Calories have a bad reputation when it comes to weight loss. But, calories are actually an important source of fuel that your body can’t live without.
“Your body needs calories for energy,” says Kimberly Lummus, MS, RD. “Calories are the force behind everything we do, including eating, sleeping, and breathing.”
But do you know how calories work, and how many you really need?
Here are five facts about calories…
Calories equal energy. Calories are how much energy your body gets from the food and beverages that it consumes. Most food sources are composed of some combination of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and each of these nutrients contains calories.
There’s no such thing as a “bad” calorie. Your body processes each calorie the same. But Lummus adds that some foods are far more nutritious than others, so you should try to limit “empty” calories, such as those in soda. “We should strive to make our calories the most nutrient-dense that we can, meaning that we are packing in a lot of nutrition,” says Lummus.
Every person has a magic calorie number. You must find the right balance of calories every day, depending on your overall goals. The number of calories a person needs depends on many individual factors, including age, weight, height, and activity level. When dieticians counsel clients on calorie needs, they take all of these facts into consideration and come up with a suggestion for how many calories are needed to maintain, lose, or gain weight. This number is generally between 1300 and 2400 for most adults. Talk to a doctor or nutritionist about figuring out your perfect number.
Eating too few calories can make you gain weight. Consuming less than 1,200 calories per day can be harmful to your health. Eating below 1200 a day may trigger your body to go into starvation mode, causing your body to actually hold onto calories, and add up to more weight gain later.
Children’s calories vary tremendously. For example, teenage boys may require up to 3,000 calories per day, while teenage girls usually need around 2,200 calories each day. “For children, calorie needs are going to change a lot more because they are growing so rapidly,” Lummus continues. She says that infants 5 to 12 months of age need around 850 calories daily, 1- to 3-year-olds need roughly 1,300 calories daily, 4- to 6-year-olds need about 1,800 calories daily, and 7- to 10-year-olds require 2,000 calories daily.
“Counting calories is usually not necessary for children,” says Lummus. “You just want to make sure that your child is getting all of the requirements from all of the food groups.”
The Bottom Line About Calories
Both children and adults should get the bulk of their calories from a variety of healthful foods, including low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources — the building blocks of a nutritious diet.