What is a calorie? Why is it important?

This article was published by Dylan Irving on: 05/2/18 9:22 PM

What is a calorie anyway?

Your choices for calorie are:

A) Little gremlins that sew your clothes tighter in the night

B) One of those clinical terms that our doctors use when they tell us we need to lose weight

C) A unit of measurement that tells us how “good” or “bad” a food is (Look at all the calories in that doughnut!!!)

D) A unit of measurement that tells us the energy content in a food


I’m sorry to be a buzzkill, but the answer is D. When you look at the nutrition label of a food (which you probably should be doing if you’re trying to lose or gain weight), or look a food up on the internet or using a tracking app, the calorie count will tell you how much energy is contained in that food.

*Full disclosure, food labels have been shown to have a margin of error up to 20%, BUT I promise you that being aware of calorie intake, even with error, is loads better than flying blind.


Now what do calories have to do with anything??? In MOST CASES (I really mean in almost all cases unless you have a serious medical condition), in order to lose weight you must be at a caloric deficit. This means that you must be using more calories than you are consuming. If you’re gaining weight (unless you have a serious medical condition), you are in a caloric surplus. This means that you are consuming more calories than you are using.

How does the body use calories?

Well, in a number of ways. Three main categories, to be exact:

1) Fuel activities to keep you alive (basic organ function and digestion are in this category)

2) Planned exercise! (fun)

3) Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT), which is literally everything EXCEPT sleeping, eating, and planned exercise. This includes walking, gardening, typing, fidgeting, laughing, smiling, having a great time.

The sum of those three things equals your metabolism, or the amount of calories you burn every day.


So how do we use this information to lose weight?

GREAT question, and super important to many of us.

Like we just learned above, we must be in a caloric deficit in order to lose weight. How do we get there?

1) Decrease the amount of calories you’re taking in. For most people, decreasing daily intake by 100-250 calories can be comfortable and sustainable. For the love of all things good, don’t try to go below that when you’re just starting out. Sticking to a comfortable 100-250 decrease daily will greatly decrease the likelihood of rebounding when you’re finished dieting. When you stop seeing the scale move, decrease by another 100-250 calories. If you’re going to go this route, be sure you’re consistently tracking how many calories you’re taking in by using an app or pen and paper. If you don’t collect data, you can’t see trends in what’s working and what’s not working. Human beings are also woefully bad at remembering meals, portions of food, and self-reporting calories without using a tracking system. Don’t even go there.*

Here is a long but very informative article about calorie reporting from a new favorite source.

(*Tracking calories isn’t for everyone, and certainly isn’t necessary if you want to lose weight. If you’re interested in strategies for decreasing caloric intake that don’t involve tracking, let me know [dylanirvingfitness@gmail.com] and I can walk you through those.)

2) Increase your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). This basically means moving around in ways that aren’t exercise, like we talked about before. Increasing your step count is a very popular way to do this right now, and all smart phones on the market come with a built in pedometer now so you can very easily track your current average and come up with a goal. Increasing your weekly average by 1,000-2,000 steps is a good place to start. If you sit a lot during your work day, try getting up and taking a 2-5 minute walk every hour. This can also help break up the monotony of a work day. You can also add in other non-exercise things like gardening or cleaning (which I’m sure would make you or whomever you’re living with happier anyway…you’re welcome).

3) Add planned exercise to your routine, or increase the amount of exercise you’re doing. This one is pretty straightforward, even if exercise itself is not very straightforward. Beginners should probably start with 1 planned session per week doing something light and simple and slowly progressing from there. Most gyms offer free personal training sessions for new members, and some trainers are happy to answer a few questions for you about gym equipment and programming. I always offer a free consultation (even if you aren’t planning on working with me immediately) and am always happy to answer a few questions if you need help figuring out where to start. It doesn’t have to be a complex program in order to see results! If you’re not a beginner, a change in program can be a welcome stimulus to the body to initiate further change.


Most people start with adding exercise, then consider nutrition, and then MAYBE consider their NEAT. For most people, I’d recommend starting with nutrition, increase your NEAT, and then add in planned exercise. Do it step by step and at a pace thats manageable and won’t leave you burnt out from the amount of change you’re making.

Whatever you do, be sure you’re consistent and be patient with yourself. Being in a caloric deficit for a few days isn’t enough to see changes. Remember that you’re making a decision about how you want to live the rest of your life, NOT just how you want to live for the next few days. Your future self will thank you!!

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