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Watching your figure? Trying to add mass? Either way, your dietary choices can have a huge effect on whether or not you reach your goals.

Calorie counting has been a popular method employed as a means of obtaining a variety of fitness and health goals. Is it just a matter of hitting that “magic number”, or is there more to it? Read below to learn calorie basics.

What is a Calorie?

Scientifically speaking, it is the amount of heat necessary to elevate the temperature of 1ml of water by 1 degree Celsius. This term is often used synonymously (and incorrectly) with kilocalorie; the quantity of heat needed to raise 1000ml of water by 1 degree Celsius. Thus, 1 kilocalorie is equal to 1000 calories.

A cursory review of any food label (in the U.S.) typically reveals that serving sizes are quantified by calories. In reality, however, the “food calorie” is the kilocalorie. So your 300 “calorie” snack is actually 300,000 calories.

For the ease of this discussion I will refer to calories conventionally, i.e., as they appear on your food labels.

Why is this Important?

For health and fitness related goals, the role of the calorie is far more important than its definition. In order to optimize results, you should have a basic understanding of how they relate to your body.

Quite simply, your weight is a manifestation of caloric (energy) balance. Consuming calories in excess of what your body burns results in weight gain. Likewise, expending more calories than you ingest results in weight loss.

Achieving balance

Energy balance is accomplished through the interplay of the resting metabolic rate (RMR), physical activity, and dietary induced thermogenesis (DIT).

The RMR accounts for the largest share of your energy expenditure. Unfortunately, you have the least control over this component. Your RMR burns calories around the clock to maintain bodily functions such as breathing, blood circulation, core temperature maintenance, and a variety of tasks that take place at the cellular level. The RMR is affected by many factors like genetics, body size and composition, age, and sex.

Physical activity can account for 10-50% of your energy expenditure. Naturally, this depends on how active (or sedentary) you are; sitting does indeed burn calories, but not nearly as much as strength training. Fortunately, this component is under direct control, so be sure to use it to your advantage.

DIT accounts for the smallest share of energy expenditure and is moderately variable depending on the foods you choose. It is based on caloric total of the meal, as well as the composition of macronutrients involved. Proteins require more energy for digestion, absorption, and removal, thus, meals high in this macronutrient expend more calories.  

All calories are not created equal

Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, whereas fats provide 9. Because fats are more than twice as caloric dense for an identical serving size, they are far less filling than carbs and protein. Meals that are high in fat leave you wanting more, making it easy to consume large amounts of calories to feel satiated. This should be kept in mind when tracking calories.

Regardless of the macronutrient make-up, meals can consist of both good and bad calories. Good calories come from single-ingredient foods; lean proteins (poultry, fish, etc.), healthy fats (nuts, oils, avocado), and complex carbs (oats, fruit, leafy vegetables). Choosing meals consisting of these items Is advantageous as they are nutrient dense, filling, and help to regulate blood sugar.

Bad calorie foods are typically synonymous with high calorie foods. Sources include fatty, sugary, and processed foods like fast food, sweets, and sodas. Besides being high in calories and less filling, these options lack nutrients and can upset regulatory hormones.

Using calories to your advantage

One pound of body weight is equal to roughly 3500 calories. Therefore, consuming an additional 500 calories each day beyond what you burn would result in a 1lb weight gain by the end of the week. A 1lb weight loss after 7 days requires the exact opposite.

Your RMR can be easily estimated by any number of calculators. You can use the calculator here to see yours.

Similarly, estimates for calorie expenditure based on activity exist. Click here to get a better idea of what you burn each day.

DIT is fairly negligible, but having an idea of what you’re consuming is important. Food labels are a good place to start. Be sure to keep serving sizes in mind when making your calculations. If you’re looking for a good tool to track calories, you can use something like this.

To Sum it Up

  • The calorie is a measure of energy. Food calories indicate the energy required to process a given food.
  • Opt for single-ingredient foods as your main source of calories, and limit sugary, fatty, and processed foods.
  • Good calories are nutrient dense and filling, whereas bad calories are just the opposite.
  • Consuming or burning an excess 3500 calories results in 1lb of weight gain or loss, respectively.
  • Adjusting your caloric intake can you help you reach your weight goals, but won’t replace physical activity, which is the most variable component of energy expenditure.
  • Know where to start. Estimate your caloric intake, RMR, and caloric expenditure during physical activity.


Anthony Dugarte, M.D., C.S.C.S.

About Dr. Dugarte

Anthony Dugarte, M.D., C.S.C.S. is a Cleveland, Ohio native who has enjoyed success in sports, as well as academics. He accepted a full athletic scholarship to attend Kent State University and graduated, Cum Laude, with a B.S. in Exercise Physiology. At Kent, Dr. Dugarte was a member of the Golden Flash Football Team and earned Academic All-American Honors as a defensive lineman.

He is currently the Research Fellow for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Dugarte has 8 years’ experience as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Keywords: calories; RMR; energy; expenditure; sugar; fat; protein; carbs; DIT; activity

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