The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Calories

Maintaining optimal health is a puzzle to many. Perhaps the biggest piece of that puzzle is proper nutrition. Unfortunately, the human body is incredibly complex and has yet to be fully understood by scientists, so how are you expected to know what is right and what is wrong if the most learned minds in the field have only scratched the surface? It seems as if there is a new study that comes out every week contradicting a study that came out the week before. As confusing as it may be, there are a few basic guidelines and information that seem to be constant, no matter what.  

The first important lesson to learn is what your body requires to survive. Aside from the vitamins and minerals (which we will cover in a minute) the body utilizes 3 main macronutrients; fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Each one of these nutrients serves a specific purpose and is vital to survival.

Fat – A series of studies that were published in the early 80’s that claimed fat consumption would lead to obesity, heart disease, and a slew of other ill effects. This sparked the “low fat craze” that lasted nearly 20 years. Now, more recent research has found that not only were those studies incorrect, but fat is actually a highly beneficial nutrient, specifically Omega -3, Omega -6, monounsaturated, and saturated fats. They provide soluble vitamins, increase metabolism, and provide a source of energy.   Saturated fat alone makes up ½ of the cell membranes within our body. The theory that the consumption of fat will lead to a person becoming fat is a myth.

Carbohydrates – When consumed, carbohydrates are broken down into a sugary form known as glucose. Glucose is the primary source of fuel for the muscles and one of only two substances that can pass through the blood-brain barrier to help support cognitive function.

Protein – Proteins are the building blocks of the human body. Everything from your hair, to your skin, to your muscles, eyes, and vital organs, are all made up of protein. These parts of the body are continuously regenerating themselves so the skin you have now, is not the same skin you had 20 years ago. For this process to take place, the body requires ample amounts of protein.

A calorie is a unit of energy. It is measure by the amount of energy that will be needed to raise the temperature of one gram of liquid water by one degree (approximately 4.2 joules). Calories are used by the body to drive all functions. When a person consumes too many calories, it means that the body cannot possibly use the amount of energy that was eaten, so in response, it is forced to store the energy the only way it know how, by transferring it to body fat.

As a person eats fewer calories than its maximum requirement, than the body will be able to tap into the stored body fat for extra energy. If too few calories are consumed, the body will lack energy. If the starvation is extreme enough, the body will begin to metabolize vital organs in search of an energy source and if this continues for long enough, the person will inevitably die.

Each macronutrient listed has an approximate calorie value. This is how food manufacturers estimate the amount of calories a specific item is.

.     1 Gram of Fat = 9 calories

.     1 Gram of Carbohydrates = calories

.     1 Gram of Protein = 4 calories

In order to find out how many calories your body requires in a single day, you will need to find your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). The formula for this calculation is rather complex, so it may be in your best interest to simply use one of the countless BMR calculators available online. This may save you quite a bit of time (and sanity).

It’s important to note that this calculation is not 100% accurate. Everyone is different, but this will give you a baseline in which to work with. Now that you have the amount of calories your body requires, you can create a plan. Remember, when you eat too many calories over this number, you will gain body fat. If you eat around this approximate number, you will maintain your weight.

However, if you’d like to lose weight, it’s suggested that you start with this number and slowly decreasing the amount of calories over time until you find an amount that allows for weight loss, but is also enough for maximum energy. If you begin to feel sluggish which often happens to dieters) or are not recovering properly after workouts, it may be indicative that you are not eating enough, which is obviously counterproductive.

Lastly, you will need to find an appropriate ratio of the 3 macro nutrients. The USDA posts their recommended ratios on their website, but most nutritionists will agree that it is wildly inaccurate. Although there is no perfect ratio as everyone is very different, thus their nutritional requirements, there have been specific ratios that seem to work better than others. A popular ratio that has been used by many is;

.     40% of calories eaten as carbohydrates

.   30% of calories eaten as protein

.     30% of calories eaten as fat

Hypothetically, if you were to find that your daily caloric requirement is 2,000 cals per day, then by following the above macronutrient ratio, you would be shooting for approximately 800 calories via carbohydrates, 600 calories of protein, and 600 calories of fat.

Keep in mind that this is just a suggested ratio and may not be optimal for your specific activity levels or goals.

Now that you have a basic understanding of nutrition, it is important that you continue learning as much as possible. This will allow you to hopefully gain enough knowledge so that you can manipulate your body in any way you see fit. Hopefully you will be able to use this article as a basic blueprint.


HealthStatus has been operating since 1998 providing the best interactive health tools on the Internet, millions of visitors have used our health risk assessment, body fat and calories burned calculators. The HealthStatus editorial team has continued that commitment to excellence by providing our visitors with easy to understand high quality health content for many years.

Michael Wellington
2. April 2018
Michael Wellington
2. April 2018
Energy is NOTany kind of stuff whatsoever. Calories, joules BTU-no difference-they are invented fiction. Physicists know this.....There are farrrr too many units. Use one unit for all and be done with it said Richard Feynman. There is no such entity in nature as calories or energy..... Rocks, food, protons etc. are matter Radiation is not matter, but it is STUFF, NOT energy. Light is NOT energy. Matter (stuff that existsl and energy (totally invented fiction for convenience in calculations) are NOT related.


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