Calories are complicated and counting calories? Well, that’s complicated too. There’s a lot that goes on in our bodies and the so-called simple rule of eating less and exercising more isn’t always that simple to put into action. But if you want to lose weight (or even to maintain or gain weight), having a general idea of how many calories you are consuming and how much you are expending each day can help you determine how many calories you need to hit your goals.
But like we said, it’s complicated. To help us clarify calories, what they are, why we need them, and how they can help us lose weight, we’ve chatted with Jenn LaVardera, MS RD CDN and dietician for Naturipe. Who, as a registered dietitian, nutrition expert, and wellness specialist, can help you better navigate the world of calories and why you shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of them.
What Are Calories?
Odds are, you have some idea of what a calorie is or isn’t. But to give you a scientific, nutrition-based understanding (which is essential when it comes to weight loss), we’ve asked LaVardera for the basic definition. And basically, “a calorie is a unit of energy.”
“When we talk about calories in food,” she explains, “we’re actually referring to kilocalories, which scientifically are the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1° Celsius (though that doesn’t mean a whole to most people).”
Why Do We Need Calories?
Our body is a well-oiled machine that needs fuel to keep it going. It’s like LaVardera explains, “We need energy to keep our bodies functioning.” So what then do we need calories for? Well, calories are that form of energy.
“We use the majority of our calories to power basic functions like breathing, heartbeats, and various metabolic processes,” LaVardera explains. “We also use calories so our bodies can perform simple activities of daily life, like walking and basic movements, and more intentional physical activity like exercise.”
Calories are essentially one of the building blocks of our life. Plus, they help provide us with all of the nutrients we need to stay healthy and strong. “Our bodies metabolize the carbohydrates, protein, and fat found in food and basically pull calories out of those nutrients,” says LaVardera.
How Does Counting Calories Help You To Lose Weight?
Counting calories has long been a weight-loss theory that nearly every diet in the history of dieting has referenced. But does it work? “We need calories from food to fuel our bodies every day,” LaVardera explains. “If we end up with more calories than we need, our bodies can put them into storage for later, either in the form of glycogen, a compound we store in our liver and muscles or as body fat.”
So on those days when we eat fewer calories than our body needs to function correctly, our bodies begin pulling energy from those storage supplies. “In theory,” says LaVardera, “if someone knew the exact amount of calories their body needed for the day and was able to keep track of exactly how many calories they got from food, they could aim to eat less than they need so their body was forced to pull energy from storage, which over time would result in weight loss.”
But LaVardera says in theory for a reason, as there is some resistance to eating in a calorie deficit, especially if it’s over an extended period of time. One reason is the “calorie deficit paradox,” which states that while eating in a calorie deficit diet can help you lose weight, your body’s metabolism will begin to slow down over time, making it harder to lose weight and cut back on calories.
How Many Calories Should a Man Eat a Day To Lose Weight and Why?
There’s really no one-size-fits-all answer to how many calories a man should eat each day to lose weight. “Every person has different energy needs, depending on their gender, age, height, weight, activity level, and individual factors like genetics,” says LaVardera.
Everyone’s bodies are different, so their weight loss strategies will ultimately be different as well. “A 25-year-old man who is 6 feet tall and works out regularly is going to have much higher needs than a 60-year-old man who is 5’8″ and is mainly sedentary all day,” LaVardera explains. So something your friend recommends that works great for them may not be the answer for you.
But as a general rule, men need around 2,500 calories to maintain weight. So to lose weight, you need to reduce your daily calorie count by 200-500 calories – this works out at around a one pound loss every week. This may not seem like much, but gradually losing weight is far safer and more sustainable.
Can You Eat More Calories if You Burn Them Off To Make Room for More?
If you plan to incorporate regular physical exercise into your weight loss regime, or you’re already a highly active person, you don’t want to just cut calories. In fact, you’re going to want to eat a little more. “Intentional physical activity (aka exercise) requires calories,” says LaVardera. “So yes, on days someone exercises, they may require more calories (aka more food).”
This is especially important for muscle recovery and restoring glycogen stores post-workout. But what you eat afterward does matter, so don’t just go for that quick sports drink or high-calorie snack right away. Being intentional with your post-workout fuel can help you recover and avoid unnecessary calories.
See more about - 8 Keys To A Healthy Diet
Should We Count Everything We Consume, Including Drinks?
Calories can quickly add up, sometimes without us even noticing. LaVardera reminds us that any food or drink containing carbohydrates, protein, fat, or alcohol will provide the body with calories.
Which isn’t a problem if we’re mindful of our overall caloric intake for the day, but you should be aware of how things like sweetened beverages and small, one-bite snacks add up throughout the day.
Why Isn’t It Safe To Go Under the Recommended Calorie Count?
Going into a caloric deficit should be monitored, ideally by both you and your dietician. Since going too far under your recommended amount of calories isn’t something that goes without consequence.
“Our bodies are super smart and fight to keep us alive,” says LaVardera. “On some levels, we still operate like cavemen who needed to be prepared for periods when food was scarce. If we are taking in too few calories, our bodies start to adapt.” So while you may be focused on how a caloric deficit will affect your outer appearance, LaVardera warns that we can’t forget about the potential effects it could have internally.
When we begin eating less and less, we start slowing down our metabolic process to preserve energy, leading to some internal sacrifices. “Our bodies will fight to keep our hearts beating and lungs breathing, but we may start to sacrifice other important, but not quite as vital, processes like making hormones or developing bone, which can be very detrimental to health.”
Do We Still Have To Eat a Healthy Balanced Diet When Counting Calories?
Eating a balanced diet is one of the most important things we can do for the health of our body, and according to LaVardera, because foods inherently contain nutrients, those nutrients will also contain calories. For a balanced, healthy diet, LaVardera always recommends prioritizing nutrients.
“We could eat nothing but candy all day and keep calories in check, but our bodies will be lacking vital nutrients like certain vitamins and minerals,” she explains. In other words, skimping on the calories (or just avoiding nutritious foods in general) means that you’re potentially missing out on some really important nutrients that your brain, body, and energy levels need. To combat this, LaVardera generally recommends focusing more on consuming moderate, satiating portions of whole, nutritious foods rather than just counting calories.
Can Counting Calories Be Dangerous?
The short answer is yes. LaVardera advises that counting calories can absolutely become dangerous as obsessing over your calorie intake and outtake can lead to disordered eating. She also warns that eating too few calories over an extended period of time can have some serious negative consequences on a person’s health, such as a weakened heart, impaired hormone function, and brittle bones.
5 Top Tips for Counting Calories Safely and Successfully
1. Calculate Your Calories
The first step in successfully and safely counting calories is to first know how many calories your body needs to maintain its current weight and how much you need to consume to lose weight.
Since this number is different for everybody and it’s better to not play any guessing games and just get straight to the facts, we recommend consulting a registered dietician who can help you set up a plan that’s right for you. But if you don’t want to see an RD, you should at the very least use a calorie estimator like this one based on the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation so you can get an estimate of your correct caloric needs.
2. Give Yourself Some Wiggle Room
To count calories safely and successfully (aka without losing your happiness and sanity), having a target calorie range instead of a strict number allows for more flexibility. Every day isn’t the same, and you’ll inherently burn more calories on some days than others. As long as your daily calorie average falls within that set range, it will be easier and more fulfilling to keep track of.
3. Opt for Fiber-Rich Foods
If you’re trying to safely cut back on how many calories you’re eating, choose those foods higher in fiber and protein like fruits, veggies, and low-fat foods. As these will keep you feeling fuller for longer and help you safely cut down on your caloric intake since carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram, whereas fats and alcohols have nearly double.
4. Read Those Food Labels
Branding and marketing can be deceiving, so even though that bag of chips says “100 calories per serving,” you may be surprised when you flip it over to read the nutrition label and see that one tiny bag has four servings – whoops. So take a minute to read the back of the box and see how many calories you’re really consuming. And, if you’re feeling up for it, consider cutting back on processed foods in general as you may find yourself eating more calories but feeling less satisfied than if you were to eat whole, nutrient-dense foods.
5. Factor in Extra for Exercise
It can’t be all cuts and no gains, especially if you’re exercising regularly. Be sure to account for those extra calories you’ll need to fuel your body pre and post-workout.
Example Day of Eating on the Recommended Calories To Lose Weight
“Everyone has different caloric and nutrient needs,” says LaVardera. So if you are really serious about sculpting an eating plan that works for you and your goals, consider consulting a registered dietician who can help formulate a plan that is tailored specifically for you.
Below, LaVardera has outlined a day of balanced, nutrient-dense eating to inspire your grocery list for the week. And, of course, this day of eating can easily be adjusted depending on your specific nutrient needs and tastes.
- 1 slice of sprouted grain bread topped with 1/3 avocado, smashed, and one over-easy egg
- Cup of fresh berries on the side
- Coffee with a splash of milk
- Quinoa bowl made with 1/2 cup quinoa, 1/2 cup chickpeas, 1 cup roasted broccoli and cauliflower, and a sprinkle of feta cheese
- Fresh strawberries dipped in 2 tablespoons of natural peanut butter
- 6 oz piece of wild salmon
- 1/2 cup of farro
- Asparagus broiled with a drizzle of olive oil
- Mixed berries drizzled with 2 teaspoons of honey and a dollop of Greek yogurt
See more about - Everything You Need To Know About The Ketogenic Diet