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What is a Calorie and How Do I Count Them

Posted by Brian Woodford on January 7, 2019

By Brian Woodford, Director of Nutrition           

Being in the fitness field I am often faced with many questions as well as having many questions myself. We live in a world where information is at the tips of our fingers at any time. Some of it is valid, some of it is not. Unfortunately this leads to many myths. One myth I have encountered numerous times involves the ever popular/scary word CALORIE. So many times I hear people say “I can’t eat that, there are too many calories” or “Wow, look how many calories are in that.”  This is where I can step in and ask, “Well, what do you mean too much?” and “Tell me what you mean by that.” Often times this involves recollection from the most recent Facebook or fitness magazine article that one may have read or possibly second/third/fourth/90th hand information. Ahhhhhh, now it is my time to provide assistance. “Well Mr. Jones, what is a calorie?” Insert blank stare. Now, prior to my new found love for nutrition and understanding the components of it, I was one of those blank stares.  I knew what the word calorie was and that it had to do with food and too many calories are “bad” but this was also second, third, fourth, 90th hand information that I had gathered. I guess I can empathize. healthy food.jpg

This brings me to the topic of this blog, what is a calorie and how is it counted?  The easiest explanation of a calorie is a unit of energy.  All of our bodily functions and organs require energy to operate.

The type of energy we supply it and the amount that we supply will determine how optimal our body functions.  We want to nourish our body right and our brain right. If we don’t get enough of those nutrients [that calories provide], there are negative consequences, whether it's losing lean muscle mass, not being able to concentrate or not having the energy we need on a day-to-day basis.

Therefore it becomes very important for someone to understand not only what a calorie is but where they come from and how they should be counted. Standard macro-nutrients known as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins have specific measures when it comes to calories.  A gram of protein consists of 4 calories, a gram of carbohydrate 4 calories as well, and a gram of fat 9 calories. So when one looks at a label and they see a product contains 200 calories, one should investigate further.

Where are these calories coming from? If something has 200 calories predominately coming from carbohydrates, does that have the same effect as a food containing 200 calories from protein? These are the types of things we have to look at when reading a label.

            unhealthy food.jpgOften times I find that many people will stop once they see that high number next to the word calorie.  However, we may be robbing ourselves of having a food very rich in nutrients that our body may yearn for. You may be asking yourself “how many calories should I have and where should they come from?”  I wish I could make a blanket statement on this and give you the perfect answer for what you should be consuming daily but unfortunately there are many factors to take into consideration when determining this.

The National Institutes of Health provides general guidelines of calorie requirements for various ages and activity levels. A middle-age moderately active female should consume 2,000 calories per day. A middle-age moderately active male should consume 2,400 to 2,600 calories per day. For adults, 45 to 65 percent of calories should come from carbohydrates, 20 to 25 percent should come from fat and 10 to 35 percent should come from protein.

Children need a higher proportion of fat, between 25 and 40 percent of their calories. No more than 25 percent of total calories should come from added sugars. That is baseline, now take into consideration what your goal is and what your activity level is and you could now have a baseline to work from. 

My suggestion would be to touch base with a knowledgeable expert on this, determine an accurate caloric intake for you and then determine where those calories should come from and how they are broken out.

The next step would be to go to your local supermarket and do some research!  Pick some of your favorite foods off the shelf and get an understanding of how many calories they consist of and where those calories come from and make sure that food type fits what you need for your body to function at optimal levels! Go out and have fun with this!