What is a Calorie?

If you are reading this post, then it’s likely you have tracked your calorie intake at some stage in your life or will be doing so in the near future. This might be with the aim of losing or even gaining weight, but do you actually know what a calorie is? And are all calories created equal? Read on to find out.

So what Exactly Is a Calorie?

A calorie is simply a unit of energy, or to be more precise, a calorie is how we measure the amount of energy that food provides.

We often try to reduce calories to lose weight or get shredded, but we rely on calories to function properly because they provide us with the energy that we need to get shit done. Every cell in your body needs energy to be able to do its job properly.

There is confusing history with how a calorie was measured (it used to be the amount of heat needed to increase the temperature of 1 kg of water from 0 to 1 degree Celsius), but unless you are a geek for the history of everything (like me) then you don’t really need to concern yourself with that.

The best way for you to put calorie into a relevant and useful context, is to be aware of how many you need in order to achieve your personal goals. You should also understand that different calories have different nutritional breakdowns, and this is important (more on this soon).

How Many Calories Should I Eat?

The average man needs to eat around 2,500 calories per day to maintain his weight and for the average woman it’s 2,000 calories.

This doesn’t necessarily mean this is how much you should be eating – it depends on your personal circumstances. Variables like your gender, age, height, current weight and your resting metabolic rate will influence the optimum level of calories you should be eating.

If you are a professional athlete or hitting the gym every day and want to bulk up, then it’s no good eating 2,000 calories a day. Similarly, if you are trying to get ripped abs and have belly fat to get rid of first, then maintaining your weight with 2,500 calories every day is not going to get you there (p.s. no amount of sit-ups are going to get you visible abs if your % body fat is too high).

A great tool to use to give you guidance on how many calories you should be eating is this calorie calculator. Input your details including your height, weight and level of activity and it will instantly give you guidance on the number of calories to consume.

Are All Calories the Same?

Are all calories the same?

This can be a polarizing question. There are two sides to this in my opinion.

Firstly, given that it’s a unit of measurement, a calorie is a calorie just like a kilogram is a kilogram. I can remember when I was first caught out by the riddle ‘which weighs more, a kilogram of rocks or a kilogram of straw’ (they both weigh the same). I learnt my lesson.

Whilst a calorie may be a calorie in terms of how much energy it provides, something important to consider is that all calories do not have the same nutritional value or benefits for your body. For example, eating 200 calories of ice cream is clearly not going to give your body the same benefit as eating 200 calories of broccoli, even though you get the same energy from both.

The ideal nutritional breakdown for you will again depend on your personal circumstances, but to give you a guide the recommendation from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is as follows:

  • Carbohydrates should be 45 to 65% of your diet
  • Fat should be 20 to 25% of your diet
  • Protein should be 10 to 35% of your diet

Most popular diet plans like Keto, Atkins and Paleo encourage a totally different split, and whilst this isn’t always a terrible thing, don’t ever lose touch of the fact that your body needs all 3 nutrients. Carbohydrates are not necessarily your enemy – you just need to learn to balance them in the right way and recognize the difference between good carbs and refined carbohydrates.

What is a Calorie Deficit

'Calorie deficit' is a term that has now become relatively mainstream when it comes to dieting and weight loss. Following a calorie deficit diet is a very popular method of attempting to lose weight.

The term itself simply means consuming less calories than the amount required to maintain your weight (average of 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women).

A calorie deficit should also take exercise into account because it's about the 'net' number of calories you have consumed. For example, if you ate 3,000 calories today, but also burned 1,000 calories off through exercise, then your net calories for the day would be 2,000 (3,000 minus 1,000).

At 2,000 calories, the average male would be in a deficit of 500 calories because they ended up on 500 less than the 2,500 that would maintain their weight.

Take note - if you are thinking of attempting a calorie deficit diet then it's a great method if executed properly, but you will need resilience, discipline and patience if you want to lose weight in a healthy and safe fashion. You should aim for a weight loss of 0.25-1 kg per week, depending on how extreme your calorie reduction and starting weight are. This is a safe range for weight loss. 

What is a Calorie Summary

You hopefully now understand that a calorie is a measurement of energy in food and that whilst all calories provide the same amount of energy, they don’t all give you the same nutritional value.

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