Calorie really gets a bad rep these days. It’s often blamed as the culprit for weight gain, obesity, eating disorders, and other metabolic related baddies. It’s one of the many reason why people start counting calories to lose weight. But aren’t there good calories and bad calories? Well… yes and no. It all comes down to our perspective and what impact of calories have on our health and fitness pursuits.
It’s long been touted that all we need to do to lose weight is consume less calories than we actually use. This means that the total number of calories we consume over a period of time (day, week, month), is less than that of our total calorie expenditure, including calories burned for bodily functions. This is known as the Calories In = Calories Out concept, and has led to the craze of counting calories.
So where does the good calories and bad calories come in? If they exists, then how is the Calorie In = Calorie Out concept affected by them? And what do I mean when I say that whether a calorie is good or bad really depends on what we’re trying to do with our health and fitness goals? Wait… is calorie counting an effective method to lose weight? Is it even necessary?
We will address all of those questions, but let’s start at the bottom. First, we need to understand exactly what a calorie is.
What Is A Calorie?
According to the Merriam-Websters Dictionary, a calorie is defined as “the amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius that is equal to about 4.19 joules.”¹ That is actually the scientific of a calorie and food originally had NOTHING to do with it.
In the same dictionary however, a calorie is also defined as “an amount of food having an energy-producing value of one large calorie.” Well, this is an oversimplification of what a calorie does for us energy wise. By the way, “one large calorie” is just 1,000 calories, which is 1 Calorie that’s commonly used on food labels.
So how are calories of our food determined? A method that was commonly used was simply burning a sample portion of a piece of food and capturing the heat generated from the burn. That heat is applied to a sample amount of water and the total increase in temperature is used to back calculate the number calories contained in that portion of food². Sounds simple right?
This method is not so commonly used now. Instead, the calories from most foods are estimated based on their macronutrient content and alcohol level. By macronutrients, I mean Fats, Carbohydrates, and Protein. These 3 components make up the majority of the calorie content of foods. The Calories in each are:
- 1 gram of Fat equates = 9 Calories
- 1 gram of Carbohydrate = 4 Calories
- 1 gram of Protein = 4 Calories
- 1 gram of Alcohol = 7 Calories*
*Alcohol isn’t a macronutrient but since it’s part of the Calorie estimation used by food manufacturers, it’s worth noting here. For those of us that aren’t as venturous, most foods we consume on a daily basis doesn’t contain alcohol, so I won’t be covering that here. For the sake of simplicity, calories and Calories are interchangeable here. The actual value is not important in this context.
The macronutrients for different foods are analyzed in a lab using different methods. Fats and protein are derived using solvents and nitrogen, while carbohydrates are estimated from other analytical data.
Sidenote: Fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, and one of the reasons why the fear mongering by health “experts” are so effective in telling people to stay away from it. But the right kind of fats are not only good for us, but necessary for our optimum health. This will be explained in detail in a future article.
Correlation to Body
So what does all of this have to do what our weight? Well first of all, I’ll assume here that if you’re reading this article, you’re more interested in losing weight in form of body fat than any other form (muscle, bone, organs). If you simply want to making yourself lighter regardless of what happens, then I’d suggest checking out this article.
The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another. A lot of us have heard this at least once before I’m sure.
Since a calorie is a measure of energy, all the calories we consume has to convert into another energy source. A lot of that is used for the maintenance of our bodies such as hormone regulation, digestion, organ function, brain function, etc. That’s consider the total of our maintenance calorie expenditure.
Calories are also used when we move around, exercise, talk, stretch, and any other voluntary movements we make. This is what some call the activity calorie expenditure.
A common theory is that if we consume more calories than we use up, the remaining calories are stored away as fat in our bodies. The reverse is also accepted by many, that a caloric deficit will lead to our fat stores being used to make up for the needed calories. And the “art” of calorie counting was born.
Calories In = Calories Out?
“I just had that croissant so I better run a few miles to burn the couple hundred calories from it.”, “The dressing adds WAY too many calories to this, I’ll pass.” These and other similar statements ring through many of our minds when we consider counting calories.
On the other end of the spectrum we have “I just had that killer workout, I can get away with eating this X-Large pizza.”, or “I haven’t eaten the whole day, pigging out now should have no effect on my weight.” Although these statements ring true for some people, the workings behind why are definitely not that simple.
If the concept of calories in = calories out is 100% true, the fitness and nutrition world would be a much simpler place. Matter of fact, the supplement and diet industry would be in deep trouble. Everyone that is concerned with their weight and body fat levels and has the dedication and commitment can count all the calories they consume on a daily basis. They can also calculated their energy expenditure.
So why is it still so difficult for many to lose body fat even when all calories are meticulously counted and energy expenditure are calculated and logged?
It’s because calorie counting alone for weight loss is a flawed system.
Why It’s Flawed
As mentioned earlier in the article, calories from food labels nowadays are mostly estimated from the amount of protein, carbohydrate, protein, and alcohol content of a unit of food. These parameters are derived from experiments that can yield different results depending on the quality of the food being used. Just go on different calorie counting sites and we’ll find different measurements of macronutrients and calories for the same food.
Also, take into account the simple definition of a calorie as stated in the beginning of this article. It is the measure of the amount of heat generated from burning a unit of food. Just from its definition, there are already several obvious flaws with counting calories for weight loss.
First of all, many are assuming that out bodies burn the food the same way that a fire burns it. The heat released from the fire-burnt food is assumed to equate to the energy that our bodies absorb and either use up or store as fat. As far as I know, there is no scientific study to show that this equivalency exists.
This theory stands because of the First Law of Thermodynamics discussed earlier. But strict “calorie counters” almost never take into account how our bodies react to certain calories. This is another reason why calorie counting is flawed and where the good and bad calories come in.
Good Calories and Bad Calories
The way that our body process foods is very complex. There are a myriad of different things going on simultaneously and researchers are always finding new ways that our bodies react to certain foods in relation to our health. One of the biggest findings that has sparked public interest within the last several years is the idea of good calories and bad calories.
Comparisons have been made between a can of soda and a plate of broccoli. If we drink 100 calories worth of soda or have 100 calories worth of broccoli, we’d be much better off with the broccoli because they’re considered “good” calories (That’s a WHOLE lot of broccoli btw).
The idea of good calories vs bad calories basically boils down to eating clean, nutritious whole foods while eliminating or minimizing processed, nutrient-depleted, artificial ingredient-filled foods. But realistically, the calories themselves can’t be good or bad. The calories from the soda aren’t any worse than those from the plate of broccoli. It’s the make-up of those calories. And without going back to the previous section, do you recall how the calorie content of foods are estimated?
That’s right, it’s the macronutrients: Fat, Carbohydrate, and Protein.
How our bodies process something made with 90% Fats and 10% Protein is different from something with 70% Carbohydrates, 20% Fats, and 10% Protein. These “macros” play a MUCH larger role in weight/fat loss than calories do. I repeat:
Macros play a MUCH larger role in weight/fat loss than calories do.
No I’m not saying that we can eat as much as we want and as long as out macros are right, we can still lose weight. The law of physics still stands and if we consume over 10,000 calories of clean food per day sitting on the couch all day, we will gain fat (unless we have a severe case of hyperthyroidism or some other genetic disorder).
On the other hand, we can eat only clean, nutritious, whole foods, but if our macros are off we will still have a hard time losing the dreaded body fat. Of course, we should be eating clean foods and avoiding process foods regardless if we’re trying to lose weight or not. Eating nutritious foods should be an obvious not just from a weight loss, but also a health standpoint.
My aim here is to point out that it’s not the calories that’s to blame. Putting our focus on calories isn’t going to be nearly as effective as manipulating the amount and more importantly, the ratio of our macros. The magic with managing our macros is that since the amount of each macro equates to a specific number of calories, we’re managing our calories directly by doing so.
Goal of Calorie Counting
A common theme in most of my articles is knowing what our goal is before embarking on our mission. Prior to taking any action, we should clearly establish what it is we’re trying to accomplish exactly. In this case, we’re talking about weight loss, fat loss more specifically.
Is that the goal we have in mind? Is this what we’re looking for what it comes to calorie counting? If not, then calorie counting might not be such of a big concern to us. Or maybe we have a different goal altogether.
Mass or Weight Gain
A lot of us are also interesting in gaining weight, or more specifically, muscle gain. Whether we’re professional athletes or just simply interested in getting bigger, calorie counting has its role in muscle gain.
Simply put, we will need to consume more calories than our maintenance expenditure in order to gain muscle mass. There are other factors involved like working out and supplements, but we’ll focus only on the calorie intake aspect here.
Although it is possible to put on lean muscle while eating slightly lower than maintenance calories, it is difficult, if not impossible to put on significant muscle mass with this approach. Of course, for a beginner without much muscle mass, this approach will work. A beginner has a much lower threshold that needs to be exceeded in order to see progress than an advanced athlete.
The main reason why we need to consume more calories than maintenance is because muscle growth takes calories. Energy is required to rebuild the wear and tear we cause on out muscles. That’s one of the reasons why people who train often gets away with eating more.
Gaining muscle mass a definitely simpler than losing fat. As long as we keep up with our workouts and eat enough calories, muscle mass gains are there for us. There are bodybuilders that eats highly processed junk foods when they bulk. The only thing that really matters is the amount of calories, and to a lesser extent the amount of protein that are consumed. No major manipulation of macros, just making sure that a good amount of the calories come from protein.
Weight or Fat Loss- Different Story
As mentioned briefly, weight loss is not as simple as muscle gain. Macros would need to be managed carefully for the most effective approach (at first anyway). The way our metabolism respond to the different macros play a huge role in weight loss.
The reactions that happens down the line from our digestion food are all affected by the macros we consume. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, our hormonal responses to foods is another big factor in weight loss. If you’ve read my 2 part article on meal frequencies, you’d know how complicated that subject was (Part 1 and Part 2). Macros for weight loss itself is going to have to be another article. But don’t worry, that will be coming soon!
So I hope we understand at this point that counting calories alone is not an effective weight loss method. There are much more involved in this process but counting calories will not get us there. Am I saying that managing our macros alone will get us there? By no means, we still need to make sure we consume nutritious whole foods from reputable sources. Our lifestyle still needs to include daily physical activity. And we should live as much of a stress-free lifestyle as possible.
But macro management (or we could call it macro counting) is definitely much, much more effective than calorie counting. And do you know the best part about manipulating our macros? We can put our metabolism in a state that even if we eat more calories than our maintenance level, we will still lose fat. Yes, you read that right. We can still lose fat, not muscle, even if we eat above our maintenance level.
And if you feel that counting macros is going to be a pain, don’t worry. We only have to do it for a short time when we first start out. Just like calorie counters gets a feel for the number of calories in typical foods after a while, we will get the same feel of macros in typical foods.
So if you want to know what how to manipulate our macros to gain these benefits, stay tuned for the upcoming article!