Remember those old see-saws? Rickety, splinter-ridden planks of joy.
There is probably one you specifically remember, from the park down the street or maybe from primary school, which was the source of both fun and bruises.
I'd like you to get a picture of that see-saw in your mind. It will make the idea of calories a hell of a lot easier to understand.
First things first.
ALL CALORIES ARE EQUAL
There is no such thing as a ‘good’ calorie or a ‘bad’ calorie.
A calorie is simply a unit of energy. We use the term to measure how much energy a given food provides your body.
A calorie from a muffin is no different than a calorie from an apple. The muffin just has more calories while the apple has fewer calories (but more nutrients; vitamins and minerals - the good stuff).
So, a calorie is just a measurement of energy. Why does this matter?
It matters a lot.
Like, the most important thing you must understand about calories ever x1000, a lot.
This measurement is the sole factor to whether you will lose or gain weight.
The see-saw balancing act of weight gain and weight loss
Your body has a balance point. This is where your see-saw comes into play. The balance point is a level at which your total calories in = total calories out. It's known as your maintenance energy level and is the point where your body will not gain or lose weight.
At this point, both sides are in equal balance.
Everyone has a different maintenance level based on a variety of factors.
When one side becomes different to the other, changes in weight start to occur.
When the see-saw tips to the side of calories in it leaves an excess of energy. This can come from increased calories in or decreased calories out.
Gaining weight purely comes from having an excess of calories (energy) in the body which must be stored somewhere - usually as fat.
'Calories in' doesn't care about where the calories come from. 1000 calories from ice cream are exactly the same as 1000 calories from an avocado/quinoa/superfood salad. Excess calories is excess energy and must be stored somewhere.
The happens when the see-saw tips the other way and calories in becomes less than the calories out.
When calories in is less than calories out, the energy needed to make up the difference will be taken from stores in the body - usually fat stores (awesome!).
The calorie deficit can be made by decreasing calories in and/or increasing calories out.
It’s up to you to decide how you make the deficit. But, to lose weight, THERE MUST BE A CALORIE DEFICIT.
No amount of clean foods or health shakes will make you lose weight. Only a calorie deficit will. Clean foods and health shakes only work as they help create this deficit.
This is the fundamental law of nature and the underlying principle of every diet.
To lose weight, calories in MUST be lower than calories out
Note that in each scenario I've referred to weight loss or gain. Not fat or muscle. The calorie balance will determine weight changes, but whether this change comes from fat or muscles mass changes depends on where these calories come from and what type of exercise you do.
Part 2 will explore how to lose weight from fat loss, not muscle loss, and how to optimise you calorie intake for body composition (high muscle and low fat).
In a real-life example, let’s observe Andy and his twin Drew.
They are both 88kgs, same body composition (same amount of fat and muscle) and have the same calorie maintenance level of 2500 calories a day.
Both guys want to lose weight.
Drew doesn’t quite get the whole calorie thing and decides to just eat as healthy as possible. Lot’s of salads, veggies, nuts, fruit, juices, coconut oil and other ‘clean’ foods. Without realising it, he consumes about 2500-2700 calories per day.
Focus: Eat healthy
Andy understands that total calories are most important. He figures out he should eat under 2500 calories each day. His diet consists of some ‘good food’ and some ‘bad food’ but he keeps his calories in at around 2000-2200 every single day.
Focus: Reduce calories
Rice, bread, pasta
Three months later Andy is 4kgs lighter, while Drew has actually put on 1kg and is frustrated beyond belief.
It doesn’t matter how ‘clean’ you eat; if your calories in are higher than your calories out there will be an excess of energy in your body which HAS to be stored somewhere (hello belly fat).
The secret to how diets actually work
This picture was making the rounds recently on social media.
As you can see, all diets use a different method to get the same result.
It's all the exact same process of managing calories in to create a deficit in energy levels. This causes the person on the diet to lose weight as the energy to make up the difference comes from their fat stores.
The system used may be different, but in the end, the outcome is exactly the same.
There’s really no magic to it.
To conclude this lovely knowledge bomb...
Now that you understand the importance of calorie balance and how it impacts your weight gain and loss, I’d like to state:
The total number of calories you consume isn’t the only thing that matters, but it IS the most important thing which will impact your weight.
Where those calories come from is also very important and will impact your health, fat mass, muscle mass, energy and how you feel. You still want to try and eat most of your foods from unprocessed and ‘healthy’ sources.
But worrying about this stuff before thinking about your calorie balance is doomed from the start.
Get the macro right before thinking about the micro.
< Calories are, and will always be, king >
If you have any questions about this article, shoot me a message on Facebook or drop me an email. Happy to help.