Is managing your weight as simple as subtracting calories out from calories in? Or are the equations for fat loss and muscle-building a bit more complicated?
Dig more than skin deep and the human body is a very confusing thing. At any given moment, an uncountable number of interlinked biophysical processes are happening inside you, from electrical signals flashing along nerves to chemicals shuttling between cells, which control everything from the movement of your muscles to whether you can remember where you left your house keys. It's a complex system and it needs a lot of fuel to run.
To power the human body (and this is a gross oversimplification of how it actually works) we need to eat. If we eat too much, we end up with a bunch of leftover energy, which gets stored for later as fat. If we don't eat enough, then the system doesn't have enough energy to function properly and taps those stores to make sure it keeps ticking over.
Which brings us onto calorie counting. It’s a way to monitor how much energy goes in so you can balance it against how much gets burned up, the idea being that with a bit of basic math you can keep to either a deficit (in which case you'll lose weight) or a surplus (which means you'll put weight on).
Although this concept has been around for years, it’s still easy to be sceptical – does counting calories actually make fat loss or weight gain easier? The following article will explore why calories are important, explain how you can count calories safely, and most importantly, take a critical look at whether calorie counting actually works long-term.
Strap in, because things are about to get technical.
A calorie is a unit of energy. Specifically, the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1g of water by 1°C. In that context, it's very rarely used by scientists these days, having been replaced by the joule.
In food, of course, it's very commonly used. But technically, we're not talking calories – we're talking kilocalories (kcal).
1kcal = 1000 calories.
A kilocalorie can also be written as Calorie, capitalising the 'C'. We know – it can be super confusing
1000 calorie (cal) = 1 Calorie/kilocalorie (kcal)
Our bodies need energy to do what they do, that’s why calories are so important. However, keeping track of calorie intake is not always easy. If you want more on the science behind calories, check out our article How to Calculate the Energy Value of Food, written by one of our expert nutritionists, Rebecca Williams SENr, RNutr.
Over 100 years ago, a guy called Wilbur Olin Atwater developed a way to measure the calorie content of foods. It’s called the Atwater system (who’d have thought?) and it’s still used today. Full disclosure: it’s not 100% accurate. But it’s still pretty good.
According to the Atwater system:
1g of fat = 9kcal
1g of alcohol = 7kcal
1g of carbohydrate = 4kcal
1g of protein = 4kcal
So 100g of butter (which is mostly fat) will contain more calories than 100g of oats (which is mostly carbohydrate). Fibre is not accounted for in this system, but because it’s not digested as well as other carbohydrates, it’s usually assumed 1g of fibre = 2kcal.
Although the Atwater system helps us understand calorie counting mathematically, it's not the most practical if you actually want to know how much energy there is in what you're eating.
Just as you can figure out how many calories are going into your body, you can also calculate how many you 'burn'. Again, we're actually talking kilocalories here. And unlike food, where you can use scales and nutrient types to get to a decent estimate, figuring out energy burn is trickier.
If you were just to lie in bed all day and not move, you'd still burn a lot of calories just keeping yourself breathing, blood pumping, nerves firing, cells growing, and everything else your body does to keep you alive. This is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the amount of energy required for you to do nothing at all. In most people, BMR accounts for up to 75 per cent of your total calorie burn. The rest is based on how much you move around.
The more you move, the more calories you need to fire your muscles. But also, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn doing nothing. That's because muscle is 'active', whereas fat just sits there and requires no energy to maintain. Then again, the bigger you are, the more energy you need to move around. That means you need to eat more, which also means you burn more energy digesting the food you eat...and so on. Like we said, it's complicated.
Helpfully, there are tonnes of apps and calculators out there now which can help you to estimate your calorie needs. This is one of our favourites. If you want a more accurate read, then fitness trackers monitor things like heart rate, blood oxygen levels and how much distance you're covering to give a more personal picture of your daily calorie burn. Bear in mind, though, that they're still estimates.
This is why the entire concept of calorie counting exists, because calorie intake is person-specific. Calorie ‘needs’ vary from person to person. ‘Needs’ is defined roughly as the number of calories someone needs to maintain their weight. If someone is eating fewer calories than they need, they’re in what’s called a calorie deficit and will lose weight. If someone is eating more calories than they need, they’re in a calorie surplus and will gain weight.
So why count calories? Well, it is likely a person is counting calories because they’re trying to eliminate weight gain, as excess calories are normally stored in the body as fat. Alternatively, someone very active like an athlete might want to count calories to track progress of muscle growth, as excess calories can be converted by the body into muscle with exercise.
Calorie needs vary based on height, weight, age, gender and a whole host of other factors. Here are a few examples:
It’s possible to 'count' the calories of any food, but the approach you take is entirely up to you. You can do it:
The easy way – check out the back of any food packaging as it’s legally required to display calories
The hard way – calculate the calories using the Atwater factors
The really hard way – through buying loads of expensive and fancy science equipment!
Bit of a no-brainer, eh?
Huel makes the process of calorie counting a lot easier too. For example, one scoop of Huel = 200 calories and two scoops = a 400-calorie Huel meal, giving you ease and control over your calorie intake. There’s many more reasons why Huel is great for calorie counting, but we’ll get to that later.
But calorie counting and measuring your calorie needs will never be totally accurate. It’s better to think of them as a best guess so it’s probably a good idea to track your progress in more objective ways too. So, a set of scales could help here, as could taking photos to get a better idea of your body shape, using a tape measure, or just tracking your exercise performance (eg whether you're running quicker or lifting more weight)
If you think you’re eating the calories you need to lose weight but the scales haven’t moved, then something isn’t quite right. That’s not the end of the world – simply lower your daily calorie intake by another 200kcal and then weigh yourself over the next two weeks. It’s likely that you’ll start to see some progress.
It’s also important to note that changes, from your body weight to your physical activity, will affect your calorie needs. Therefore you will need to redo your calorie needs calculations to see if you need to change the amount of calories you are consuming.
Counting calories isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but they’re just one piece of the puzzle. As a society, we fixate on them but they don’t give you everything you need to know – they tell you how much you’re eating but not what you’re eating. It’s worth remembering there’s a significant difference between calories and food quality.
You could eat 1000kcal of donuts and lose weight or 1000kcal of salmon, rice and broccoli and also lose weight. But it will be much harder to lose weight eating donuts because they’re not as filling as salmon, rice and broccoli. The latter is also a healthier meal and is likely to leave you feeling better and able to do more things, but you wouldn’t know that just by looking at the calories.
Calories don’t tell you how much of each nutrient a food contains either. How are you going to know the amount of protein or vitamin C or iron from the calorie value? You can’t.
|When calorie counting can be helpful||When calorie counting can be unhelpful|
|If you’re having a hard time understanding why you’re not losing/gaining weight||If you are already a healthy weight|
|If you're tracking specific goals eg for weight training to increase the amount of weight you can lift||If you want to eat healthily (tracking food quality)|
|If you have an eating disorder eg anorexia|
|If it takes time and enjoyment out of eating and preparing meals|
Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of calorie counting, it’s fair to say recommending a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach doesn’t work, because each case is person-specific. If you are still unsure, you could use calorie counting to help you understand more about what you eat, and ditch it once you feel you’ve learnt enough. Alternatively, if you have decided that calorie counting is right for you, Huel can make the process a lot easier.
Calorie counting works if done correctly, and it can be really beneficial under the right circumstances. But ultimately, there might be a fair amount of trial and error first to figure out what’s best for you. Remember that calorie counting focuses on how much, but don’t forget about what you’re eating too.
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