What are calories?
Calories are quite simply a unit of measure of energy. If we are to get technical, a calorie is:
“The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere.”
Whilst this sounds really scientific and impressive, the main takeaway is that Calories are a measure of energy in food. Now, why is this important? Why do we care? Being aware of the calories in the food we eat, from day to day can be really important to ensuring we achieve our goals (no matter what your goal is). Quite often, the “calorie” is only considered important when dieting or looking to lose body fat. However it is just as important for Weight Gain, Maintenance and even Sports Performance. Different considerations need to be made for each goal, but the energy within food, and the source of that energy can be just as important for all goals.
Different sources of calories?
The concept of tracking your “macros” or macronutrients has become a very popular method for tracking the foods you eat, and this is largely down to the underlying calorific value of each macronutrient. Each macronutrient varies in the number of calories per gram:
Protein: 4 Kcal per gram
Carbohydrate: 4 Kcal per gram
Fat: 9 Kcal per gram
Alcohol: 7 Kcal per gram
This is important to know, as it ensures you are aware of the calorific value of certain foods which may be high/low in certain macronutrients. It is also important to recognise that this is a broad look at the calorie – you can delve deeper into fluctuating calories from different macronutrients.
How does knowing about calories help me towards my goals?
Before going into how it helps each and every goal, I think it’s important to be aware of Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) this is the number of calories it takes to sustain human life. It is different for each and every person, as it can be impacted by sex, lean body mass and age.
Knowing how many calories it takes for you to sustain your body is really important for working out how many calories you need to consume to achieve your goals.
Weight Loss: in order to stimulate weight loss, you need to ensure you consume fewer calories than you need each day. This combines both BMR and the calories you burn through exercise and general activity:
Food – (BMR + Exercise Expenditure) = Negative Kcal
Weight Gain: in order to stimulate weight gain, you need to ensure you consume more calories than you burn each day.
Food – (BMR + Exercise Expenditure) = Positive Kcal
Maintenance: in order to maintain weight, you need to ensure you consume the same number of calories as you burn each day.
Food – (BMR + Exercise Expenditure) = Zero
Performance: in order to enhance sporting performance, you need to ensure you consume the correct calorific amount to match the exercise expenditure you are going to be participating. This may focus on certain macronutrients in order to achieve optimal performance, and may even include food consumption during an event. An athlete may also want to ensure they don’t fluctuate in weight, due to competing in certain weight classes or optimising a power to weight ratio:
Food – (BMR + Exercise Expenditure) = Zero
With regards to body composition based goals, I believe you should always look to a moderate positive/negative change in calories to achieve better goals in the long term. For example when dieting to lose body fat, cutting calories by a large amount initially, can lead to you finding the diet very tough, very quickly and therefore less likely to stick to the diet or overeat. You may also notice that if you do stick to the diet, results may slow (or even plateau) later on in your diet – leaving you with little option but to cut calories further from an already minimal amount…. Which is no fun at all!
Having the knowledge of what a calorie is, and how different macronutrients can contribute to your overall calorific intake can be extremely valuable to constructing your own diet plans and achieving your goals, no matter what they may be. It may sound technical or scientific and may even sound like a lot of effort to track and follow in the short term. However over time, tracking can become much easier with an ability to “eye ball” quantities of certain nutrients which consistently feature in your diet.
About the Author:
Rowan (BSc Hons Sport and Exercise Science) works within the BULK POWDERS® Product Team. His role includes being responsible for Product Quality as well as contributing to Product Development.