The great calorie myth

February 12, 2014

Some people will insist that it starts and ends with calories.  Eat too much and move too little you’ll gain weight; it’s the basic energy in vs. energy out equation.  And it’s true.  But I don’t think we should view it solely this way.

I rarely suggest that people count calories at the outset.

I think people should be more concerned with making better food choices initially, rather than simply working within a set calorie prescription.  Who cares how many calories you’re getting if you’re diet is devoid of fibre and riddled with trans fats for example?

Presumably most of us would rather get a little bit too much of the things we need (protein, fibre and micronutrients for example), rather than simply getting the right number of calories from processed foods, laced with additives and refined sugars, that leave us feeling knackered and lethargic?   I for one certainly would.

It would make more sense to me that we are eating the right foods before we worry about fine-tuning the amounts and number of calories we get.  Once we have a foundation of good foods and we’re making good choices I think having an eye on calories is important, if your goal requires it.

Counter productive

It’s worth noting that not everyone wants or needs to count calories.  The vast majority of people can reach their goals and meet their requirements without ever having to specifically count calories.  Certain personality types will respond differently also.  Accountants like to count for example, creative types less so.

If you do count calories, don’t simply count calories.

Use a macronutrient framework that includes protein, fat and carbohydrate quantities to ensure that you get what you need from a broader perspective, rather than simply total calories.

Calories do count, but where they come from matters also.

Let’s say that you weigh 70kg for example and after putting some of the individual pieces together (which will be very specific to you) – such as your basal metabolic rate, starting point, goals, activity level, previous nutritional history and so on – you decide that you need 1600kcals a day to meet your requirements and goals.

Would getting 1600kcals regardless of the foods be the optimal approach?  Unlikely.  The risk you run here is of being over-fed and under-nourished, which is exactly why many people suffer food cravings.  They get the food they need in terms of calories, it just doesn’t bring with it the nutrients their body requires.  The aim would be to get the right foods and in the right proportions for your specific calorie requirement.

Numbers game

So how do we get it right it?  Here’s an example. The exact numbers would be different for everyone, but we’d start with protein.  Perhaps we’d go 1.5g of protein per kilo of bodyweight, which would be 105g.  105 x 4 (the number of calories per gram of protein) = 420kcal.

Next we’d look at fats.  In this example we’re going to make fat 40% of the diet (again, this wouldn’t be the same for everyone), which would be 680kcal.  680 divided by 9 (the number of calories in each gram of fat) equals broadly 75g of fat.

The remainder we’d take from carbs.  So, we’ve got 420 calories from fat and 680 calories from protein, giving us a total of 1100kcal.  That gives us 500kcals left to find from carbohydrate (1600-1100).  500 divided by 4 (the number of calories in a gram of carbs) equals 125g.

So our daily requirements would be 105g of protein, 75g of fat and 125g of carbs.  This would give us our required 1600kcals, but it would also ensure that we get the nutrients that we need, rather than simply 1600kcals regardless of how it’s made up. Break this down into the required meal plan and you’re away.

The benefit of this approach also is that we know what variables we’re dealing with.  So when the time comes and we hit that plateau we’ve got some information to play with and things we can tweak it to keep things moving the way you want them to.

This approach is what those in the fitness industry refer to as a ‘macros framework’.  You might also call it personalised nutrition.