UEFP Nutrition Coaching: Calorie Counting

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The ins and outs of calorie counting.

Nothing runs the fitness industry like calories. On one end of the spectrum we have calorie counters, apps, and nutrition facts on the menu at your local fast food joint. The other side of the spectrum lies in frustration – nothing seems to confuse people more than calorie counting. With all the technology at our disposal many people still get irritated at their lack of results regardless of all their number crunching (i.e. calorie counting).

In today’s UEFP nutrition coaching piece we’ll look at calories; hopefully by the end you’ll have a better idea if calorie counting is for you.

What is a Calorie?

                A calorie is simply a unit measurement. Food can literally warm your body up; as a calorie is the amount of heat needed to raise a kilogram of water 1 degree centigrade. While you may reach for comfort food like soups and stews this winter, many other types of food can actually heat your body up. Athletes that have to consume a lot of calories per day will complain of always feeling warm. The running gag of someone sweating while trying to put away their Thanksgiving dinner isn’t something that just happens in sitcoms.

Does Calorie Counting Work?               

                As a personal trainer, I tend to let the client dictate their meal plan in terms of calories. Some like to calorie count and others like to go with overall concepts (i.e. two servings of fat, 1 serving of protein in this meal). Whatever way keeps you on point is fine with me, but the calories in food can be a bit deceiving for those who like to keep accurate records.

It’s estimated that there is about a 25% standard error in terms of nutrition labels. So if a jar of peanut butter claims to have a serving size of 100 calories, it can actually range from 75 to 125. It’s not the end of the world, but for those who want to play accountant, it can throw things off quite a bit. As long as you understand that, and the concepts we discuss below, you’ll probably have great success with counting calories.

Calories in the Body

                The concept of energy balance is quite simple: if you consume more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. More on this later. But understand that your body needs calories for quite a few different reasons. For one, you have your basalmetabolic rate, which is the amount of energy you need for vital function. Think breathing, a pumping heart, producing new cells. That requires 70% of your calories right there.

The rest of your calories go to breaking down the food you eat (yep, it costs energy to break down that burger you were chowing down on at lunch), exercise, and non-exercise activity (think driving your car, taking the garbage out, gardening, etc). The exercise portion is the one part that you have the most control over. It can account for 15 to 30% of the calories you eat. Train frequently and you need more calories. The most common mistake I see is people who workout a lot yet eat very little.

Energy Balance V 2.0

                Yes – consuming more calories than you burn will result in the scale going up. But there’s more to the story, as calories differ based on where they come from. You have protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol. If you’re consuming most of your calories from alcohol, then you’re in trouble and a personal trainer is the last thing you need.

But the body responds differently to the other three types of calories. Case in point: when researchers gave subjects a protein-carb drink versus just a carbohydrate drink, cycling performance was increased for those who had the protein-carb combination (1). In another case, subjects lost 10 pounds when they exchanged the carbs they normally eat for a higher fat diet (2). If that’s no confusing enough, consider that the type of fat that you eat can stimulate weight loss. Subjects who replaced olive oil with what’s called a medium chain triglyceride (think coconut oil), they lost weight (3).

The point isn’t that one diet is better than the other, but that not all calories are created equal. Simply cutting calories will allow you to lose weight. But if you want to perform well, build muscle, and build a strong body, then you need to go beyond just assuming all calories are equal. Some clients lose weight when we add starches to their diet while others drop pounds just from including flaxseed oil with their protein shake.

Your Body Type Plays a Role

                One thing that I pride myself on with my personal training is the concept of individualization. No two clients have the same workout or meal plan. Everyone has a different body type, or somatotype. Your calorie breakdown is partly dependent on your body type. For example, leaner individuals with great stamina usually do well on higher carb, lower fat diets. Those who tend to store bodyfat around the hips and waist do better on higher protein and fat diets.

However, training changes your body type. So it’s possible that if you can’t tolerate carbs well now you can in about six months. My wife thrives on higher fat diets while I tend to do well with very little fat and a higher carb intake. The point is that everyone is different and finding what works for you takes time.

What We Know

-A calorie is simply something that raises your body temperature when you eat it

-Calorie counting can work, but it varies per individual

-When you read a nutrition label or use an app, the calories can be 25% off

-Not all calories are created equal. Just slashing calories doesn’t mean you’ll build your dream body

-Your body type plays a role in what kind of calories you eat


What to Do Now

                Follow your meal plan and knock out your intervals! If you still have questions, feel free to schedule a nutrition coaching session.

[toggle title=”References”]

1. Rustad, P.I., Saller, M., et al. “Intake of Protein Plus Carbohydrate During the First Two Hours after Exhaustive Cycling Improves Performance the Following Day.” (2016) PLOSone, DOI: 10.1371

2. Shair, I., Schwarzfuchs, D., Hekin, Y., et al. “Weight Loss with A Low Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low Fat Diet.” (2008)The New England Journal of Medicine( 359.3): 229-241

3. St.-Onge, M.P., Bosarge, A. “Weight Loss Diet that Includes Consumption of Medium Chain Triacyglycerol Oil Leads to a Greater Weight and Fat Reduction than Does Olive Oil.”(2008) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (87);3. 621-626 [/toggle]


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