Do Calories Count?

METABOLISM

I want to preface this discussion of calories and the energy balance with one simple statement: It's not ALL about calories.  There is a constant debate within the different dieting communities about the significance of calories.  Some traditional bro and IIFYM dieters would like to think that caloric intake and energy balance are the end-all-be-all.  That isn't the case.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are ignorant low-carb/keto enthusiasts that truly believe calories don't count and it's all about hormones, specifically insulin.  As is true with most things in lifeā€¦the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  All of the variables are important and all have an impact.  However, calories and the energy balance are a crucial part of this equation and one of the more controllable variables.  I can much more effectively control the number of calories I consume than I can control for my hormonal fluctuations.  I'm not suggesting that one matters more than the other, I'm just choosing to focus on manipulating the one I have the most control over.  On a side note, I know that it is relatively impossible to know your actual caloric intake and expenditure with utmost certainty.  The food industry grants nutritional labels a 20% amnesty both up and down.  Food labels aren't 100% accurate and you can't possibly know how many calories your body is actually burning.  As a result of this inaccuracy, many argue that it's pointless to count calories in the first place.  Here's the thing, if you consistently track your caloric intake and expenditure the same way each and every time, these inaccuracies average out over time and you can make reasonable assumptions based on these averages.  Body recomposition is all about controlling for the variables and holding as many things constant as possible.  If you're living a very structured and routine life as is recommended throughout the course of a competition or cutting phase, you'll be able to get things dialed in despite all of these inaccuracies.  

Let's start this discussion of energy balance and calories with a few simple definitions.  


Metabolism: Metabolism is the set of life-sustaining chemical reactions present in all living organisms.  There are three main purposes of metabolism.

1. The conversion of food to energy to run cellular processes.

2. The conversion of food to building blocks for proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and some carbohydrates.

3. The elimination of nitrogenous waste



Calories 

A calorie is a measured unit of energy.  The "small calorie" or "gram calorie" is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water to one degree Celsius.  We are most familiar with the "large calorie" or "food calorie."  One single food calorie is comprised of 1,000 small calories and is known as a "kilocalorie" or "kcal."  Nutritional labels illustrate these kilocalories as "Calories." If you're eating a 1,000 Calorie ribeye steak, you're technically eating a 1,000,000 "small calorie" meal.  This is incredibly confusing so going forward I'll just speak of calories as we are most familiar with them, as the larger, "food calories."


Maintenance Calories: This is the caloric intake you must consume on a regular basis to maintain your current body weight and composition.


Calorie Deficit: This involves consuming LESS than your maintenance intake.  Consuming at a deficit for a long enough period of time will yield a drop in body weight.  This drop is often comprised of both lean mass and body fat.  Ideally, the majority of it is body fat. 


Calorie Surplus: This involves consuming MORE than your maintenance intake.  Your ability to build lean mass is much more effective when you are consuming at a surplus and providing your body with the fuel necessary to build more tissue.  However, this can also result in an increase of body fat.


Metabolic Adaptation: This is the adaptation that occurs when your caloric intake shifts and your body is forced to compensate.  This is a natural evolutionary survival mechanism.  For instance, if you were stuck in Paleolithic times and suddenly found yourself short on food, your body's metabolism would down-regulate to conserve energy and adapt to this shortage.  This also occurs when you hit a dieting "plateau." 


Energy Balance or "Energy Homeostasis" is a biological process that involves the coordinated homeostatic regulation of food intake (energy inflow) and energy expenditure.  This is often referred to as "calories in, calories out" or, "CICO."  For whatever reason, this concept of energy balance became a red flag to many people in the low-carb dieting communities.  Likely because keto and low carb enthusiasts hold hormones and insulin in such high regard as it relates to losing body fat and being healthy.  Rightly so, hormones and insulin secretion play a massive role in our body's storage and loss of adipose tissue.  However, it makes no sense to disregard the fact that the amount of calories you do consume has a profound impact on your ability to gain or lose weight.  This holds true regardless of the type of diet you are following.  As such, I suggest you give it the attention it deserves when it comes to establishing your maintenance calories and determining the caloric deficit necessary to optimally lose body fat for competition or a simple fat loss phase.  



Calories

A calorie is a measured unit of energy.  The "small calorie" or "gram calorie" is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water to one degree Celsius.  We are most familiar with the "large calorie" or "food calorie."  One single food calorie is comprised of 1,000 small calories and is known as a "kilocalorie" or "kcal."  Nutritional labels illustrate these kilocalories as "Calories." If you're eating a 1,000 Calorie ribeye steak, you're technically eating a 1,000,000 "small calorie" meal.  This is incredibly confusing so going forward I'll just speak of calories as we are most familiar with them, as the larger, "food calories."


Maintenance Calories: This is the caloric intake you must consume on a regular basis to maintain your current body weight and composition.


Calorie Deficit: This involves consuming LESS than your maintenance intake.  Consuming at a deficit for a long enough period of time will yield a drop in body weight.  This drop is often comprised of both lean mass and body fat.  Ideally, the majority of it is body fat. 


Calorie Surplus: This involves consuming MORE than your maintenance intake.  Your ability to build lean mass is much more effective when you are consuming at a surplus and providing your body with the fuel necessary to build more tissue.  However, this can also result in an increase in body fat.


Metabolic Adaptation: This is the adaptation that occurs when your caloric intake shifts and your body is forced to compensate.  This is a natural evolutionary survival mechanism.  For instance, if you were stuck in Paleolithic times and suddenly found yourself short on food, your body's metabolism would down-regulate to conserve energy and adapt to this shortage.  This also occurs when you hit a dieting "plateau." 


Energy Balance or "Energy Homeostasis" is a biological process that involves the coordinated homeostatic regulation of food intake (energy inflow) and energy expenditure.  This is often referred to as "calories in, calories out" or, "CICO."  For whatever reason, this concept of energy balance became a red flag to many people in the low-carb dieting communities.  Likely because keto and low carb enthusiasts hold hormones and insulin in such high regard as it relates to losing body fat and being healthy.  Rightly so, hormones and insulin secretion play a massive role in our body's storage and loss of adipose tissue.  However, it makes no sense to disregard the fact that the amount of calories you do consume has a profound impact on your ability to gain or lose weight.  This holds true regardless of the type of diet you are following.  As such, I suggest you give it the attention it deserves when it comes to establishing your maintenance calories and determining the caloric deficit necessary to optimally lose body fat for a competition or cutting phase.  


Written By

Robert Sikes

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