Calories Are Not The Enemy

Before I got into fitness, ‘calories’ felt like a dirty word.

It’s easy to feel that way when calories are often used as a marketing tool. For example a biscuit might be marketed as “only having 50 calories.” And anything with over 300 calories per 100g is given a big red traffic light on its nutritional breakdown. Implicit in this messaging, from brands and government alike, is that calories are bad! And the more calories something has, the worse it must be.

So if calories are bad, surely this means we should avoid these terrible things altogether? Well of course that would be both crazy and impossible, because all food contains calories. So how to deal with this? Let’s first look at what a calorie actually is.

A calorie is simply a unit of energy – a measure of how much digestible energy a food contains. The calories contained in a food are simply a product of how much protein, carbohydrate and fat a food contains (and also alcohol) – because these are the only compounds the body can actually digest and convert into usable energy.

Protein contains calories, and we all know protein is important for growth and repair. Protein contains about 4 calories per gram, although the body generally does not like to use it as fuel.

Carbohydrate contains calories. Carbs are the body’s go-to source for energy whenever they are available. Like protein, carbohydrates also contain about 4 calories per gram.

And of course fat contains calories. But fat is essential both for the absorption of certain vitamins and as a source of essential fatty acids (which the body cannot make itself). Fat contains about 9 calories per gram.

We need calories for fuel, and we need the above nutrients to survive and function properly. But calories alone can be a deceiving measure of whether a food is ‘healthy’ or not, or conducive to weight gain.

For example, I could pour a tablespoon of sugar into your tea and say “hey, it’s only 50 calories!” And then give you a handful of nuts and say “Careful, that’s 100 calories of nuts there.” As the nuts contain more calories, it could seem like that’s a worse option if you’re trying to lose weight or stay lean. Why not just take the sugar instead? But, we’ve only looked at half the picture. Looking at calories alone is arbitrary. What matters most for fat loss is how many calories a food contains relative to how much it satisfies your hunger.

A tablespoon of sugar isn’t going to do much to combat your hunger. In fact, it might spike your blood sugar levels enough to create further cravings once they dip. Sugar is also devoid of useful nutrients. Nuts on the other hand contain plenty of vitamins and trace minerals, as well as fibre, healthy fats, a little protein and some carbohydrate. The nuts will satisfy your hunger more. Eating wholesome foods such as nuts means you are less prone to overeating over the course of a day.

So calories are not the enemy when it comes to fat loss - we need to eat healthy food in order to fuel and recover from our workouts, and ultimately achieve our best results. The problem when it comes to fat loss arises from ‘empty calories’ and calories from foods that that don’t satisfy us – this is often what leads people to eat more calories than they need overall.

This is the reason why it’s not how much you eat per se that’s the issue, it’s what you eat. Take care of the quality, and the quantity takes care of itself.

What does ‘good quality’ food mean? Good quality, satiating food is generally food that is natural and unprocessed. A high amount of protein is also helpful as it satiates well and is rarely stored by the body as fat.

Foods such as meat, fish, eggs, salads, healthy oils, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables, leafy greens are all great for long term leanness and athletic performance. It is difficult to overeat on these foods, provided they are eaten whole and not processed in some way. I would also add some dairy to that list, particularly low fat cheeses such as quark and cottage cheese.

It might be even easier to think about what not to eat. By simply avoiding these three things: sugar, cereals and alcohol, most people can significantly improve their body composition.

I personally find that managing the quality of my food, rather than the quantity, is a much more enjoyable and less stressful way of eating. I don’t need to think about it too much, my body tells me what it needs. Although don’t get me wrong, I love beer and cake as much as the next person. Don’t forget to treat yourself too.