Weight loss is a numbers game, pure and simple. It’s a function of calories in versus calories out, and the sooner you wrap your head around this concept the sooner you’ll be on your way to leaner, meaner you. Most every diet plan talks about calories; pretty much every packaged food item in the grocery store has a nutritional profile that details the number of calories per serving, and calories figure prominently on every piece of cardiovascular equipment at the gym that keep track of your workout on an electronic display. When it comes to weight loss and the fitness industry, calories are ubiquitous to say the least and rightfully so. This is because they are a concrete way of measuring the energy we consume against the energy we burn, of controlling energy intake and energy expenditure. Grasping the connection between calories and losing weight is half the battle. But first comes the question, what exactly is a calorie anyway?
In simplest terms a calorie is the energy value of any given food. In more complex terms it’s defined as “a unit for measuring a quantity of heat; the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of a gram of water by one degree Celsius”, according to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. For our purposes though, let’s keep it simple and remember that every food has a certain value that is expressed in how much energy it provides us.
So, now we know what calories are and that they provide us with energy. I think most of you will already understand instinctively that it’s this energy that allows us to walk, run, do the dishes, drive to work and do pretty much any type of activity that we do in our daily lives. We consume energy through food and we expend energy through activity. This basic idea should start giving you an idea of the balancing act that goes on with the number the number of calories you take in versus the number that you burn. This is known as caloric balance and is a useful way of determining whether your food intake and activity level will lead to weight loss, weight gain or maintaining the status quo.
Understanding your caloric balance is the key when it comes to losing weight. Once you can assign the food you eat a number, and once you can assign the activity you do a number, figuring out how many calories you need for losing weight becomes a matter of simple math. Here are some examples to clear things up;
Maintenance (No change is body weight)
- Calories consumed during the day = 1700
- Calories expended during the day = 1700
Everything is balanced so there won’t be any change in your overall weight.
- Calories consumed during the day = 1700
- Calories expended during the day = 1400
You’ve eaten more calories than you actually burned during the day, therefore those excess calories will be stored as fat. Although the difference between the number of calories eaten and burned may be quite small, over time they do add up, generally to about 10 pounds per decade past the age of 30 if things aren’t kept in check.
Calories consumed during the day = 1700
Calories expended during the day = 2000
Here, the number of calories you’ve taken in is slightly less than your overall energy expenditure. This means that you’ve used up all of the energy you’ve taken in for the day, plus a little bit extra (from stored body fat). This is where you want to be.
The How of Calculating Calories
Calculating your daily caloric needs need not be complicated. Health Canada provides an easily readable chart here; http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/basics-base/1_1_1-eng.php#fn3 to help you figure out an estimate of how many calories you need daily. The issue with these type of charts is that there is room for interpretation regarding what constitutes being “sedentary”, “low active” or “active”. So I would suggest taking these types of readings with a grain of salt.
On the other end of the spectrum is the equation for calculating Basal Metabolic Rate (how many calories your body burns in a day). It can be found here; http://www.livestrong.com/article/34697-formula-calculate-daily-caloric-intake/. Taking the time do this equation is worthwhile as it is a more accurate indicator of your overall activity levels and the number of calories needed to fuel your particular activity level.
So, now you know what a calorie is, the importance of caloric balance in promoting weight loss and how to calculate the number of calories you need daily. The next step is to understand how many calories are found in the foods that you eat every day. A good start is at http://caloriecount.about.com/foods. Chart out your daily eating habits for a couple of weeks or a month so you can get a feel for your average consumption rates. From there you can look at the charts and see how many calories you’re taking in versus what the ideal is for someone with your activity level. You can then adjust the number of calories you’re eating based on what the numbers say.
The trick here is to maintain high nutrition levels while cutting back on some calories at the same time. The easiest thing to do at the beginning of the process is to purge your diet of junk food, fast food and highly processed food. This doesn’t necessarily have to happen all at once, but eliminating each of these types of food systematically will bring down the calorie numbers substantially. Training yourself to choose lower fat, less processed foods is a bit of an art and takes some practice. Check out the following link to learn how to read nutritional profiles http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/nutrition/cons/fact-fiche-eng.php. You’ll soon discover that the muffin you just bought or the granola bars you were eyeing are not quite the healthy alternatives you thought they might be.
Once you’ve removed the “offending” foods from your diet and gotten a handle on how many calories you need daily, you can then look at your activity levels as a means of burning more calories over and above those that have been eliminated through cleaning up your diet. This combination cleaner diet, an accurate idea of how many calories you require and higher activity levels will lead very quickly to a new and healthier you. There’s no time like the present to change your life forever.