When many people diet, they count calories or carbs. Since reducing your calories and carbohydrates can help you lose weight, you might easily think these two things are similar. However, the difference between carbs and calories is simple: Calories are a unit of energy and carbohydrates are a macronutrient.
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Carbs vs. Calories
Calories are a unit of measurement — calories measure the energy your body can obtain from a food or beverage. This is why you'll hear people say that most adults need about 2,000 calories a day, though this amount may be reduced when someone is trying to lose weight.
Calories can come from a variety of sources, including fats, proteins and carbohydrates. All three of these are macronutrients, the main components of a healthy diet. The Food and Drug Administration lists the daily values for each of these as 65 grams of fat, 50 grams of protein and 300 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Each macronutrient has a specific amount of calories. For carbohydrates, this is equivalent to 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate. Protein also has 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram. Given the daily values, this means that people should consume about 1,985 calories per day, made up of 200 calories of protein, 585 calories from fat and 1,200 calories from carbohydrates.
Ultimately, almost everything you eat contains calories. However, the things you eat may not contain carbohydrates. Foods that lack carbohydrates include protein-rich foods, like chicken, duck, pork and steak, and fat-rich foods, like extra virgin olive oil, lard and other cooking oils. Ultimately, comparing carbs versus calories comes down to your dietary needs. Although it isn't possible to survive if you eliminate too many calories, you can safely consume as little as 20 grams of carbohydrates per day if you increase your consumption of other macronutrients.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates is a big term: Bread, vegetables, fruits, milk and a wide variety of other foods all contain carbohydrates. If you're a bit confused, this is because the term carbohydrates essentially refers to a broad category of food. Carbohydrates can be:
- Sugar alcohols
- Soluble fiber
- Insoluble fiber
Assuming you're following a standard diet, sugars and starches give your body the majority of its calories. However, all of these types of carbohydrates contribute to your diet in different ways. Certain carbohydrates, like dietary fiber, even have their own daily values. The Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming 25 grams of dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble fiber) each day.
Sometimes, you may see carbohydrates referred to in one other way: As net carbs. Carbohydrates and net carbs aren't exactly the same, though they are similar. While a carbohydrate refers to any of its subgroups, net carbs subtract certain important types of carbohydrates that may be important for your diet. For dieters, net carbs usually refers to carbohydrates minus fiber and sugar alcohols, the carbohydrates that won't affect your diet. However, for diabetics, counting net carbs is more complex, as this term is used to help manage insulin intake. Diabetics primarily subtract insoluble fiber but may also subtract some soluble fiber and sugar alcohols, depending on the amounts present.
Fewer Carbs for Weight Loss
Most people who count calories or carbs have heard about low-carb diets. Low-carb and ketogenic diets work by reducing your carbohydrate intake so that your body burns more fat. These types of diets can be very helpful with weight loss. In diets like these, carbohydrate consumption can range from 20 grams to 50 grams per day; far less than the 300 grams of carbohydrates most people consume on a daily basis.
However, eliminating so many carbohydrates and keeping your other macronutrients at the same level would be equal to very low-calorie intake. Since most people consume 200 calories of protein and 585 calories from fat each day, reducing your carbohydrates by these amounts means you'd get only an additional 80 to 200 calories from carbohydrates. That's a total of 985 calories at most: far less than the minimum recommended amount.
While it's possible to consume such a low amount of calories, it's unlikely to be good for your health. In order to make low-carb and ketogenic diets functional and healthy over the long term, these diets are designed to increase fat consumption. Since only 5-to-10 percent of your diet comes from carbohydrates, a ketogenic diet may require you to consume as much as 60-to-70 percent fat. The remaining 20-to-35 percent of the diet comes from protein.
Fewer Calories for Weight Loss
If the idea of consuming a large amount of fat each day doesn't appeal to you, it's possible to reduce your calorie intake altogether and maintain a more typical ratio of macronutrients. According to the Harvard Medical School, reducing the number of calories you eat by anything from 500 to 1,000 calories per day can help support weight loss. Although the exact calories you need per day can range, based on factors like age, gender and how active you are, most people should consume about 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day.
Certain diets combine reduced calorie intake with different macronutrient ratios. It's actually possible to simultaneously reduce your calories and increase your carbohydrates in order to lose weight. Diets like these are known as high-carbohydrate diets and feature ratios that range from 5 to 18 percent fat, 9 to 18 percent protein and 64 to 86 percent carbohydrates.
High-carb diets typically feature large amounts of plant-based foods that can provide you with healthy complex carbohydrates and fiber. Most protein will come from plant-based sources too, like soy or seitan (wheat gluten), in order to reduce saturated fat consumption. Unhealthy carbohydrates, like refined carbohydrates, processed foods and foods with added sugars, are all avoided. An added benefit of these diets is that they seem to promote longer lifespans and reduce the risk of age-related diseases, like cardiovascular disease.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020: Appendix 2"
- Journal of the College of Family Physicians of Canada: "Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss"
- FDA: "Dietary Fiber"
- Indian Journal of Medical Research: "Ketogenic Diets: Boon or Bane?"
- FDA: "Total Fat"
- FDA: "Protein"
- FDA: "Total Carbohydrate"
- Diabetes Forecast: "What Are Net Carbs?"
- Journal of Nutrition: "A High-Carbohydrate, High-Fiber, Low-Fat Diet Results in Weight Loss Among Adults at High Risk of Type 2 Diabetes"
- Age and Ageing: "New Horizons: Dietary Protein, Ageing and the Okinawan Ratio"