There are so many myths and a lot of confusion around calories. In fact, they’re one of the most common things I get asked about, so I’m dedicating this whole episode to the topic of calories. We need to start cutting through the junk because there’s plenty of it out there.
We’re filtering all of the information out there about calories, and we’re boiling it down to what you really need to understand in order to make sense of calories once and for all. As always, I’m bringing a little math into the equation to show you how calories work in relation to weight loss, as well as showing you why everyone’s relationship with calories is different.
Are you ready to understand calories and put a long-held myth to rest? You’re in the right place. Tune in this week to start simplifying the complex world of calories. I’m sharing why your body is smarter than the math when it comes to calories, how to see that a gradual approach to weight loss is going to create more sustainable results than drastically cutting your daily calories, and how you can start cutting your calories in a simple and manageable way
To celebrate the launch of the show, I’m giving away a wellness journal to five lucky listeners who follow, rate and review the show. I want your honest opinion and feedback so I can create an awesome show, and make it a useful, fun resource for you.
Click here to learn more about the contest and how to enter!
What You Will Discover:
- Why the topic of calories is so highly charged, and the myths so many people believe about calories.
- What a calorie actually is and the relationship between calories and fat.
- How to discover roughly what your daily calorie needs are and what you need to work with a calorie deficit.
- What happens in your body as you start to cut calories and why it looks a little bit different for every single one of us.
- Why a slow, gradual approach to weight loss is much more sustainable than a super-drastic reduction in your calorie intake.
- How to understand the calories in the specific foods you eat in more depth, and where you can cut down on calorie-dense foods.
Listen to the Full Episode:
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Full Episode Transcript:
You are listening to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast, Episode #6. Are you ready to understand calories and put a long-held myth to rest? Let’s do it.
Welcome to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. If you’re balancing career, family, wellness, and some days sanity, you are in the right place. This is where high achieving, busy working moms get the tools they need to eat, move, and think. I’m your host, physician, personal trainer and Certified Life Coach Carrie Holland. Let’s do this.
Hey, how are you? So, we are counting down the last few weeks of summer here, and it is definitely moving. And, I hope you’ve had an awesome summer. That you’ve been able to make the most of it, get your trips in. Maybe, now, you’re getting ready for the school year to start, if that’s the case for your family.
So, we are heading to Cedar Point, in Ohio, in a couple of weeks. I really wonder what it’s going to be like, going there and riding all the roller coasters as an adult. I lived in Ohio for three years when I was a kid. I definitely remember it just seemed so big and expansive, and so many huge roller coasters, and I wonder what it’s going to be like now that I am much older.
We’re most definitely going to see how those roller coasters go this time around. But as I was thinking about our upcoming trip, I wanted to share a quick tip that I have shared with many clients, when they are looking ahead to vacations or trips, or even just long weekends. So, if you’re someone who struggles with going off your plan, or overeating, or overdrinking while you’re on vacation, or on long weekends, try this.
I’m calling on Stephen R. Covey here, and his very famous book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, to offer you this. Start with the end in mind. Meaning, if you’re getting on a plane to head somewhere for vacation, imagine what you want to feel like when you get on the plane to come back from that vacation. How do you want to feel? Do you want to feel bloated? Do you want to feel like you overindulged and overdid it? Do you want to have a hangover? Do you want to feel proud of the decisions that you made?
Whatever it is, decide how you want to feel at the end of the weekend or the vacation, and then work your way backwards. It’s kind of like the paper mazes that I used to get in elementary school, where you have to get the mouse to the cheese. Start at the cheese and work your way back to the mouse.
I don’t think that’s cheating. I think that’s being strategic. So, there’s your tip. But try it out for the next time you go on vacation or have a long weekend. And, let me know how that works for you.
Okay. So today, we’re going to jump in and we are going to sort through the myths, and frankly, the confusion about calories. Yes, I made an entire episode about calories, because I think that this is an important topic to tackle. It is one of the most common questions I get asked about. And frankly, we just got to cut through the junk.
So, we’re going to talk about calories, as it relates to weight loss, because that’s where this most commonly applies. Let me say from the get-go, this is a charged topic. Go to the diet book section at the bookstore, get on your social media app of choice, look up your favorite influencer, do a google search. You’re going to see all kinds of opinions about this.
What I’m going to try to do today, is filter this and boil it down to what you really need to know and understand, in order to help make sense of calories. Specifically, we’re going to talk about what it is; we have to define it, right? We are going to talk about just a little bit of math. By now, you know that I cannot get through an episode without some math reference, and this is no exception. We’re going to talk about the complexities and why sometimes the math just doesn’t matter. And then, we’re going to bring it all home and figure out what to do with it.
Let’s go back to science class, and here’s your math. A calorie is a unit of measure similar to a centimeter or an inch, a pound, a kilogram. A calorie is a unit of measure. Specifically, it’s the amount of heat you need to raise the temperature of one gram of water, one degree Celsius. Now, you can go on forget all that, because that’s a bunch of words. But suffice it to say, it’s a unit of measure.
The cool thing is, there are tools that you can use, again, go to the internet, to determine what your daily calorie needs are. Your daily calorie needs are based on your age, gender, height, weight, activity level, and if you know it, your percent body fat. So, let me stop right here to say that these calculators will give you an estimate of the number of calories that you need per day. Again, I’m stressing the word estimate, because there is no perfect.
A few things: Despite what any calculator tells you, it is not perfect. And, knowing your percent body fat is helpful, but there are so many scales out there that claim to tell you; step on this, hold this thing, just put your feet on here, and we’ll tell you what your percent body fat is. No, okay? So, a DEXA scan, that would be useful. But that’s harder to get to and a little bit more expensive. So, all this is to say, the calculator that you might be using in MyFitnessPal™ or online, it is an estimate at best.
We’re going to take this a little bit further and talk about the relationship between calories and fat. In the 1950’s, a scientist and physician, his name was Max Wishnofsky, you can hang on to that for Jeopardy®, he determined that the caloric equivalent of one pound of body fat was 3,500 calories.
Meaning, if you want to lose a pound per week, you divide 3,500 by 7, and that comes down to a 500-calorie deficit per day, there’s your math. Meaning you have to either eat 500 calories less than you typically do, or burn 500 more calories than you typically do, every day, to come to 500. Or, some combination of both.
So, I’ll tell you from experience, it is generally diet, where you’re going to get the most traction in creating a calorie deficit. This right here, this math, this is where the 500 calories per day, for a pound of weight loss per week comes from, there it is.
Here’s where it gets sticky. And, here’s where the story gets complicated. So, if you were to stick to this and be hardcore, and decrease your calories by 500 a day, then by the math, you should lose a pound per week. You keep that up for an entire year, and you’re 52 pounds lighter at the end of the year. But for most people, this does not work out that way.
There have been research studies where this has been very carefully monitored, and study participants are closely observed 24/7 in-patient, for months. And, despite the 500-calorie deficit per day, they did not lose a pound per week. Even more irritating, as they started losing weight, their weight loss slowed. So, the pounds came off fairly easily at first, and then they hit a plateau.
While the math makes sense, it does not work out exactly, because your body doesn’t really give a hoot about the math, in this case. Here’s why: So first, not everyone will respond to the same calorie deficit in the same way. It is well-known men lose weight faster than women. Younger people lose weight faster than older people. And, there are biologic, genetic and hormonal factors at play here, we just cannot control.
Second, this is a huge one, when you start to cut calories, you start messing with your metabolism. As you eat less calories, your body uses less calories. So, as an example, this is why someone who starts at 200 pounds, because they’ve gained weight, and then diets down to 170 pounds, will need less calories per day than someone who is naturally at 170 pounds without dieting.
So, when you start from 200, and diet down to 170, your metabolism will ultimately be slower than someone who generally lives at 170 pounds without any dieting needed. When you diet, and especially if you yo-yo diet, you mess with your metabolism.
All hope is not lost here, but it brings up an important point: When you cut your calories, and especially if you have a goal weight in mind, once you get there, you’re not done. You’re going to need to continue eating at a level of calories in order to maintain that weight. I get it; it is confusing and it is certainly frustrating. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of it, because your body likes to be in balance.
The fancy medical term here is “homeostasis.” What that means is, when you lose weight, even if it’s just a few pounds, your calorie needs will decrease. When you drop the energy you take in, your body compensates and decreases the energy that it puts out. This is why fast and severe weight loss, like what you would see in The Biggest Loser, for most people, that is not the approach that you want to take to weight loss.
Your body just does not like it when you rip off the Band-Aid™ and reduce your calories drastically. Your body will put on the brakes and slow down your metabolism to keep itself in balance. I know that using The Biggest Loser is definitely a drastic approach, but it’s a good illustration of a couple of key points.
When the participants started regaining weight, their metabolism did not bounce back to their pre-weight-loss levels. So, as an example, say you start at 300 pounds, you diet down to 200, and then regain that 100 back and ultimately land at 300 pounds. The calories that you need, now that you’re back at 300, back to that original starting weight, are going to be less than what you needed when you were at 300 before dieting. This is all because of the change to your metabolism, you’ve just established a new baseline for yourself.
The other thing about The Biggest Loser, is that some of these contestants were doing hours of physical activity a day. And those who maintained the greatest weight loss years later, they were still participating in regular physical activity.
The thing we don’t know is the ‘how.” We don’t know all of the details and all of the science to explain how sustained regular physical activity, after this significant weight loss, results in keeping the weight off. Especially when their metabolism slowed as a result of weight loss, in the first place.
All of this is to say, we need more science. We need more studies. Here it is, again, this is the art and the beauty, and the crazy of science. Even just at a practical level… I see this in my own work with my clients. I may go through the math with a client and we come to a target calorie intake of 1,500 a day. But then, the client decides to take matters in his or her own hands and shoot for 1,200 calories a day. That may work for a minute, and then it doesn’t.
It’s because your body is smarter than the math, it really is. When you drastically drop your calorie intake, your body compensates by decreasing how many calories it uses. So, this is why a gradual, slow approach to weight loss, as opposed to a super drastic reduction in your calorie intake, is more realistic, is more sustainable, definitely more tolerable and less miserable than drastically chopping your calories.
I know that this is not the answer you want to hear. But remember the story of the tortoise and the hare; slow and steady. Slow and steady. I cannot stress this enough.
The other place where this gets sticky, is that when you do lose weight, you don’t get to control where it comes from. So yes, most of it is going to come from excess fat. But you will also inevitably lose muscle along with that fat. We don’t get to control those proportions. Muscle requires more calories to sustain itself than fat.
Somebody with a lot of muscle is going to need a lot more calories to sustain that muscle, than someone who has more fat on their body. If you’re someone who loses more muscle than you do fat, your calorie needs are going to drop. The other thing is, you can’t control where the fat or muscle loss comes from.
Some people ask me, they’re like, “I’m losing weight, but I still have a belly.” Unfortunately, that’s beyond your control. We don’t get to decide if that excess fat comes from your booty, your chest, your belly, your bicep, we just don’t have that power. But here’s something that you can do, if you want to reduce the amount of muscle loss, while you’re losing weight, strength train.
Here’s my plug for strength training; you knew I was going to find it. Hit the weights and lift heavy, because when you do this, you rip up your muscle, and then your body repairs it by using calories to build back that muscle bigger and stronger in the process. In addition to this, focus on eating protein. You need protein in your diet to build and repair the muscle that you’re ripping up by strength training.
We’re going to get all into the details about this in a future episode, How to Build Muscle, because this is a fun one. So, stay tuned for that.
But to bring it full circle and summarize: The 3,500 calories for one pound of fat math, that does not tell the whole story. That’s the myth. It also does not account for the change in your metabolism that results when you cut calories and lose weight.
And, it does not account for the change in your body composition. Meaning, the loss of fat and the loss of muscle that inevitably happens when you lose weight. All of these ultimately impact your calorie needs. So, if your head is spinning, stay with me, I have you covered.
When it comes to weight loss, know this: Calories matter, but it is more complicated than the math that we have come to know by heart. I do not believe that it is possible to lose weight while eating excess calories. In fact, please show me someone who has lost weight by eating more calories than they need.
But oversimplifying this to 500 calories a day, in order to lose a pound per week, that is not the whole story. If you keep your eyes open, I guarantee you will see more on this as the literature, and the research, and the science that we know, evolves. Because remember, the science is always changing. The science is dynamic. And science is the art of proving what we know, wrong.
The other thing we have to talk about is the quality of calories. Meaning, how do the calories you eat affect you? What do they do to you? I love this example, I use it all the time: A calorie of broccoli is equal to a calorie of Pop-Tart®, as far as unit of measure is concerned. That is where the similarities end.
There are so many influencers who will scream from the rooftops that a calorie is a calorie period. And frankly, I made that mistake. Now, I’m backpedaling because that is oversimplifying. Some influencers have gone so far as to eat McDonald’s™ every day, while keeping their other calories in check. To prove that as long as you eat in a calorie deficit, you’ll lose weight.
And I get that, but there’s more to it. So, here’s my comparison: Let’s take a calorie of broccoli and compare that to a calorie of Pop-Tart. The calorie of broccoli is going to affect you very differently than the Pop-Tart. The calorie that you get from broccoli is filled with vitamins and minerals, fiber, protein, and likely, other things that we haven’t even discovered yet.
Contrast this to the calorie from a Pop-Tart, which is filled with refined sugar, fat, corn syrup, and loads of other chemicals and additives. By the way, I looked up the ingredient list for a Frosted Strawberry flavored Pop-Tart and it was longer than my arm. The calories from that Pop-Tart, because they’re in large part coming from ultra-processed, refined flour and sugar, they will cause a spike in your blood sugar followed by a crash, that leaves you hangry and craving more carbs and fat.
So, broccoli does not do this. Broccoli does not spike and then tank your blood sugar like the Pop-Tart will. Worse, the calories in that Pop-Tart, they have been scientifically engineered to light up the reward centers in your brain to leave you with a feel-good sensation, that causes you to want more Pop-Tarts.
I’m not here, well, maybe I am… Maybe I’m ranting a little bit on the processed food industry, but when big food companies are using functional MRIs to record and study how our brain responds to its ultra-processed food products, with a goal of lighting up our reward centers as much as possible, we have a problem.
So, there is a reason that you crave Oreos™. There’s a reason you crave Pop-Tarts or Cheetos®. They have been processed, and manufactured and engineered to give you a dopamine rush that leaves you wanting more; and you do not get that from broccoli. So, the take home here, the quality of your food matters. The unit of measure is the same, sure, but the impact is vastly different.
Let’s also talk about calorie density, because this is another place where I see people get really tripped up. And truthfully, it often scares people out of trying to lose weight. Too often you think to yourself, “I’m not going to be eating enough food. I’m going to be hungry. I’m not going to eat anything.”
But here’s the thing. Depending on what you eat, you may actually end up eating more food than you were before, but you’re eating less calorie dense foods. So, here we go back to science and math. Calorie dense foods: Low-volume, high-calorie. Going to math here; density is simply the amount of calories in a unit of food, how many calories are smashed into that unit of food.
As an example, french fries and ice cream; those are calorie dense foods. There are a lot of calories in a small amount of each of those. Again, if you look at the serving sizes on the nutrition label, try this out. Most ice cream containers list a serving size as two thirds of a cup. Two thirds of cup; who the heck measures and sticks to two thirds of a cup of ice cream?
Contrast this to less calorie dense food. Here, we’re talking high-volume, low-calorie foods. These are things like above ground veggies, and I say above ground because many below ground veggies, like especially potatoes, are higher in starch and have higher calories.
I’ll stop myself; this is not to say don’t eat potatoes. Okay? I’m not telling you not to eat potatoes and carrots. But I’m saying be mindful. There are other high-volume, low-calorie foods like fruit, lean proteins like, chicken, fish, tofu, egg whites. Even air-popped popcorn, oatmeal. These are things that you can eat in larger quantities, for not a ton of calories.
I went and did the math once. I looked up a day’s worth of food, done two ways. I wanted to see what a day of eating 2,000 calories would look like from both a high-calorie density diet versus a low-calorie density diet. This is what I came up with: So, you can, on one side, have a bagel and cream cheese, a burger and small fries, and two pieces of pepperoni pizza. That is your day of food.
Or, you can have an egg omelet, one egg with a half cup of egg whites. A half a cup of oatmeal, berries, two turkey burgers, cup of broccoli, cup of rice, chicken, cheese, green beans, a side salad, apple and peanut butter, banana, and cottage cheese; and come in at 2,000 calories.
I use this example to illustrate you do not have to eat like a bird, in order to lose weight. If you simply start to look at the quality of the food you’re eating, and then start to look at it from a calorie density perspective, you may find that you’re eating more food. I even had somebody reach out and ask, “If I want to lose weight, should I eat in a calorie deficit or just eat more veggies?” My answer here; it’s both.
This is kind of like the chicken and egg question. By simply prioritizing fruit and vegetables over processed food, you will often put yourself in a calorie deficit. So. it’s a win-win. Don’t get me wrong, you can still eat calorie dense foods, but can you eat less of those while you’re loading your plate with fruit and veggies? You can totally do that.
To bring it all home, there are a number of reasons why calories are so confusing. Going back to the math: The 3,500 calories per week for one pound of weight loss, that math is not telling the whole story. Remember two things; your metabolism will slow once you start losing weight, and your body composition, meaning the proportion of muscle and fat, will change. Both of these things will ultimately impact your calorie needs. And, those are not accounted for by that math equation.
Second, the quality of your food matters. Remember, a calorie of broccoli versus a calorie of Pop-Tart. Yes, they are equal, as far as their unit of measure is concerned. And, that is where the similarities end. The way these calories impact you is very different.
And then third, calorie density. Here, think high-volume, low-calorie foods. We’re looking for foods that you can eat a lot of, that don’t take up a ton of calories. Okay?
So, what do we do with all this? We have all this information, and so you’re probably like. now what? Well, here it is, this is what we do: If you are looking to lose weight, taking a slow, steady, gradual approach is definitely preferred over the fast and furious, drastic and unsustainable.
Take a look at what you’re currently doing. How can you create a small calorie deficit that is doable and realistic for you? Two ideas to get you started: If you get a lot of calories from drinks like alcohol, fancy coffee drinks, regular soda, can you cut out one a day? Just one. Just one liquid calorie drink per day. I know you can totally do that.
Second, look at your snacks. If your go-to snack is something like a bag of pretzels, what about an apple, instead? What you’re doing there is a few things: First, you’re choosing a high- volume, low-calorie food over a processed food. As a result, one, you’re not going to spike your blood sugar in the way that the pretzels would. And two, you’re creating a calorie deficit.
The cool thing about this is that they go together. Sometimes simply exchanging some of your go-to processed calorie dense food for whole foods like fruit, and veggies and lean protein, you change the quality of your calories. You change the density of your calories. And then, you create a calorie deficit for yourself.
This does not have to be fancy. Start with one snack. Can you switch up one of your daily snacks and stick with it? Then, you build from there. So, that’s where you get started slow and steady, and small. Alright?
I hope this helps to clarify some of the confusion around calories. Yes, calories matter. Don’t get me wrong, but it is not as simple as we once thought. Let me know what you think about this. I know this is a very thick, big topic. And, there are loads of schools of thought about this and many don’t agree. But I hope you’ve been able to see through some of the muck to make sense of it all.
Of course, if you have questions, please go to this episode and add them to the comments. This is where I’ve gotten so many ideas and suggestions for future episodes. So, please share your thoughts and your questions there.
Thank you for listening. Have an awesome week, and I’ll catch you again next Wednesday.
To celebrate the launch of the show, I’m going to be giving away a Wellness Journal to five listeners who follow, rate, and review the show. You do not have to give it five stars, although I certainly hope you love what you’ve heard so far. But more than anything, please give me your honest opinion and feedback so I can create an awesome show for you.
I would love it if you shared your questions and thoughts, so I can make the show a useful and fun resource for you. Visit CarrieHollandMD.com/podcastlaunch to learn more about the contest and how to enter. I’ll be announcing winners on the show in an upcoming episode. See you next week.
Thanks for listening to Strong as a Working Mom. If you want more information on how to eat, move, and think so you can live in the body you want with the mind match, visit me at CarrieHollandMD.com.
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