During this blog, I want to talk about calories. What are they? Do they matter? Are they important? Hopefully by the end of the blog, you will gain a sense of direction as far as how they can help you reach your goals. Before I begin, I do want to mention while a lot of this information is science based some of it revolves around my perspective and things that have worked for me in the past. When I first started my fitness journey, I took everything I read as absolute truth and it really made me frustrated for many years because of all the conflicting information out there. I would suggest that you draw research based conclusions from reliable sources and get to know your own individual blueprint through trial and error.
Due to all of the conflicting information out there, I really just want to make things simple here. That's one of the reasons I created Spark With Stark. To make things simple, to make things sustainable, and to make them enjoyable so you can live your life. Focus on the main principles and let go of all the other stress and structure.
So first things first.
What is a calorie?
A calorie is really just a unit of measurement. It’s really the same as any other form of measurement we have (inches, yards, feet etc). So technically, 200 calories of ice cream is the same as 200 calories of salad. They are the same unit of measurement. 200 yards is 200 yards and 200 calories is 200 calories.
Now before things get out of control, let me explain myself. Although, my example has the same amount of calories, it’s the nutrient density of the food that will promote your goal. If you eat a cookie that has 200 calories vs. a salad that has 200 calories, the calories are the same but the cookie will have drastically different nutrients. These nutrients include macronutrients (which are protein, fats, and carbs) and micronutrients (which are vitamins and minerals). As previously mentioned, these are drastically important for fat loss and/or muscle gain.
Quantity of Calories
Research tells us is that quantity of calories matter. If you eat more calories than your body uses, you will gain weight. If you eat less calories than your body uses, you will lose weight. This deals with the concept of calories in vs calories out and the Law of Thermodynamics.
Think of a diet that you’ve done in the past or that you know of. It almost always secretly promotes a caloric deficit, whether they mention it or not. Let's take the Atkins diet for example. This diet has high amounts of protein with lower amounts of carbohydrates. While this particular diet has it's own specific reasons for high amounts of protein, it's going be hard to eat in a caloric surplus when eating massive amounts of protein and low amounts of carbs. I can eat 5 plates of pasta no problem but I can't eat 5 plates of chicken breast. Not to mention, you will be losing lots of water weight with a low carbohydrate diet but we will save that for another time.
For the record, I’m not bashing on any diets (well maybe a few). I do believe some people do better with different macronutrient ranges. However, I do not believe in eliminating any one macronutrient completely from your diet. Besides the effects on hormones, there’s this thing called adherence. Adherence is basically a fancy way of quantifying your ability to stick with something over a long period of time. Adherence will lead to consistency and consistency is going to override any fad diet out there.
Here at Spark With Stark, I have a saying that I tell my clients. It's a checklist that helps gauge adherence when it comes to introducing lifestyle change. Simple, sustainable, and enjoyable. Lets use that checklist with a low carbohydrate diet. Are low/no carb diets simple? Yeah for the most part, I think we can all agree that the concept is pretty simply right? Just don't eat carbs. Is it sustainable? Hell no. I think we can agree that for most people it's not something that can be sustained for long periods of time. When I refer to long periods of time, I mean years and years. Not weeks and weeks or months and months. View your wellness journey as a 10-20-30 or year venture and things will change for the better. Finally, is it enjoyable? Hell no. Again, for MOST people it's not an enjoyable experience. This isn't going to get you to your goal because it won't promote adherence/consistency.
I also feel like a lot of people go on these diets and then pick certain food groups or macronutrients and give them all the credit for their success or failure. For example, I’ve had people tell me that because they lost weight on a low carb diet, they automatically think carbs are bad and are what made them fat. When in reality, they were in a caloric deficit during their diet and that’s what caused them to lose the weight. They might function or feel better off lower amounts of carbs but elimating carbs completely is not what caused them to lose weight. It was the caloric deficit but they just didn't realize it. I also would like to go on record for saying, that you can follow any diet out there but if you eat in a caloric surplus you will inevitably gain weight.
Quality of Calories
So if it’s all about calories then I can eat whatever I want, as long as I make sure I stay in a caloric deficit right? Not exactly. There are two main areas that the quality of calories effect.
Area 1: Caloric Adherence
This is to say, the quality of calories will directly influence your ability to sustain the caloric deficit (in regards to fat loss). If you are eating tons of processed foods high in sugar and fat then your ability to stick to a caloric deficit is going to be dramatically hindered. You want feel as satisfied and content with x amount of calories and it will eventually impair your ability to stay consistent. This is why I like to preach the 80/20 guideline. The 80/20 guideline means that you eat whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, you get to enjoy the foods you love. Having the flexibility for the 20% allows you to stay consistent with the 80% and that's when results start happening.
Area 2: Hormonal Balance
This whole idea of calories in vs calories out is predicted on the assumption that all things are normal 'underneath' the hood. This is why vitamins and minerals are so important. One of my favorite analogies for calorie quality is a car. The engine would be the macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbs). This is what ultimately drives progress and produces the results. However, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and water) is the oil. You might start the engine and make it down the road for a while but at some point it will break down unless you have oil. If you follow the 80/20 guideline and promote VARIETY within your diet you will decrease nutrient deficiencies and increase vitamin/mineral consumption. It is important to mention that some people will have hormonal issues regardless of how 'healthy' they eat. This can be from genetics, disease, and a host of other factors. I am not a hormone specialist so I would advise you to see a professional in your area of concern if that describes your situation.
So what does this all mean? To kind of wrap it up, I’m not saying that you can forget food choices and just eat junk food and lose weight. I know some people are going read this and think that. What I am saying is that if you focus on the 80/20 rule, you can reach your goal while enjoying the foods you love. If you are looking to lose fat, focus on eating "80/20" in a 500-700 caloric deficit. If you are looking to gain muscle, focus on eating "80/20" in a 200-300 caloric surplus.
What’s worked for me and what I want to promote through Spark, is a simple, sustainable, and enjoyable approach to wellness. One that has minimal structure. A system where you can follow a few key principles, which allows room for individual needs/preferences and allows you to let go of shame/guilt. That’s what I want to share with you. That’s my passion because I can remember what it felt like to feel confused, frustrated, and deflated. It just doesn’t have to be that way. Those strict and structured nutrition plans dictated my life. They did not enhance my life but controlled my life. My goal is to give you that control back! I hope to always encourage you to keep things simple, sustainable, and enjoyable because that's where the results lie. Your best is yet to come!