The issue of calories has become a confusing one, with conflicting opinions about whether or not calories count, and whether or not we need to pay any attention to the numbers if we want to keep our waistlines in check. Some people will have us believe that it is all about calories, and we that simply need to eat less if we want to lose weight, whilst others will assert that it is not calories that we should be focusing on, but rather the quality of our food. So who is right and what is the best way forward for those of us who want to keep us health in check?
Both of these standpoints are correct, in that we need to focus on both the quantity and the quality of the food that we eat. It is also true that if you eat more calories than you require or expend, you will gain weight - this is the basic energy in vs. energy out calories principle. Calories definitely do count and we do need to be mindful of how much we eat, regardless of the type or quality of food that we eat, even the 'good' stuff. However, I believe that it is a mistake to view nutrition solely from a calories in and out standpoint, and I would suggest that many people often do better if they actually do not count calories, particularly at the outset.
Whilst calories absolutely do count, people should be more concerned with making better food choices initially, rather than simply working within a set calorie prescription. The focus at the start should be on consuming quality, nutrient dense foods, whilst cutting out processed, calorie dense and relatively nutritionally devoid food sources, thus creating a foundation for health. The aim should be to include adequate protein, a variety of vegetables, some fruit and some good fats, such as those found in nuts, butter and coconut oil for example. This in itself is a very simple approach, but one that will take many of us a long way.
Once we have a solid nutritional foundation in place and we are making good choices, having an eye on calories becomes important, especially if you need to fine-tune things. It is worth noting however that not everyone wants, or needs, to count calories, and that the vast majority of people can reach their goals, and meet their requirements, without ever having to count their calorie consumption. Although if you have very specific goals, especially relating fat loss, it is likely that at some point you will benefit from knowing your total calorie intake, particularly if you are already in good shape.
If you do choose to count calories, don't simply count calories. We want to get the right foods, in the right amounts, not simply hit our calorie requirement regardless of the foods. This is where a macronutrient framework is useful, as it ensures that not only do we eat within our specific calorie requirements, but that we also get both the essential micro and macronutrients that we need. This way we can match our intake to our calorie requirements, whilst also ensuring that we get enough of the things that we need from a broader nutritional perspective for robust health. The aim would be to get the right foods, in the right proportions, for our specific calorie requirements.
So how do we do it? For the purposes of example, let's take a 70kg person, who, after accounting for some very individual variables (which will change over time), such as basal metabolic rate, starting point, goals, activity level, previous nutritional history and so on, requires 1600kcals per day to meet their goals. The exact numbers would be different for everyone, and they will change over time, but lets start with protein requirements. In this case let us assume that we need 1.5g of protein per kilo of bodyweight, which would be 105g. 105 x 4 (the number of calories per gram of protein) = 420kcal.
Next we would look at fats. In this example we are going to make fat 40% of the diet (again, this would not be the same for everyone), which would be 680kcal. 680 divided by 9 (the number of calories in each gram of fat) equals broadly 75g of fat. The remainder we would consume from carbohydrates. So, we have 420kcal from fat and 680kcal from protein, which gives us a total of 1100kcal. That gives us 500kcals left to find from carbohydrate (1600-1100). 500 divided by 4 (the number of calories in a gram of carbs) equals 125g.
So in this example, our daily requirements would be 105g of protein, 75g of fat and 125g of carbohydrate. This would give us our required 1600kcals, but also ensures that we get the nutrients that we need, rather than simply 1600kcals, regardless of how it is made up. We can then break this down into an eating schedule that suits us personally, be that four meals, two meals, three meals and snack, and so on, and be comfortable that we are getting what we require calorie-wise, whilst also eating according to our specific nutritional requirements.