The Misconception of Calories

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For just a few minutes (while you absorb the contents of this article), allow your mind to become unfettered by the commonly accepted “rules” surrounding calorie consumption [which can be overtly obscure at the best of times].

Right alongside FAT, calories have garnered something of a bad rap for being the other supposed culprit of excessive weight gain. Now, to an extent, this might be true; however, it’s not quite as simple as “high calorie consumption leads to becoming overweight”… there are sooo many other factors to consider, that not to do so is a total injustice to your own health and well-being!

You’ll hear me bark all day about “marketing” in these posts as being the somewhat evil mechanism that drives the bandwagon of inadvertent sh*tty health – especially in the Western world. And this is more than justified.

The simple fact is this: the overwhelming majority of food & beverage companies do not care about improving your health… they care about SALES. Your health does not keep them in business; doing millions in sales does. They know that a lot of us have a problem with being overweight, and so, they craft their message in a way that plucks on that pain-laden heartstring and has you dancing to their tune.

‘Calories make you fat’, so they’ll harp on about how their latest product only has something like 30kcal per serving (or even *zero* calories – the real wolves in sheep’s clothing). Heaven forbid a serving have anything in the region of a few hundred calories – that will surely be a moment on the lips, and a lifetime on the hips, no? Well… NO! Actually. See, it’s not so much about the overall calories, but what they’re comprised of (meaning – carbs, fat and protein [at a basic level]). Let me explain…

A snack containing 270kcal, for example, could be healthier than another snack also containing 270kcal. What it comes down to is whether those calories are derived from healthy fats or unhealthy fats, good carbs or “bad” carbs, and the amount of protein in it.

Let’s call the first snack ‘Snack A’, and the other ‘Snack B’ (original, right?). Now if we consider that Snack B is the unhealthy one, this could be because it has a lot of sugar (the ‘bad carbs’), and a lot of saturated fat (the unhealthy fat), and very little in the way of protein. Throwing some numbers out there, let’s say the nutrition label reads something like this:


Calories – 270kcal

Fat – 12g

Saturated – 9g

Unsaturated – 3g

Carbohydrates – 30g

Of which Sugars – 22g

Protein – 10g

[12g of Fat = 108kcal, 30g of Carbs = 120kcal, 10g Protein = 40kcal, giving us a total of 268kcal… Okay, so just short!]

And then we’ll see the breakdown of Snack A – the healthy one…

Calories – 270kcal

Fat – 10g

Saturated – 2g

Unsaturated – 8g

Carbohydrates – 24g

Of which Sugars – 3g

Protein – 21g

[10g of Fat = 90kcal, 24g of Carbs = 96kcal, 21g Protein = 84kcal, giving a total of 270kcal – There ya go!]

Despite the minor [two calorie] discrepancy, notice that there are fewer carbs [overall], a mere fraction of the sugar, the fat is roughly the same but the majority coming from healthy unsaturated fats (like Omega-3s), and there is double the protein in this healthier snack than in the first one.

Obviously, I haven’t said what the snacks are, and that’s because it is largely irrelevant; if you have healthier fats, good carbs and plenty of protein in your snack, then it will be far better for you than one that has the same number of calories but derived from unhealthy fats, sugar and very little protein. It’s that simple.

Just head on down to your local food store or supermarket and you’ll see oceans of “healthy food/drink” that sound great off the bat, but then you start seeing that while they may be ‘zero fat’, there’ll also be hardly any protein, and it’s all just carbs (most of which will be sugar). Why is that a problem? Because sugar isn’t an essential nutrient, for one, so it won’t be used by the body, but secondly, it will spike your insulin, and just be stored as fat instead.

‘Don’t stress too much about how many calories you’re consuming…’

This is where the ideology of “If It Fits Your Macros” (or IIFYM as you’ll see it scrawled across the inter-web) becomes extremely problematic; however, I’m not going to get into that [in depth] today. But for a moment, I want to refer to a blog post I saw just the other day (but I won’t ‘name and shame’ them)…

See, this blogger is a firm believer in IIFYM, which is their prerogative; however, they showed about half a dozen “comparison pics” of different foods/snacks – in one hand [literally], you have a handful of almonds (quoting ‘188kcals’ as its caloric value), and in the other, a handful of fruit gummies (quoting ‘188kcals’ also as the caloric value)…

Their message that they have [irresponsibly] launched into the “web-o-sphere” is essentially stating that eating a handful of almonds is the same as eating a handful of fruit gummies…………… No. Just NO. I mean, I get it – they’re illustrating that something healthy can have the same number of calories as something unhealthy; but the indication that, ‘Hey, don’t worry so much about *what* you put in your face, as long as it doesn’t have more calories than the healthy alternative’ is just nonsensical.

The message should be more along the lines of, ‘Don’t stress too much about how many calories you’re consuming, as long as a) they fall within your daily limit, and b) they come from nutritionally dense sources (i.e. are loaded with protein, healthy fats, good carbs, and preferably even a decent amount of vitamins and minerals).’

That first point is another thing to take into consideration – YOUR daily [calorie] limit. Chances are you’ll be aware of the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) for Adults: 2000kcal for women, 2500kcal for men. Firstly, you should understand that these numbers are based on absolute averages – they are based on the energy requirements for the average sized man/woman with average lifestyles.

What does that even mean, right? Well, for a man this means being approximately 30yrs old, 180cm/5’10” tall, and weighing 80kg/180lbs (roughly); for a woman you would be [again] 30yrs old, 168cm/5’6” tall, and about 57kg/125lbs… For both men and women, it is postulated that you work an average “9-to-5” office/desk job, and are largely sedentary for most of the day.

Secondly, you must take note of the fact that these numbers are the sum total of other calculated numbers that include: Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) and the Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA).

‘… the calories burned from concerted and effortful movement (i.e. *exercise*)…’

Okay, okay – slow it down. What the f**k are all these!? Well, it’s pretty straightforward… Your BMR – assuming you fall under the averages listed above – is going to be roughly 1200-1400kcal for a woman, and 1700-1900kcal for a man; it is the absolute minimum number of calories that your body needs just to survive/function – even if you were bed-ridden 24/7!

Consume less than your BMR and you’ll be starving yourself and become malnourished, which can lead to any number of health complications (when prolonged). Now, if you are taller than average or shorter, heavy-set or lithe, in your twenties or in your fifties, then YOUR Basal Metabolic Rate will be different. For example, a 22yr old guy measuring 185cm/6’1” and weighing a far heftier 109kg/240lbs would have a BMR of approximately 2200kcal – significantly more than 1700!


As for TEF/NEAT/TEA… Thermic Effect of Food is how many calories your body burns just digesting the food you consume, and for most this will be roughly 200kcal. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is the amount of calories your body burns just through simple little movements that you perform unconsciously – your eyelids opening and closing, your mouth moving, your fingers moving when you text or tap them nervously, your leg shaking, or similar tinkering movements – which is another 200kcal or so. And finally, the Thermic Effect of Activity is basically the calories burned from concerted and effortful movement (i.e. *exercise*), and this is the one that varies the most because it depends on how much you do!

Adding up the numbers here – you have approx. 1300kcal for BMR, 200kcal for TEF, 200kcal for NEAT, and it’s projected that you move enough to burn at least 300kcal per day (this could be from actual gym-based exercise or trying to get in your ’10,000 steps per day’). That gives us the 2000kcal for women. Then for men, 1800 + 200 + 200 + 300 = 2500kcal.

So, now you know how those average numbers get conjured up. They add up to give your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) – which are what the Daily Recommended Intakes are based on. But again, you should first consider that your BMR may be massively different to the average (you can type ‘TDEE Calculator’ into Google and find any number of good sites where you can plug in your details [height/weight/age/etc] to find out); then factor in how much exercise you actually do!

If you do anything in the region of an hour or more of vigorous exercise per day, then you are more than likely burning about 700[+]kcal per workout – that’s 400kcal more than average! So, your diet could be several hundred calories off (overall) without even realising…

‘A safer place to start would be to reduce caloric intake by about 15%’

Let’s reign things in a bit. Let’s consider other common advice out there. So, they say that if you want to lose weight, then you should cut 500kcal out of your daily intake; and if you want to put on weight, then you should add in 500kcal extra per day (on top of your DRI). So, for a woman, this would mean eating 1500kcal for weight loss, or 2500kcal for weight gain. Or for a man, it would be to eat 2000kcal for weight loss, or 3000kcal to put on weight… Well… yes and no!

Again, if you are average sized, then this could work. But again – take the example of the 22yr old weighing in at 240lbs; he would have to eat at least 2400kcal to lose weight, and 3400kcal to gain! Epic difference! So again, I reiterate – get your TDEE calculated, and go from there!

To be honest, a 500kcal cut can be a tad much, and might not make much sense if you are overweight. This is because if you are overweight (holding too much bodyfat), then it might be too drastic a cut to make initially. A safer place to start would be to reduce caloric intake by about 15%. So, an average woman requiring 2000kcal per day may want to make an initial reduction of 300kcal per day; if there is little to no weight loss, then perhaps cutting an extra hundred or so will help. And if this is no good, then maybe notch it up to that 500-mark.

However, really… what you should focus on is *burning* more calories! Thing is, there’s only so many calories you can cut before your body just doesn’t respond and it figures that you’re starving yourself, and so, holds onto all that bodyfat for dear life! What can you do to combat this? Move you’re a$$ more for a start!!

If you typically burn a few hundred calories from activity, then you should probably aim to burn more – several hundred instead! So, rather than a meagre 300kcal, try to burn a solid 700ish. Therefore, if you cut about 300kcal from your diet and burn an extra 400kcal through activity, then you should be seeing results in no time.


Food Content (4)


But let’s be clear on something – I don’t want this to sound like the simple, old advice of ‘Move more, eat less’… Yes, I am saying decrease calories, and exercise more, but it is the *quality* of both that must be taken up a notch [or ten]! You can’t just eat cr*p that is nutritionally lacking and say, ‘Oh, but it falls within my daily limit’ – that’s not going to work.

And neither will plodding along on a treadmill mindlessly; consume healthy, natural food that is rich in nutrients, and perform exercise that is going to promote muscle growth/retention, fat-loss, and boost your metabolism!

On the other end of the spectrum (for mass gain), just adding 500kcal doesn’t always make sense either. So much depends on how much you move throughout the day. As a Trainer, an average day at work – doing PT with clients, Group X classes with members, moving around a 4400 square foot facility (up and down stairs), tidying up countless dumbbells and plates – would usually see me burn over 3500kcal per day!

Or take a member of any of the world’s Elite Forces (SAS or Navy SEALS, for example) – they require at least 5000kcal per day!! Granted, both these roles are extremely active in nature, but let’s say you’re a school teacher that coaches a kids’ sports team on the side, takes the dog for a walk twice a day, and has an over-active toddler to entertain in the evenings when you get home – you may be burning more than you think.

Okay, nearly there!

So, you know that calories weren’t all born equal – you can have a snack that’s 200kcal of pure goodness, or 200kcal of utter sh*t! And you know that it’s important to establish your starting point with calories and figure out your BMR/TEF/NEAT/TEA [and TDEE]. The last thing I just want to hit home before signing off here is this: having a meal that has 800kcal isn’t going to make you fat. If you’re an average guy (requiring 2500kcal per day), then even eating THREE meals with this many calories won’t be making you fat either! You would technically have “wiggle-room” for another 100kcal in there…

I hear people stress over meals containing 400kcal and saying that that’s ‘SO many’, but if you’re having three 400-calorie meals per day, then that’s only 1200kcal, therefore, one of two things is happening: either that’s all you’re eating, thus you are *under-eating*, and you’re not losing bodyfat/weight because your body won’t respond if you’re consuming less than your BMR of calorie consumption; orrrr you have these three low-ish calorie meals (totalling 1200-odd calories), but are stuffing your face with hundreds of extra calories from endless snacking, thus resulting in no caloric deficit, and no fat-loss at the end of the day.

Conclusion: Don’t freak out if a meal has several hundred calories – concern yourself more with where those calories are coming from, and ensure that it is mostly healthy fats, good carbs, a fair bit of protein, and [preferably] loaded with vitamins and minerals. Then, if you are eating a few meals a day with several hundred calories in each, make sure you are keeping the snacking to a minimum!

You really just need to manage your calories well – you can download an app like MyFitnessPal, which can help you easily record your calorie intake; and you could use a calorie-tracking Heart Rate Monitor like a MyZone Belt to see how many you’re burning. Knowing these numbers will help you achieve your fat-loss/muscle-gain goals in a way that is simpler, safer and sustainable.

Dropping another mahoosive article on the blog right here – hope you’ve enjoyed it!


Yours in Training,


Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO

4 thoughts on “The Misconception of Calories

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