Nutrition Articles

Why Calories Are King

5 Questions with Becky Hand, SparkPeople Dietitian

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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.
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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.

Member Comments

  • "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. - 8/9/2013 9:45:20 AM
  • 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. - 7/31/2013 10:59:34 AM
  • I used "Incite" sarcastically also...for those wondering...I know it's suppose to be "insight" - 3/22/2013 4:43:34 PM
  • 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 level...you 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 logic...as it is a fact that the body needs calories to burn calories. If you don't have sufficient calories to burn body fat...you 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 do...you 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! - 3/22/2013 4:31:54 PM
  • The large nutrition calorie as a measure is very flawed and I am increasingly uncomfortable with it. The SI unit is Joule. - 7/21/2012 9:31:12 AM
  • #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
    sback.blogspo
    t.com/2009/03
    /mtyhbusters-
    starvation-mode.html
    - 2/4/2012 4:09:06 PM
  • 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). - 9/5/2011 7:53:41 PM
  • 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.
    - 9/5/2011 7:46:59 PM
  • 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. - 9/5/2011 11:06:42 AM
  • 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. - 7/15/2011 12:53:09 PM
  • 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:) - 9/5/2010 2:54:34 PM
  • Love it ... no magic, right? Thanks! - 10/4/2009 8:18:18 AM
  • Wonderful article! Thank you for this clear and helpful information! - 10/3/2009 10:11:44 AM
  • Never eat fewer than 1,200 calories per day period--it can be very unhealthy. Simply refer to your SparkPeople nutrition plan for how much to eat and reach your goals. - 7/8/2009 8:58:57 AM
  • I don't get it. My BMR + calories that I burn roughly add up to 1580.3, and if I eat 500 calories less than that, then I should eat around 1000-ish calories. But we cannot consume less than 1200 calories. Which is right? - 7/8/2009 7:21:19 AM

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