Nutrition Articles

Why Calories Are King

5 Questions with Becky Hand, SparkPeople Dietitian


1. What is the most common misconception about calories?
I’d say it’s the belief that calories from different foods are worth more or less. It’s true that fats are higher density in calories than protein or carbohydrates. But in the end, all that matters is whether your body needs those calories or not. If your body has met all of its immediate energy and energy store needs, those extra calories will be turned to fat whether they came from a tomato or a Tootsie Roll. You could eat no junk food at all, but if you wolfed down 3,000 calories worth of fruits and vegetables, you’d still gain weight. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to calorie totals, both of what you eat and what you burn. If those numbers are in line, you should be fine. Of course, it’s still essential to get calories from a balanced diet so you get all the nutrients you need.

2. Suppose someone has cut calories, but still hits a plateau. Is it possible that she may need to eat more calories to lose weight?
It’s possible. If you’re not eating enough, your body sort of panics and goes into what’s known as starvation mode, slowing down your metabolism and fat-burning processes. If it’s being starved of calories, it has to hold onto all of the energy stores and calories that it can. Think of your body as a furnace. If there’s not enough fuel, the fire just simmers for a long time without really burning hot. If you’re not eating enough calories to match your activity level, your body just simmers and no real progress is being made. The danger is that people react to this type of plateau by eating even less, which of course just makes the problem worse and harder to recover from. It’s a horrible cycle that can lead to real problems.

3. How many calories do people need to eat?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? You’re going to hate me when I say that it depends. There are three factors involved: Your weight loss goals, your Basal Metabolic Rate (the number of calories your body burns via normal, everyday functions), and how much exercise you get. First, calculate your BMR. Next, consider how much activity you get. Add the calories you burn through activity and exercise for one day to your BMR. This is your baseline for daily calorie needs. To lose 1 pound per week (if that’s your goal), you’d simply eat 500 calories less than this number each day. Whatever your baseline is, more than 1,000 calories per day below that (resulting in 2 pounds lost per week) is not a good idea. Your body needs enough nutrition and energy to deal with whatever exercise level you choose. At bare minimum, no matter what, I strongly urge women to not drop below 1,200 calories daily and men to not drop below 1,500 calories daily. Any lower than that and starvation mode – or worse – will almost always kick in.

4. Why do people still need to get calories from carbs? Can’t more protein make up for it?
Each type of nutrient (fat, carbs, protein) is an energy source. Each has the same end result – they’re either used or eventually stored as fat. But each is processed in a unique way and fills a very specific need. Let’s focus on carbs versus protein, since this is the focus of a lot of dieting these days. Both carbs and protein work on different assembly lines in the same factory. A minimum amount of carbs is essential for immediate energy needs and to metabolize fat properly. People seem to forget (ironically) that carbs are also your sole source of energy for the brain. No one else in the factory can do this job. Proteins can provide energy too, but they have more value if used in other ways, like building and repairing cells, producing antibodies to fight disease, and helping out with other body functions. If not enough carbs show up for work, proteins are pulled off of the jobs they’re best at to cover those energy-producing functions. Meanwhile, the work proteins were supposed to be doing goes undone. The factory suffers.

5. What rule of thumb should be used in allocating calories?
Since menus and eating realities change daily, average ranges work better than absolute percentages. For the most part, your calorie intake should come from:

40-65% Carbohydrates
10-35% Proteins
20-35% Fats

It’s important to try to meet these ranges every day to fulfill your energy and nutrient needs without creating more fat storage. But if you miss these ranges periodically, don’t stress too much, just keep an eye on it and work on improving your habits. Trying to match an exact number – or even a range -- every single day is unrealistic. If your results are within these ranges over time, that’s what matters.

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Member Comments

    i think this info needs some updating. especially for the diabetic trackers.
  • JIM212
    Dated and sort of "old school" content if you ask me. I have successfully managed my caloric intake to 60% fats, 20% carbs, 20% protein and in the process lost 40 pounds. In addition total cholesterol has dropped from 304 to 175, triglycerides down from 420 to 98 and HDL is up from 40 to 56. Also am rarely hungry or in need of a "fix" to keep going. Here's the big one - limit calories to three main meals a day. Emerging science is pointing to insulin control as the key to weight control. Eating triggers insulin (most times) so this theory of eating/snacking throughout the day is flawed, especially for folks with fatty liver, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, etc. Summary: three meals a day, limit carbs in favor of healthy fats and exercise regularly.
  • Very informative. Factors of age, hypothyroidism, and beta blockers muddy the waters on trying to figure out just what is what for me.
  • "Starvation mode" is not a problem for most people, nor is it something that kicks in right away. It is a lowering of metabolic rate, an adaptation process that can contribute to weight loss plateaus short-term. That said, there were no fat people in the concentration camps and they were eating in the "starvation mode" calorie range. Eat less + move more and you will lose weight--- unless there is an additional medical issue (thyroid, hormones, etc...) that needs resolving. I think people use "starvation mode" worries as a way to avoid making the changes they need to make in order to get the results they say they want. Still, I agree that there is no reason to go below 1200 calories per day. Move more instead and be patient.
  • TIMOTHYNOHE: "#2 is am absolutely ridiculous proposition. According to this idea, If I stop eating altogether, I would gain weight, right?"

    Wrong. What you have here is known as an inverse fallacy. Google it.
  • I used "Incite" sarcastically also...for those wondering...I know it's suppose to be "insight"
  • Instead of leaving negative comments...why can't some of you propose better solutions since you have all of the answers. If you practice eating nutrient densed food and eat for your activity should lose weight. On the other hand, you can't expect to lose weight if you don't move at all. The concept of eating more in small portions throughout the day makes perfect it is a fact that the body needs calories to burn calories. If you don't have sufficient calories to burn body will lose weight...but it will come from "lean" muscle tissue...the same muscle tissue that pumps your heart and moves your skeletal system! So, if you think starving to lose weight is a smart thing to will find out just how difficult day to day living will be. There is always someone negative commenting without offering viable information! Becky Hand, great article and thank you for your incite!
  • The large nutrition calorie as a measure is very flawed and I am increasingly uncomfortable with it. The SI unit is Joule.
  • #2 is am absolutely ridiculous proposition. According to this idea, If I stop eating altogether, I would gain weight, right? ANd yet people do starve to death. Or! If I plateau and I start to eat more I would lose more weight. So if I go from 800 calories a day and not losing weight I would lose weight eating 2400 or 3000 calories a day ... oh, wait, that's what got me in trouble in the first place.

    I really wish SparkPeople would apply the science of thermodynamics and physics to this problem and dispose of this myth once and for all.

    Google "truth about starvation mode" to find good articles about this balderdash.

    Here's one I particularly like: http://fattyfight
  • GMAGEE, you also need to use your weight to calculate calories burned with any given exercise. Also, adding just a little resistance can gain a lot in calories burned - walking, I think, is calculated as on a level surface, but if you start adding hills, as in hiking, it almost doubles the burn. I've found it easiest to cut about 250 calories a day and burn 250 a day (about an hour a day total, split into 2-3 sessions).
  • Do you have a citation for the "carbs are also your sole source of energy for the brain"? I've seen this before in Spark articles, but never with a source for the statement.
  • If I subtract 500 cals./day I'm at 1050--not enough. I can't go below 1200 or I get really weak and shaky. Will stay at 1300.
  • I disagree - I have done the research about low carb diets and fat can replace the role of carbs for the brain and energy. I eat low carb and have more energy and can think better than if I ate a lot of carbs. Love eating my coconut oil too. Good fats are not the villain.
  • Great and helpful article. I haven't checked out what some are saying about questionable BMR calculations yet, but intend to. Setting that aside, the article is still very helpful to those of us who are just now REALLY trying to take control of health and lifesytle eating. (Played around off and on for years.) Thanks for all the help:)

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.