A primer on calories

Consider this if you're a counter.

Consider this if you're a counter

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Anyone who has attempted to lose weight has probably sifted through a slew of diets, all promising the same results through different methods. Options like the low-carb, keto and DNA diets can all seem great to start with, but with one in four Canadians being obese (and with childhood obesity soaring, too), it seems that many of us are confused or misinformed when it comes to sustainable weight loss. What's the key to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight — and what do calories really have to do with it? The answer is both simple and complex, so let's start with the simple part.

Calories 101

A calorie is a unit of energy, and your body runs on this energy. If you take in more calories than you burn off, your body will store it. Conversely, if you expend more calories than you take in, your body will use up the energy it has stored. So hypothetically, if your body requires 2,000 calories per day, eating more than that amount will cause you to gain weight, eating less will cause you to lose weight and eating the same amount will let you to maintain your weight. That's the basic theory that most of us are familiar with, but here's where it gets tricky...

Calculating your actual daily needs

Determining your daily caloric requirement can be an important starting point for healthy, sustainable weight loss — but the math is complex. A dietician or nutritionist can help with this multifaceted calculation, which takes into account factors such as your height, weight, age, sex, and sleep and exercise patterns to determine not only your caloric needs, but also how many calories you're already expending. "Our metabolisms are constantly changing," adds nutritionist Kyle Byron, "so just trying to guess how many calories you need is difficult, at best."

Macros: The bigger picture

Another complicating factor: Not all calories are created equal. Theoretically, you could eat only ice cream and — provided you're eating the right amount of calories — you would still lose weight. But you may not feel healthier. That's why nutritionist Ciara Foy says that only worrying about "calories in and calories out" is a "flawed theory," since your body needs to get calories from a balance of sources in order to function properly.

These calorie sources are carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and are known as macronutrients. Collectively, they're responsible for energy, digestion, nutrient absorption, hormone regulation, immune function, and cell, muscle and tissue building, and more. Just how much of each macronutrient should make up your total calorie intake is dependant on your goals (for example, someone trying to put on muscle may require more protein), and you can determine these amounts with the help of an expert.

A lot of popular diets will recommend an imbalance of these macronutrients: low carb, high protein and so on. "Fat was demonized for so long," Foy recalls. But while these approaches may aid in initial weight loss for some (certainly not for everyone), experts note that fad diets can deprive you of essential nutrients, impairing your body's ability to function and your overall wellness.

Micros: The even bigger picture

Beyond macronutrients, foods are further comprised of micronutrients: vitamins and minerals in smaller doses, such as vitamin C and calcium, that help carry out more specific bodily functions. This further emphasizes the importance of consuming calories from nutrient-dense foods. "In North America, we are way overfed but also undernourished," Foy says. "People take in a lot of calories, but the calories they're taking in are empty … your body, on a very basic level, needs [these] raw materials to make its cells."

Without those materials, Foy explains, the body sends cravings for more food, "even though you've already taken in enough calories." Foy credits processed food and grains, artificial sweeteners and high-sugar foods as common empty-calorie offenders. Eating without balance and nutrient density can also tax the immune system and increase inflammation.

It can get tricky...

So, eating the right amount of calories can lead to weight loss, but this approach also needs to be paired with the right quality foods to be healthy and sustainable. It seems relatively simple, but it's definitely not always easy in practice.

One of the biggest issues people face is knowing the true nutritional value of every food and drink they put in their mouth. Not only are labels and restaurant menus hard to decipher, but it's also a challenge to be honest with ourselves. Says Byron, "Even if we're consistently doing food journals, estimating portion sizes involves judging ourselves, and people hate doing that ... Try to tell me what you ate on a given day and it'll be a mix of guesswork and you protecting your ego."

This brutal honesty factor, combined with all that math and label-checking, may be why some are turning away from calories and macros altogether. Tara Miller is a nutritionist who advises intuitive eating, which advocates listening to your body. "I think counting calories, following point systems and obsessing about 'right' or 'wrong' food choices confuses our innate ability to feed ourselves," she says. "It all interferes with our ability to look inward and trust that our body will tell us how much or little we need."

Miller also appreciates how intuitive eating is a long-term solution, unlike dieting, and that the practice is the opposite of restriction. "Restrictive eating ultimately leads to binge eating, obsessing about food, guilt and shame... if health is the goal, I'd rather guide people toward supportive activities — movement, eating fresh foods, sleeping, lowering stress — for how they make the individual feel, rather than use weight as a measure of success."

The ground rules

Whether you're trying to gain, maintain or lose weight, and whether you count calories or not, there are a few weight loss principles that experts tend to agree on. For Byron, consistency is key. "It's underrated — highly underrated," he says. "You know why? Because it doesn't sell. You know what sells? Miracle fat loss cures."

For Foy, it's all about choosing higher-quality food: "[Food] that's in its original state, like quinoa versus quinoa pasta." This also tends to mean there's less chemicals and additives included in the food, especially if it's certified organic or locally grown. Dishes don't have to be complicated either, says Foy. "You don't have to be a good chef. You just have to be able to put things together simply."

Most importantly, experts agree it's crucial that we take the time to be aware of what, and how much, we're putting in our mouths. "Be conscious of how you're feeling when you're eating, because it's very easy to overeat," says Foy, which is a statement that holds true whether we're counting calories or not. She recommends "eating slowly, paying attention to what you're doing and being mindful" to understand how it affects the body and better our relationship with food in the long term.


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