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Understanding Calories and Weight Loss

A large number of people who want to lose weight ask questions relating to the number of calories they should be eating in order to accomplish their goal. They’ll ask questions like, “I’m eating 1,500 calories per day. How many calories should I eat in order to lose 10 pounds?” The problem with the question is it over-simplifies something that is far more complex. 

Without more information and other considerations, the question can’t be accurately answered. Here is why.

Weight gain and loss

Calories are a measure of heat energy. Most foods we eat that are digested have a calorie count, which is somewhat variable. Likewise, everything we do burns calories. “Burn” is a good word to describe it, too, since that is what really happens and this is even simplifying it.

Weight gain usually happens when the number of calories being consumed exceeds the number that the body needs to burn to maintain health. Excess calories are normally converted into body fat, which is a reserve that the body can draw on if it needs to. What this means is that if a person who normally burns 1,500 calories per day because of their activity level and they eat 1,500 calories per day, the net difference is zero, so they will probably neither gain or lose weight.

If they burn more calories than they consume, the result is weight loss. If they consume more than they burn, they experience weight gain. Again, this is in general and it is simplified.

The problem with focusing on calories

Here is the problem with focusing on the number of calories that are consumed: A pound of body fat represents 3,500 calories. That is substantially more than the typical person eats in a day. Put in a different way, let’s say a person burns 1,500 calories per day in their normal activities. If they cut their diet to 1,000 calories per day, they are dropping 500 calories a day. 

This means that if nothing else changes, they should lose a pound of body fat every week (7 x 500 = 3,500). People who eat only 1,000 calories per day often feel hungry most of the time, so they are sacrificing comfort for losing a pound per week. It can be difficult to keep it up, which is one reason that so many fad diets don’t work for most people.

Balanced vs. unbalanced diet

A balanced diet is one in which 40% of the calories come from carbohydrates, 30% come from proteins, and 30% come from fats. Despite what some people might say, a balanced diet is the best for losing weight and for general health. Most people in so-called ‘advanced’ countries eat far too many carbohydrates and not nearly enough protein. For instance, the average diet in the United States for the average person contains twice as many carbs and half the protein that the people should be eating if they were on a balanced diet.

There is a problem with this. Carbs convert to body fat more easily than proteins or fats do. Part of this has to do with digestion. Digestion, like all other body functions, burns calories. The digestive system must work harder to digest proteins than it does to metabolize carbs, so it burns fewer calories if the diet is too high in carbs. This is especially true of sugar, which is a carb and which needs next to no digestion in order to be absorbed. All of this means that for most people, increasing their protein intake and decreasing the number of carbs they eat, especially sugars, is usually helpful for losing weight. 

You might notice that this isn’t directly related to calories, yet it is very important. A balanced diet also helps to make sure that a person is getting the nutrients they need for proper health. If the nutrient levels are poor, weight loss is very difficult.

Activity level

Although caloric intake is important for weight loss, the activity level is even more important. This isn’t rocket science and it isn’t hard to figure out. For instance, an average person burns about 46 calories per hour sleeping and about 56 calories per hour watching TV. If a person does nothing but sleep 8 hours a day and watch TV the rest of the time, they’ll burn about 1,264 calories. There is some variation because of the person’s weight, the air temperature, time that they spend eating, and so forth. However, it is easy to see that if they are eating 1,500 calories per day, they will probably gain weight. Incidentally, it takes about 140 calories per hour to eat.

However, if a person walks an hour a day (230 calories burned), does an hour of household chores (225 calories burned), and spends an hour working in the garden (300 calories burned), they will be burning about 1,850 calories. They are likely to slowly lose weight on a 1,500 calorie diet because they are dropping 350 calories per day. The more active the person is, the more calories they drop. 

For the above reasons, if a person wants to lose weight, watching the caloric intake and maintaining a balanced diet is a very good idea, but it shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should be to become more active. This doesn’t need to mean conventional exercising or working out at the gym, though it could include this sort of activity. Truth is that there are a lot of things a person can do to be more active. The important thing to understand is that just lowering the number of calories that are consumed is only likely to have a marginal effect if any at all.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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11 Comments

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  1. Excellent article. Yes, it’s so true – in order to lose weight effectively, you really need to both cut calories and increase your activity levels. I was struggling to lose excess weight until a couple of years ago, when I started exercising regularly, in particular doing yoga. The yoga has really helped, as it has increased my muscle strength, and the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn. That has what has really worked for me.

    • The sad thing is that many people think that they need to starve themselves in order to lose weight. That is silly. If they ate moderately and increased their activity level, they’d probably start losing weight.

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