Most people don’t know how many calories we need each day or why calories are important to our health. Others track and count each calorie consumed from food and each burned through activity, aiming for a target level that will help them to maintain or achieve a particular weight. And still others understand why calories are important, but take a more relaxed approach to seeking balance between calories in and out.
The most important question to answer is, “Why do calories matter?” Calories are a measure of the potential energy a human body can pull from foods eaten in order to produce a source of fuel for the body. Once the body starts using that fuel, to do everything from breathing to pole vaulting (or walking), the amount used is also measured in calories. When the calories in and out are in balance, our brain and muscles are properly fueled, and energy is made from food eaten rather than from fat or protein stored in the body.
If we eat more calories than we spend, the body will store that extra energy as fat. This is the rainy day fund for the body. But staying in a positive energy balance over time can lead not only to excess body fat stores but also increased risk of chronic diseases like some cancers and heart disease.
When we are active enough to require more calories than we actually eat, the body will tap into the rainy day fund…fat. However, if body fat stores are too low, the body is conserving fat stores for other reasons, or too little protein is being eaten, protein stores (muscle tissue) are another fuel source for the body. Losing muscle tissue will not only sabotage weight loss efforts but also threaten overall health.
Simple, right? Just use one of those online calorie needs calculators and aim for that. Hold on, there’s more.
The calories you burn with your breathing and thinking and running and laughing are different from the calories I burn with my breathing and thinking and running and laughing. Same activities, different people.The difference is in your genes, yes, inherited from mom and dad. But the difference is also in your earliest environment (specifically, the womb, breast or bottle, how early and often you ate solid foods, you activity level, etc). Some people can just shave back a few calories here and there from their portions throughout the day. Others need a complete overhaul of their food and activity habits. These more extreme changes require a support system the likes of Alcoholics Anonymous. Your friends change because your hangout has to change, your favorite restaurant has to change, and what you talk about has to change.
Calories matter, in that they represent the energy we all need to live, but take care to keep them in perspective.
- Rather than fear calories, talk to your doctor and a dietitian about how many calories you need to eat based on your health needs and goals.
- Because calorie needs vary from person to person, an individualized approach to estimating needs and how to meet them is essential. Importantly, understand why you are striving for calorie or energy balance. Body weight is the reason most people think of. But there are so many other reasons to eat and move well.
My parting thought on calories is that food and movement are so much more than calories. Each has health effects beyond calories. And beyond health, food is flavor, culture, and tradition. Movement is work, play, and adventure. Honor both the health effects and the the simpler joys of food and movement in your everyday moments.