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Calories – Should You Care?

I admit that it’s hard to let go of the calorie concept for eating and exercising. There is so much science and research surrounding calories and I’m a big sucker for science and research. But I’m also quite aware of the fact that prior to the last forty to fifty years, the average person had no concept of the calorie model of fat loss or awareness of calories in general. And the average person from that time was leaner than the current average person who counts calories. Calorie counting was never used for thousands of years of human history and most people weren’t fat. Of course, most people did not have an abundance of cheap processed food available 24/7. Hmmm, maybe that’s the biggest issue here… But, wait, I digress.

Back to science and research… It is absolutely true that you can have too many calories and you can also have too few, basic concepts that most of us understand. Most of us have been exposed to the Calories In, Calories Out model. However, not all of us have been exposed to the idea that it is a flawed model. It doesn’t exactly work. Now, that does not mean it doesn’t work at all, but not in the way that we are led to believe by mainstream media and people willing to enroll you in a weight loss plan or sell you a gym membership. If it really worked, we wouldn’t have the highest obesity rates in the history of civilization. We are not all a bunch of lazy people with simply no willpower who just need to eat fewer calories and burn more off. There’s also way more to it than basic math. Much more goes on inside our bodies than math.

Calories can be a factor in fat loss, and so can what the calories are made up of, in terms of ratios of protein, fat, and carbs. And it also matters about the quality of those three nutrients. Your metabolism responds differently to 100 calories of kale versus 100 calories of Oreos.

The current condition of your metabolism matters. Your metabolism can be fast or slow depending on many factors that impact it like sleep, hormones, digestion, stress, etc. You can damage your metabolism and, by the way, one of the ways to do that is by consuming way too few calories for long periods of time. If you have a long history of yo-yo dieting and lots of severe calorie restrictive dieting, you probably have a sluggish metabolism. How well your metabolism operates also depends on your micronutrient status. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. If you are vitamin and mineral deficient (and the majority of us are on some level), your metabolism will not be operating at its best. So, if you eat all of your calories from nutrient poor food (like Oreos), you will be vitamin and mineral deficient and you will not have an optimal metabolism or optimal health.

*FYI – Definition of metabolism – the chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life.

Back to calorie counting and burning… Calorie counts are flawed. Calorie counts in food can vary from resource to resource and studies show that calorie counts on food packages and in restaurant meals are often understated. So, how can you accurately know how many calories you are eating? You can’t. You also can’t know accurately how many calories you burn doing any particular activity. For example, you go for a walk. You can estimate your pace, but unless you are on a treadmill, it can be hard to get an accurate pace and it will vary in real world walking. In real world walking, the terrain changes, meaning things like the incline can vary which will affect how many calories you burn. Temperature affects how many calories you burn. You can walk on a very hot day and a very cold day with all else being equal and you will burn a different amount of calories. Just a few of the variables to consider. Also, never assume that any method of counting calories burned is accurate even if it supposedly takes in your height and weight, etc. If you use a machine at the gym, these are often based on the “average” 150 pound person. Here’s an example of variances from resource to resource. I walked this morning and used the MapMyRun app (walk function) and at the end it gave me calories burned. I used an online calculator and plugged in my same variables used by MapMy Run and got a 5% difference in calories burned using the two resources.

So, if calories in and calories out is flawed, why is it the most prevalent “system” for fat loss? Because it is all we have in terms of measuring. I just mentioned things that can affect calorie counts and things that can affect your metabolism and quality of calories. Do you really think any system exists to take all that stuff into consideration and accurately produce numbers for you? No. *Don’t give up hope here, there are good ways to produce fat loss that don’t involve calories at all. Some ideas on fat loss will be covered in upcoming blogs.

What I am saying, is that calories matter, but they are not the end all, be all. And don’t beat yourself up over calories. That doesn’t help at all. Stress never helps and it does hurt your metabolism.

We do know for a fact that too many calories will not produce fat loss, but what is too many calories is very debatable. Unless you are an athlete, something like 6,000 calories is probably too many. But is 200 or 500 calories over your predicted amount going to keep you fat? Maybe, maybe not. There are people I know who eat a lot of calories (more than what is the predicted intake for them) and still remain lean. Others of us are not so lucky because we usually have screwed up metabolisms and other issues (most notably involving hormones).

For most people who have struggled with fat loss for years, I actually often see too few calories as being a bigger issue. This is where we have gotten into the repeated trap and cycle of calories in, calories out and downgraded our metabolisms. And depending on how we lost the weight, we often lose muscle mass too (some suggest 25% or more of total weight loss is usually muscle on calorie restriction diets). Muscle mass is precious for many reasons, including that more lean mass burns more calories and helps produce a more efficiently running metabolism. We cannot cut our calories too low without suffering consequences. Usually these are long term. In the short term, perhaps we do lose weight with calorie cutting. But don’t we just as often gain it back plus more?! And it gets harder and harder each time! And gaining the fat back is not the only long term issue, we have now wrecked our hormones, or wrecked them further and that has its own set of problems.

Generally speaking, the less you eat, the less you should move, (so don’t combine calorie restriction with a ton of exercise) and the more you move, the more you should eat. These don’t need to be the same number (and it’s near impossible for them to be), but the numbers should go in the same direction. Large calorie deficits are not a good idea. Small calorie deficits are needed for fat loss. As stated, calories in, calories out is flawed, but it is the only “system” we know. I will briefly mention how to try to use that system for healthy, sustainable fat loss.

First, focus on “eating clean” or “just eating real food”. Then, focus on fixing any existing health conditions. These two focuses alone may very well result in healthy fat loss. You don’t even have to count calories if you are working on those things (great for those of us who hate calorie counting).

If you are the person who loves to count calories or at least is very willing to do it, here’s a good strategy. Take your BMR and then an activity level multiplier (these can be found online from various sources) to get the predicted amount of calories you should be eating per day based on the activity level of that day (more when exercising, less when sedentary), then deduct 20% from that number and eat at that calorie level. This method has been shown to better preserve lean mass while “dieting” and still induce moderate weight loss that is more sustainable over the long haul. As you lose fat, you will have to redo your BMR every so often to adjust your calorie level. And ultimately you will need a “final” BMR when you achieve your goal weight to know the rough calorie level you should eat to maintain your weight. *By the way, a good, healthy level of fat loss per week is this formula – multiply your weight by .007 to find out how many pounds per week is safe for you and puts you at lower risk for muscle mass loss and gaining weight back.

I hope this helps you in how you think about calories. Be mindful of calories (especially if you aren’t eating clean), but don’t obsess over them (and don’t count them if you don’t want to do so). You’ll do better to focus on eating real food like the food found on my food buying guide and getting regular movement throughout your day for health and fat loss.

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