What is a Calorie and How to Manage Them for Weight Maintenance and Loss

You don’t have to know a lot about nutrition to be well aware of this one particular word: calorie.  Calories are like Peter Pan’s shadow, no matter how hard you try and shake them they follow you EVERYWHERE! But what exactly is a calorie and why are we so desperately trying to avoid them?  Better question, how do we properly manage them to maintain or accomplish a certain weight?

What is a Calorie?

By definition, a calorie is “the energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.”  What is the key word in this definition?  I’ll give you a hint; it looks remarkably like the word Energy… A calorie is the form of energy that your body uses to ensure the proper daily function of your cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, and digestive system among others. In other words, energy needed to ensure the beating of your heart, digestion, and filling of your lungs with air, etc.  Without calories, we wouldn’t survive.  So why isn’t it that the more calories we consume, the better our body functions.  Trust me, I ask the dear Lord that question every night.  The answer is simple.

Our bodies have what we call a basal metabolic rate (BMR).  That is the amount of energy you expend if you were to just lie in bed all day long.  The body requires this energy to perform those automatic daily body functions like the heartbeat discussed above.  Your body also requires additional calories (or energy), to perform all those activities you perform when you finally leave your bed.  I.e. walking around, typing on the computer, talking, exercising, so on and so forth.

Therefore, we can come up with this simple formula to help us properly manage calories:

Daily energy needs = basal needs + additional activity needs

How to Manage Our Calories for Weight Maintenance:

Every calorie past the daily energy needs total is an unnecessary calorie and leads to weight gain.  Here are the steps to managing your calories to ensure you don’t surpass that energy needs total:

  1. Since everyone’s BMR varies, know what your basal metabolic rate is.
  2. Determine your additional activity needs based off activity level.
  3. Make sure you burn off any additional calories you consume!
  1.  How to find your BMR:
  • Females: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
  • Males: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)


Let’s use a 22 year old 5’8” female who weights 125 pounds

BMR = 655 + (4.35 x 125 pounds) + (4.7 x 68 inches) – (4.7 x 22 years of age)

BMR = 655 + (543.75) + (319.6) – (103.4)

BMR = 1,414.95 calories (The calories needed for your body to perform necessary life functions if you were to just lie in bed and do nothing). 

Or you can use an online BMR calculator such as the one provided by Runner’s World located HERE.

2. Find additional calories based off activity level:

  • Once you have your BMR calculated, you must determine how many additional calories are necessary to perform activities beyond your BMR based off your level of activity. Runner’s World has a good caloric reference list for each activity level once it calculates your BMR.

3. Make sure to burn off any additional calories you consumed! 

  • Remember the saying, “a calorie in is a calorie out.”  This is essential!  Here’s why.  If your daily energy needs total equals 2,200 calories (BMR + additional activity needs) and you consume 2,500 calories then you have an excess of 300 calories consumed.  That means you have to burn off 300 calories in order to maintain your weight.  Just be conscientious of how many calories you consume above your daily energy needs total.

How to Manage Calories for Weight Loss:

If you are looking to lose weight, then you need to create a caloric deficit.  In other words, more calories out than in. A loss of 1 pound equals a cut of 3,500 calories.  Obviously you can’t cut 3,500 calories in one day, nor should you ever, EVER try.  A safe weight loss program is to strive for a cut of 500 calories per day.  That means that you should lose about 1 pound per week.  An easy way to do this is to cut your consumption by say about 250 calories, and burn 250 calories via exercise.  This way you can remain satisfied by eating enough and still see results!

About Dish Out The Skinny

I am currently a certified personal trainer on the challenging and rewarding path to becoming a registered dietitian. Life is hard enough...staying healthy doesn't have to be! With the ever changing "rules" to staying healthy, my goal is to create a simple blog so that the average person, like myself, can understand the ins and outs of the world that is fitness and nutrition.
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