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.

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Member Comments

Good article. Report
Total and utter nonsense.

So where exactly is the body's calorie sensor? A calorie is a calorie right? So how does the body sense and process protein calories? How does it sense and process oil calories? How does it sense and process carb calories.

A calorie is a unit of heat given off when something is burned in the lab. It is a PHYSICS measurement, it has NO MEANING to the body! So a piece of paper has calories (it will burn). How much does it affect your weight if you eat that piece of paper? It has calories, so calories in vs calories out right? The body hasn't a clue how many calories you have eaten. EVER!!! It doesn't "count" calories, so why do you?

Do carbs affect your insulin production? Yes. How about glycemic index? Hmmmm... How much does glucose affect your insulin? How about fructose? Do you even have a clue what fructose is and how the body processes it? Do you know how much fructose you consume every day?

How about long chain carbs? Whaaaaat? What the heck are those? (glucose)

Does fat (oil) affect your insulin production? No.

Does Protein? Yes. Does protein affect your insulin as much as the same weight in carbs? Why does insulin matter? Ask a diabetic. Are you fat? Then you are already a diabetic. Sorry for the bad news.

So 500 calories in sugar is the same as 500 calories of protein as 500 calories of fat? As 500 calories of cardboard?

But a calorie is a calorie right? Calories in vs calories out right?

Listen to this junk at your own risk. Or educate yourself. The information is out there.

If you are fat then you already have insulin resistance, you are already diabetic. Your body has been dealing with TOO MUCH SUGAR for a long time. How do I know this? Because INSULIN takes excess sugar and signals your body to make fat. So if you are fat, you have been eating too much sugar (carbs) for a long time. Diabetes here I am.

You CANNOT LOSE FAT if you have high levels of insulin, if you keep pouring carbs into your stomach. Insulin prevents burning fat when sugar is in the blood... Report
I liked the article and reading the comments of other Sparkers who are doing something Different with sucesss. Displays the range of the spectrum, where everyone has a different path. Report
Good article. Report
great. Report
i think this info needs some updating. especially for the diabetic trackers. Report
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. Report
Very informative. Factors of age, hypothyroidism, and beta blockers muddy the waters on trying to figure out just what is what for me. Report
"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. Report
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. Report
I used "Incite" sarcastically also...for those wondering...I know it's suppose to be "insight" Report
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! Report
The large nutrition calorie as a measure is very flawed and I am increasingly uncomfortable with it. The SI unit is Joule. Report
#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


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.
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