Why Calories Are King

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.