Everybody is talking about calories. How many are there in this cheeseburger and how many if you take out the cheese? Because talking about calories comes together with talking about body weight. How many calories is too many and will it result in excess weight? Or how many calories do you need to cut in order to lose weight?
What Is a Calorie?
So, if you’re wondering what is a calorie deficit, it’s probably best to learn what a calorie is in the first place. A calorie is a unit that we use to track our body’s energy expenditure and storage. In other words, calories help us track how much energy we use vs how much we consume or store.
But, the vernacular calories actually refer to the scientific unit kcal, or kilocalories. One kilocalorie represents the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
The most important starting point when it comes to calories is understanding the Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. In order to just stay alive, human beings (and animals) burn calories. This means, even before we perform any activity, our bodies are already using energy (measured in calories) to keep us alive. Blood circulating through our body needs energy, so does cell reproduction, and breathing. Around 70% of the calories we consume are spent on just keeping out vital organs running.
There are ways to calculate your BMR. You can’t ever get a 100% accurate number, but it’s a pretty close estimate. One way to go about it is to use the Harris-Benedict Formula, which takes your gender, age, weight, and height into account to give you a BMR. Knowing your BMR enables you to compare it to your total daily calorie intake and decide if you want to maintain or change the number of calories you eat every day.
What Is a Deficit?
The word “deficit” means that there isn’t enough of something. In the context of calories, it implies that you’re eating fewer calories than what your body requires for the maintenance of its current weight. This term is mostly used when talking about weight loss and it usually doesn’t have a negative connotation, unless it’s regarding malnutrition.
When it comes to weight loss, one of the most popular approaches is the concept of “Calories in, Calories out”. Meaning that if you want to lose weight, the amount of calories you burn during the day has to be higher than the ones you consume through food. You can adjust how much that difference needs to be, depending on your overall health and wishes, and it also means that you can increase your body weight if that’s what you need to do.
Not All Calories Are the Same
The “Calories in, Calories out” concept is a scientifically proven one. There is mathematical certainty to it. But, this by no means tells the whole story about calories and how their deficit and excessive consumption affects our lives.
So, yes, if you eat a few bags of potato chip worth of calories to support the calorie intake needed to maintain or cut down on your weight, it will work. But, this doesn’t have the same effect on your body and overall health as a balanced nutritional meal containing the same amount of calories.
The calorie math is irrefutable, but it’s also worth mentioning that prolonged daily consumption of highly processed, sugary food, as well as food rich in vegetable oil, leads to a slowdown of your metabolism and a speed-up of the aging process of the cells.
Exercising and Calories
Where does exercise fit in the conversation about what is calorie deficit? A lot of what the fitness industry is selling is the idea of you burning some extra calories at the gym. Some of us may wake up early and go for a run so we can make some room for the cake later.
But, it doesn’t really work that way. We already know that most of the energy our body uses is to sustain life. We need 10% of our energy just for digestion, which leaves us with 20% for physical activity. There is only so much you can do with that percentage and not to mention the amount of time you’d have to do it.
Most packaged food manufacturers are obligated by law to inform you about the nutritional info (which includes energy values) of the product they are selling. This makes things somewhat easier to navigate through grocery store labels and restaurant menus.
But, unless you’re familiar with every detail and loophole of the laws that govern the food industry, you can’t ever fully rely on the labels. It’s probably for the best to use them as guidelines only.
Calorie Deficit and Nutritional Values
The best way to describe the point of calorie deficit – is that it’s a tool. It serves a purpose in medicine and the world of professional sport, as well as in our daily lives. It can be a very good thing if you want to be healthier and eat better without changing your body weight. Or if you want to lose some weight and keeping track of your calorie intake seems simple enough.
We never know exactly how the food we eat will impact our bodies and it’s easy to get confused and frustrated. Counting calories is an effective way of keeping up with our body energy budget and whether it’s in deficit or surplus.
But, what’s more important is trying to eat food with higher nutritional density. Eating balanced meals makes it easier to maintain your weight due to satiety. One thing is for sure, everybody has heard of calories, even if they have no idea what they are.
It seems like a simple unit of energy has become an object of our society’s obsession. It needn’t be that way. Remember, calorie deficits are just a tool.