A Complete Guide to Understanding Calories

A Complete Guide to Understanding Calories


You've probably seen all kinds of diet plans that promise success as long as you follow their suggested calorie limit.

Calorie-based diets are based on a simple transfer of energy. You start by measuring how much energy goes into your body, then compare that to how much energy you burn throughout your day or during your workout.

While this seems like a sensible plan to get in better shape, many people still find un-fulfillment when counting calories. This might be due to a lack of truly understanding what calories are and how they are used.

Make sure you stay informed about the fundamental characteristics of calories so that you can be sure to utilize them properly. Below is the complete guide to understanding what calories are and how they affect your health.

The Basics of a Calorie


A calorie has applications outside of basic diet and nutrition. Essentially, it is defined as a unit of energy.

To be more specific, a calorie is defined as the amount of energy that is needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius.

Calories are stored in the body to fuel all of our cells' functions and lifespans. Each gram of fat consumed equates to about 9 calories, while carbohydrates or proteins equate to about 4 calories per gram.

When we consume more calories than our cells actually need to function, the extra calories are stored in fat cells. This is a useful defence for our bodies to fight starvation in emergencies - however this is rarely needed in today’s modern society. 

What ends up happening then, is the surplus of these fat cells accumulate and lead to weight gain or potentially other health issues. That's why it's important to be aware of and proactive about our caloric intake.

A Healthy Quantity of Calories


As mentioned above, our bodies only need a certain number of calories to function and thrive. Any number significantly lower or higher than that threshold can cause health problems over a long period of time.

We all understand why consuming an excess of calories can be detrimental, but too few? In fact, one of the biggest mistakes I see in my practice regarding people wanting to lose weight, is that they consume too few calories! This news is always a surprise to them. 

By trying to lose weight, they restrict calories so much, that after a short period of time, their bodies feel as though they are being starved to death. To maintain life, their body hangs on to fat cells for future energy needs, and often tries building greater fat reserves, which results in an inability to lose weight or, even worse, more weight gain. This is quite the opposite of their original intention!

Most nutrition labels base their facts and percentages off of a 2,000-calorie diet. This, though, is more of an average number of optimal calories.

So how many calories do we need?

Many factors can affect the ideal number of calories each of us needs to maintain a healthy lifestyle. That number depends upon age, gender, level of physical activity, environmental temperature, and even the different types of calories consumed.

It is recommended that active male adults consume around 2,800 calories per day. For active women, the suggested number is around 2,200.

For adults that do more sitting around than physical activity, the optimal number of calories consumed should be about 500-700 less than the numbers listed above.

Talk to your nutritionist to find out more, and to determine a more detailed specification of the ideal number of calories you should be consuming per day. At the end of the day, it's important to at least be conscious of your caloric intake to do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The Quality of Calories

As with everything else in life, not all calories are created equal. Some calories are better for your body's systems than others.


For example, there is such a thing as an "empty calorie." You can find these in sodas and candy, which have plenty of calories (and sugar) without an ounce of beneficial nutrients within those calories.


Compared to proteins and healthy fats, empty calories provide no real sustenance for our cells to use. To avoid empty calories, avoid starches and sugars. Your body doesn't really need them at all.

Also, try to consume foods that are as close to their natural state as possible - what I call becoming whole food optimized. Your body can tell the difference between a fresh tomato and the tomatoes in a processed bottle of sugary ketchup.

If these suggestions seem overwhelming, you are not alone. Most adult Americans consume too many calories from unhealthy fats and sugars.

It can be difficult to switch to a healthier intake of calories throughout your day. It requires mindfulness at every meal and an intentional building of habits.

The Only Zero-Calorie Substance is Water


If you find food or drink items that claim to have “zero calories”, know that this is impossible - unless it's water. Water is the only substance humans can consume that has no caloric value.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows for any item that has less than five calories be allowed to claim it has zero calories on its nutritional label. While this is still a minimal number, if you regularly consume "zero-calorie" items, those small increments will start to add up.

Assume that even if you read a label that claims it has no calories, there are, in fact, a few calories that will be consumed.

Nutrition labels are only to be used as a guideline for food and drink items. Instead of operating with a strict regime based upon nutrition labels, practice a generally mindful habit of watching what you eat.

You'll be much happier with the results of eating clean, wholesome calories.

Exercise and Burning Calories

It's true that you don't quite need to exercise to burn any calories throughout your day. You can live a fairly sedentary life on the couch, and your body will still use calories to fuel the functions of your cells.

You might have a hard time sticking with an exercise routine, and you are not alone. Studies show that most adult Americans actually struggle with meeting the recommended amount of physical activity on a regular basis.

Practicing a mindful, healthy lifestyle means both watching what calories you intake and watching what calories you burn. It's recommended that healthy adults participate in at least thirty minutes of physical activity every day.

The good news is, the more you exercise, the more food (and, therefore, calories) your body is able to burn!

Understanding Calories Is a Step Toward a Healthy, Intentional Lifestyle

If you’d like help understanding the optimal number of calories you should be consuming in a day, contact me to schedule an appointment.

And if you appreciated this guide to understanding calories, you should consider educating yourself on other holistic nutritional practices. The essence of a calorie is only a small aspect of our body's entire health system.

Don't feel overwhelmed, though. I am here to guide you through an intentional, mindful health routine. For all kinds of holistic nutritional services and education, I encourage you to check out our website.

I look forward to working with you on mindfulness, healthiness, and your overall happiness to help you become whole food optimized.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think and welcome your comments below.

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