. With a daily calorie limit of 2000 calories (remember, just for example) you would need to consume 2250 calories per day if you’re a man, and 2125 calories per day if you’re a woman. And if you’re happy with the weight you’re at, you simply consume your daily calorie limit without going under or over. The easiest math you’ve ever done, right?

Just remember that no matter which calculator you use, the only truly accurate way of determining your calorie maintenance level is by figuring it out for yourself. Use this information and a TDEE calculator to give yourself the best guess of what your number is, and then track your weight for the next couple of weeks, following with your fitness goals in mind. So if according to the calculators and your personal information you think your calorie maintenance level (how many calories you need in a day to maintain your current weight) is 2200 (just as an example) and you know you are eating 2200 calories a day, but you monitor your weight and see that you are losing weight each week, you know that your calorie maintenance level is actually higher than 2200. So all you need to do is add 100 calories each day, so you’re now taking in 2300 calories a day, and keep at it for a couple of weeks. If you’re still losing weight, you know to add another 100, and if you’re staying at the same weight, you know you’ve found your true calorie maintenance level. This works the other way around too, if you’re gaining weight, just knock 100 calories off your daily total, and continue until you’re staying at the same weight.

Keep in mind that as you lose or gain weight, your calorie maintenance level may change as well. It may sound a bit tricky, but this is probably the most valuable information you need to know, regardless of whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your current weight.

The Importance of Counting Calories

It’s important to realize just how easy calories add up. When I first started eating healthy, I figured as long as I was eating healthy foods, I could pretty much eat whatever I want. WRONG. Even just two of my favourite whole wheat protein pancakes (even though there are only fabulous, nutritious ingredients in them) have a whopping 440 calories, which is way more than I expected. That’s when I started counting calories and realized how important it was. Calories add up so fast, even when you’re sticking with healthy, wholesome foods like you should be, and especially if you’re trying to lose weight, you’re not going to have much luck if you’re taking in too many calories through the day.

If you don’t want to keep track yourself, I recommend My Fitness Pal. It only takes a couple of seconds to sign up – they just need your basic information including your email, height, weight, etc. – and you’re ready to go. It makes it so simple to keep track of the calories you’re burning each day, as well as your calorie intake, so you can make progress and get the results you want. With one of the largest food databases in the world, it’s easy to find pretty much any food and find out the amount of calories per serving. Instead of trying to do the measurements yourself, My Fitness Pal helps take the work out of counting calories for you, so you always get the most accurate measurements and can spend that extra time you have on planning your meals and keeping up with your workouts. I also like it because it keeps everything really organized for you, and it’s proof of everything you’re doing through the day. Be honest, use it properly, and it will help you get the results you want.Plus, if there are things you eat every day, like me and my trusty protein powder, it’s easy to copy it from one day to the next, saving you even more time and hassle.

Keep track of everything you eat and drink. (Water has no calories, but you can still keep track of it if you want to ensure you’re staying hydrated by drinking enough water each day). That includes any dips, toppings, and sides you eat through the day. Even the smallest, most seemingly harmless foods can pack a real punch in terms of calorie in take, so do it right and track everything if you want results. Don’t cheat, because you’ll only be cheating yourself. It’s amazing how quickly calories add up, and if you want to stay on track and make progress, you need to be aware of how much you’re eating through the day (and not just recording what you feel like recording – just so you know, even if you don’t write it down, if you ate it, you ate it, which means adding on to calorie intake for the day, so no matter how hard you may not want it to be, that’s a fact.

Not only is tracking your macros the best way of ensuring you make the fitness progress you want, but it also helps make you more educated and informed. You learn more about the different types of foods, the macros in them, what they give your body, and how to plan out your days so you’re getting enough of everything you need. You really start to appreciate food more than ever, and understand how amazing and incredible the human body really is. You will likely be amazed at just how much food you can eat when you take time to plan and track everything. It’s not a pain, it’s actually a blessing. Don’t ever think even when you’re on a caloric deficit that you’re going to be stuck eating crumbs through the day because it won’t be like that at all. Also remember the more active you are, the more exercise you get in each day, the higher your calorie maintenance level ends up being, and therefore the more calories you need each day (or in other words, the more you get to eat).

The idea of “counting calories” is one that is certainly nothing new. You don’t have to do this, everyone has their own methods and ideas, but in my opinion it’s one of the most important things to do if you want to get in shape.

The Paleo Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Weight Watchers Diet – there are so many different “diets” out there you could try. The thing is – if you’re taking in too many calories through the day, you WON’T lose weight. It’s as simple as that. Once you realize that, it’s easy to see how pointless following any of these diets really is. Save yourself the money, time and hassle, (not to mention the disappointment you feel when it doesn’t work) and do it the simple way. The right way. Keep track of the calories you’re consuming and using through the day, and adjust your daily calorie intake as needed.

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