This is the most age-old debate in the fitness industry. Because let's be honest, any fitness program that is talking to you about meeting your fitness and weight goals that doesn't talk to you about nutrition is absolutely wasting your time. Really. Completely. What you do and do not put into your body will long-term be 80% of your success in terms of determining your body composition.
I promise that if you fail at something 80% of the time, even if your 20% fitness plan is on point, you will still end up failing. So let's talk about that 80%.
A calorie = a calorie is really a battle of semantics. Unfortunately, the fitness industry doesn't want to explain this to you because then they have less power to manipulate you for a few more bucks for the newest hottest fad diet, superfood, magic pill, or what have you.
A calorie, by definition, is the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree celsius. Yup. It is literally just a unit of energy. This means that calories are not inherently evil!!! If you cut all your calories, you will die. I promise.
So where is all the confusion? Well, calories of energy do come from different places and therefore are bound up in different chemical structures that have different effects on the body! Because chemicals aren't evil either.
There are three main types of MACROnutrients: proteins, carbs, and fats. You may have heard this before. If that calorie of energy comes from protein, my body has the ability to use that protein now for muscle synthesis! Good, we like muscle. If I eat 200 calories of carbohydrates, my body can now use that energy and the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates are various forms of sugars. I can use that sugar now for energy because that is what sugar does for the body; it is metabolized to create an energy molecule that supports our whole body!
Here is the problem. If I take in MORE calories than my body needs, my body will store that energy in my body. Certain macronutrients and foods are better utilized by the body and others are stored more easily. If you just ran a marathon, your body needs all the energy it can get and that 200 g of sugar will be used up in an instant. If you've been sitting on the couch all day and eat a Snickers bar, you've just consumed more energy than you need and BAM, your body is going to store that on for later. Think hibernation. Your body is preparing to support itself through the winter!!! Unfortunately, this is not what most of us are looking for.
At the end of the day though, ANY excess energy, in any form, will be stored on the body as there is no way to use it!!! If you are trying to build muscle, you will eat slightly more than you need. If you are careful to support your body's needs properly with those macronutrients and good exercise, that excess storage will be in MUSCLE and not in FAT, but either way you will be storing energy on your body and getting bigger. Make sense? If we eat less calories than we need, our body will have to TAKE from those stores. Just like before though, depending on how we're eating and exercising, the stores that we take from can be fat OR muscle! Which would you prefer?
When it comes to calories; they really are just calories. Gaining weight, losing weight, maintaining weight is all based on CALORIES and nothing else. However, your health and whether or not that gained or lost weight is from fat or muscle is dependent on those macronutrients.
So ask yourself today: am I gaining weight, losing weight, or maintaining my weight with how I am currently eating? The diet you choose to get you there is really irrelevant. If you want to lose weight, eat a little less (not a lot less) on a consistent basis. If you want to gain muscle, eat a little more.
I'd love to tell you that exercising like a maniac will get you six pack abs and the ability to have them while chowing down on a dozen doughnuts washed down with a beer, but heart-breakingly it does not work that way. I love doughnuts.
So let's get a little sensible here. A slight dietary change, make sure your macronutrient needs are met, exercise regularly, and enjoy your life. Simple in concept. Challenging to perform. All of the fad diets and miracle cures are there because hard work and small changes aren't sexy. They are hard and take a long time. This is a lifestyle.