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What is a calorie?

Calories are the units of energy in the food that we are eating. Calories are actually measured in terms of kilocalories but are often referred to simply as a calorie, so if you see “kcal” that also denotes a calorie. We need a certain number of calories to sustain basic metabolic function plus that of our daily lifestyles. The more active we are, the more fuel we need, thus the more calories we need to eat. The less active we are, the less fuel we need, the less calories we require. When you find yourself consuming more energy (calories) than you are burning or giving off, you will technically be gaining weight. If you burn more energy than you consume, you will lose weight. This is known as a caloric deficit and surplus and is often used for weight management.

Calories in > Calories out = Caloric surplus = weight gain

Calories in < Calories out = Caloric deficit = weight loss

Calories in = Calories out = Caloric balance = weight management

How many calories are in each food?

First, let’s begin with macronutrients. There are 3 macronutrients that are essential to the functioning of our body (aka don’t cut one out!), they are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Carbohydrates contain 4kcal/ gram

Protein also contains 4kcal/ gram

Fat contains 9kcal/ gram (more calorically dense than carbs & protein)

While each food has a different macronutrient composition (meaning it can be both protein and carbs or carbs and fat etc.) You will need to see how many grams of each macronutrient are in the food in order to determine the total calories.


½ cup of beans has:

19g carbohydrates

1g fat

7g protein

19g * 4kcal/ gram = 76kcal from carbs

1g * 9kcal/ gram = 9kcal from fat

7g * 4kcal/ gram = 28kcal from protein

Add up the kcals to get a total of appx. 113 kcals in ½ cup of beans!


Caloric density:

Certain foods are very high in calories while others are very low for their serving size. For example, 2 cups of broccoli (which is a high volume) is only about 60 calories. While a handful of almonds or cashews (8-9 nuts) has the same number of calories (for a smaller volume). The calorically light foods (non-starchy vegetables) will physically satiate you/ fill you up for less calories than calorically dense foods (nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado).

*Numbers will vary slightly

*You can use a macro counter app like Myfitnesspal to do this work for you or you can look at the Nutrient List References from the USDA for the measures.


What are the macronutrient requirements?

The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range, (AMDR) for carbohydrates, fat, and protein are as follows as a percent of total daily calories.

Carbohydrates: 45-65%

Fat: 20-35%

Protein: 10-35%

This means if you are eating the standard number of calories which tends to be a 2,000-calorie diet for easy reference, this is how many grams of each you would be aiming for.

Carbohydrates: 225-325g

Fat: 44-78g

Protein: 50-175g

Protein specifically has another measure commonly used that is based off body weight known as the Recommended Dietary Allowance (DRA)

.8g of protein/ kg body weight.

This is an estimate of what people will need and will vary depending on physical activity.

In this label you can see that the total number of calories is 230. The total fat is 8g, total carbohydrates is 37g, and protein is 3g. There is a percent to the right of these numbers showing you what percent of your daily needs this food would be providing you with. Namely 12% of your fat requirement and 12% of your daily carbohydrates. You want to eat foods low in those categories unless it is your largest meal of the day, in order to avoid getting all your calories from the wrong foods.


How many calories do I need?

Below is the Mifflin St Jeor Equation commonly used by dietitians to discover someone’s Estimated Energy Requirements or Needs (EER or EEN) while at rest. This is also known as Basal or Resting Metabolic Rate (BMR or RMR) and is based on height, weight, and age.


EER = 10 x Weight + 6.25 x Height – 5 x age (in years) + 5


EER = 10 x Weight+ 6.25 x Height – 5 x age (in years) -161

*Weight will be in kg (1 kg = 2.2 lbs.)

*Height will be in cm (1 in = 2.54 cm)

You can also multiply your EER by an activity factor if you are physically active as that would require you to consume more calories than when you are at rest.


1.2 Sedentary; little or no exercise

1.375 Lightly Active; light exercise 1-3 days per week

1.55 Moderately Active; moderate exercise 3-5 days per week

1.725 Very Active; hard exercise 6-7 days per week

1.9 Extremely Active; hard daily exercise

EER X Activity Factor = Total Energy Needs


Just remember no amount of calories is right for everyone and drastically changing your caloric intake all at once is not good for your body. Make slow changes so your body can adapt over time!

I hope this helps you discover the number of calories that you need to sustain your weight goals and to have a better understanding of your macronutrient distribution!



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What is a Registered Dietitian?

A food and nutrition expert who can work in a wide variety of employment settings, including health care, business and industry, community/public health, education, research, government agencies and private practice. RDNs are accredited health professionals that must meet state and government regulations to maintain their credential in addition to completing continuing education. RDNs can practice something called Medical Nutrition Therapy to improve the health of those who suffer from chronic diseases. 

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