Whether you want to lose weight or gain muscle, you need to consider the amount of food you consume. However, it’s not actually the quantity of food that’s important but the number of calories that food contains. You could eat a big pile of food that contains very few calories, vegetables for example, or a small portion of food that contains a lot of calories – such as candy. The number of calories in your food is arguably more important than how much food you eat.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy. One calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree centigrade. 1000 calories make a kilocalorie which, confusingly, is what most people call a calorie. Food labels list kilocalories which should really be called Calories – with a big C – to differentiate them from calories – with a small c.
Confused? Just remember there are 1000 calories in a single Calorie and nutritional labels list Calories and not calories!
Some countries, especially in Europe and Australia, use another unit of measure – joules. There are 4.184 Joules in a Calorie – that’s with a big C. This is usually rounded up to 4.2 for ease.
Energy balance and weight control
The human body needs energy to survive, and that energy comes from the food you eat. Excess food that is surplus to your current energy requirements is converted to body fat. This is called a positive energy balance.
If you keep on eating more energy than you need, your fat stores will continue to increase, and you’ll keep on gaining weight. However, if you restrict your food intake, your body will use this stored energy, and you’ll lose weight. This is commonly referred to as negative energy balance. If energy in equals energy out, your weight should remain stable.
Different food groups and their Caloric content
Different food groups contain differing amounts of energy.
- Protein contains four calories or 16.8 Joules per gram
- Carbohydrate contains four calories or 16.8 Joules per gram
- Fat contains nine calories or 37.8 Joules per gram
- Alcohol contains seven calories or 29.4 Joules per gram
This information could lead you to conclude that fat is bad, alcohol is not quite as bad, and that protein and carbs are interchangeable. This is not actually the case.
The thermic effect of food
Each of the food groups does different things within your body and also requires differing amounts of energy to break them down and utilize them. This is called the thermic effect of food, TEF for short.
It takes more energy to utilize a gram of protein than it does a gram of carbs so, despite containing the same number of calories before digestion, they provide your body with differing amounts once consumed.
The thermic effect of protein is 20-35% whereas the TEF of for carbs is 5-15%. The TEF for fat is a lowly 5-10%.
In simple terms, if you eat 100 calories of protein, only 65-80 are usable, and the rest is “lost” in the process of digestion. In contrast, if you eat the same amount of carbohydrate, your body will receive 85-95% of the available calories. This all helps to explain the efficacy of high protein, lower carb diets such as Ketogenic.
While eating more protein and fewer carbs can help you expend more energy and speed up weight loss, you still need to consider the number of calories you are consuming.
Counting calories used to be a real pain in the butt! You’d have to weigh and measure your food, look up your food in a book, do a few calculations, and then repeat the process for every ingredient in your meal. And, unless you ate the same thing every meal and every day, you’d have to do this every you ate. It was time-consuming, laborious, and tedious!
Today, things are much simpler, and there are apps and websites that make the entire process very simple. FitNation allows you track all the calories and macronutrients within your meal plan, but currently doesn’t track other foods which is where other calorie counting apps come in handy to use alongside FitNation. With huge databases of foods, you just type in what you are eating and let the software do all the heavy lifting for you. Some even scan barcodes and enter your food automatically, such as My Fitness Pal.
Tracking calories means that you can control how much food you need to eat for weight loss (or weight gain) and it also makes you more accountable. After all, if you know you are going to have to log that box of six donuts in your calorie tracker, you are much less likely to eat them. Some apps interface with social media, so your food diary will be on public view – another effective way to prevent overeating and unhealthy food choices.
Most apps will also calculate how many calories you need for your weight management goal and can even predict when you will reach that target based on your current food intake. Motivating stuff! However, it is important to note that no calorie tracker takes into consideration the thermic effect of food.
You don’t HAVE to count calories but if you are struggling to lose or gain weight, doing it for a week or two can be a real eye-opener and reveal where you might be slipping up. There is more to healthy eating than counting calories, but knowing how much food you are eating is definitely useful.