Even after I learned that quality of food was more important than quantity, it still always lingered in the back of my mind, “well I ate a lot so I need to do something to burn this off.” Which brings up the famous calorie question. Do calories matter? If I eat a certain amount do I have to be sure I’m expending that same amount or more in order to lose weight? And, the answer is it depends. I know. You’re sitting there thinking, well great, there’s a catch. I wish it were simplistic. I eat x, I worked out enough and burnt y so I should be good. And, unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.
There are a number of factors that go into just how many calories your body needs. Think about all the things your body is doing when you’re awake without you even making sure it does those things. Breathing, keeping your eyes open, getting blood transported all over the body, supplying glucose to the brain, the list goes on and on. All these things burn energy in order to happen. Now, that’s a very simplistic version of what makes those functions go, but the point is energy expenditure is part of the equation.
So, right off the bat you need x amount of calories to support these things. Can your body still do these things if you don’t get that baseline requirement of calories? Sure. I know it’s a grim example but think of the people in the concentration camps during World War 2. They were starved for months but a lot of them survived. They did indeed come out of the camps rail thin but we’ll get into that.
There’s a couple other factors that you can pretty much determine for yourself that should clue you in on your caloric needs for a day to maintain current weight. Are you currently exercising multiple days a week? We all know that we don’t push through a workout the same way if we’re on an empty stomach as opposed to having eaten a well balanced meal. Do you have a significant amount of muscle mass already? If you have a good amount of muscle to begin with, it’s likely you’ll need to account for more calories to sustain that muscle mass. Your muscle is constantly burning calories even when you’re not doing anything so the more you have the more you’ll need to eat. And, finally, do you have an active job? We can all agree that the UPS or FedEx driver who constantly is picking up packages probably needs more calories than the tech person who sits at a desk all day.
Now, that you’ve determined all these factors you can either make a guesstimation for your caloric needs by starting somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 calories if you’re a man, 1200 if you’re a woman (sorry ladies, testosterone) and then going up or down based on all those factors OR you can just look at everything you eat for a day and add up all the calories. Do that for 7 days and then take the average. That’s likely a more accurate estimation of your baseline calories.
Now, here’s the kicker. Let’s say I determine my baseline of calories is 1800. If I consistently eat 1500 calories per day does that mean I’ll absolutely lose weight? Even if I’m working out the same as I normally would? No. Why is that? Because if I have 1500 calories of pizza and beer all I’m doing is spiking my blood sugar and handicapping my liver’s ability to burn fat. This is where the “it depends” comes back into play. YES, you do either need to eat less than your baseline needs DAILY for a CONSISTENT period of time to lose weight OR more DAILY for a CONSISTENT period of time to gain weight BUT the quality of the food will determine exactly what your body will look like.
So, in summation the great calorie question is not as simple as if I eat it then burn it will I lose weight. It matters if you’re consistently getting less calories than needed with GOOD QUALITY foods. If you want to gain weight, then you need to be eating more calories than needed with GOOD QUALITY foods, which can be tough. The real point is that all this can only be achieved through self experimentation. Determine a number of calories you need. Divide the calories among the three macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat, into a 40/30/30% split. 40% of your calories from carbs, 30% from protein, 30% from fat. Eat this way WITHOUT missing the numbers for 2 weeks. Record the outcome and make 1 adjustment. Do this until you’ve reached what you consider to be optimal.
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