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Stop Restricting Calories

nutrition 101 Sep 19, 2020

Calories.  Does anyone else have a negative thought or feeling towards the word?  But why has something that is so important to our everyday health and wellness have so much negativity associated with it?

Erase any thoughts or misconceptions you have in your mind about calories and let’s start with the basics :)

What is a calorie?

According to, a calorie is

  1. a unit equal to the kilocalorie, used to express the heat output of an organism and the fuel or energy value of food.

  2. a quantity of food capable of producing such an amount of energy.

A calorie is just a unit of energy. So why is there so much fear around calories?  Why do we feel the need to count them?  Why do we cut or restrict calories and/or “burn” them to try and lose weight?  Talk of calories has been around for a long time.  Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters was the first to write about calories in 1918 in her book - Diet & Health: With Keys to Calories. Calorie obsession isn’t a new phenomenon but one that has been around for over a century!

Where do calories come from?

Calories are yielded from the macronutrients - fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.  1 gram of each of these macronutrients provides a certain amount of calories:

  • Fat = 9 calories per gram

  • Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram

  • Protein = 4 calories per gram

Alcohol also provides 7 calories per gram.  However, alcohol is not energy-yielding like the other macronutrients. 

Ok, But let’s be honest, who just looked at that and wrote off fats forever because they have more calories per gram?  We’ll dive specifically into fat in another post but fat is just as important in the other macronutrients.  Fat is also what helps with satiety when eating a meal or snack.  I highly encourage fats to be included at every meal just as carbs and protein.

What is the metabolism?

Our metabolism is what plays a role in how efficiently we use the energy (calories) from our food.  The definition of metabolism, according to is

  1. the sum of the physical and chemical processes in an organism by which its material substance is produced, maintained, and destroyed, and by which energy is made available

  2. any basic process of organic functioning or operating

Our metabolism takes the food, breaks it down into energy for us to use for things like breathing, heartbeat, digestion, DNA replication - you know, the really important stuff.  It also accounts for your energy needs for sitting, standing, jogging, sprinting.  Our metabolism is smart and it will adjust to your needs.  But what happens with chronically under-fueling your body, is a slowed metabolism.  

How many calories do you need in a day?

This is based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and will vary from person to person depending on your age, activity, level, sex, and possibly any underlying metabolic processes. A BMR determines the number of calories your body needs to function at rest. (Here is a great BMR calculator you can check out).  If you are a grown woman, laying in bed alllllllll day for days at a time, watching Netflix, reading a book, and napping,  you will need a minimum of 1200 calories for your body to perform the necessary activities to be alive.  Get up to walk the dog?  Now you just burned some more calories and will need to replenish those :)

Does Counting Calories Work?

I am 100% a previous victim of trying low-calorie diets and using exercise to burn calories so I could lose weight.  One of the problems with my low-calorie diet was I was relying heavily on packaged, low-calorie foods.  Lean Pockets ™, Lean Cuisine ™, Baked Lays ™, low-calorie yogurt, and 100 calorie packs of cookies or crackers were my lunch and snack staples.  My diet was very high in processed foods and very low in whole, nutrient-dense foods.  You see, not all calories are made the same.  100 calories of cookies versus 100 calories of strawberries provide very different nutritional benefits.  The nutritional value of the food we consume is what provides our body with messages for not only energy but also the growth, maintenance, and repair of cells and tissues.  The food we consume, along with lifestyle and environmental factors can cause gene expression of our DNA. 

Another thing I personally did when it came to calories was to save, reward, or punish myself with calories or food.  I used to track my calories on an app and sometimes would not eat much throughout the day because I knew I would be indulging that night or on the weekend. (You know, different rules apply during the weekend than on weekends right?  Wrong.)  I also would go to the gym and burn calories to “make up” for the poor dietary choices I made during the day or the weekend.  Or if I went to the gym and see I had more calories to consume because I was under the “goal” for the day I would usually indulge in some sugary treat with little to no nutritional value. I share with you this because I know I was not alone in these past thoughts and actions.  I see this frequently with my nutrition clients -  under-eating and under-fueling their bodies because diet culture has lead us to believe that to lose weight we must eat less and workout more.   I’m not saying that undereating won’t lead to weight loss.  But how many of us have gone on a “diet” where you restricted calories, lost weight, plateaued with your weight loss (even though we had more to lose and you were only eating 1200-1400 calories per day), said “Screw it! I’m so hungry all the time!”, threw the diet out the window, gained back the weight PLUS MORE??  Gaining back the weight doesn’t happen solely because you’re not dieting anymore.  It has a lot to do with your metabolism.

Remember that weight you lost at first when you started drastically restricting calories.  Well, your metabolism was still humming along at the speed it was used to when you were eating more calories.  Your body is now compensating for the lack of fuel by slowing down your metabolism to conserve energy.  As your metabolism slows, suddenly that 1200-1400 calories aren’t enough to cause weight loss.  To lose weight, you’ll have to again restrict calories to “trick” your body into weight loss.  Now, remember when you hit this point?  You were frustrated, hungry, and said screw it?  You started eating normally again and gained back all the weight (and maybe more)?  That’s because your metabolism was still creeping along at that 1200-1400 calorie intake and it’s not quite burning at that 1800-2000 calorie rate, causing you to gain weight.  So frustrating, right??

Let It Burn!

Our body is super-duper smart but also super-duper primal.  It operates with the same logic as it did for our primal ancestors who maybe had to go weeks or longer until their next meal based on their hunter and gathering lifestyle.  Their metabolism adjusted to have them burn when food was plentiful and available and store for times of scarcity or famine to help them sustain life.

I like to think about our metabolism as similar to a campfire (because I love camping and it’s an awesome visual!).  When you start that fire, it starts out small, with just a spark and then a flame.  That flame will only burn for so long before its fuel source is gone and it will go out.  We have to feed the fire more fuel to continue burning. And the more fuel your feed it, the faster and hotter it will burn.  Depending on how hot and fast you want your fire to be burning, you’ll continue to your feed it more fuel until you find your maintenance flame. Then you will occasionally throw another log on the fire to continue to fuel it.  When you stop feeding your once hot and toasty campfire, it will continue to burn but at a slower rate.  Your fire is now conserving energy.  You can even kick the coals apart from each other and they will continue to slowly burn until you completely cut off their fuel source or extinguish it with water.  On the other hand, you can push those coals back together, give them a little fuel of air, and toss another log on.  Before you know it, you can have another fire burning hot, hot, hot!

Your metabolism is the fire and food is its fuel!  You want to keep that fire burning hot and working effectively!  Now, don’t go crazy town here and think that I’m giving you permission to overeat.  Overeating can also cause weight gain as well when you are consuming more calories than your body is needing for fuel.  It’s about finding that balance of fueling your body with nutrient-dense foods, limiting processed and highly inflammatory foods, using exercise to feel good (not a form of punishment for food choices), and listening to what YOUR body’s needs are (not diet culture and social media).

The information available on this website is for general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should not rely exclusively on information provided on the Website for your health needs. You can read more about our disclaimer here.


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