MMA Nutrition: How To Manage Your Weight For MMA - Part 1

July 19, 2019

Calories In

We all know that food contains calories, but we rarely talk about what they are. A fundamental principle for managing your meal plans for weight loss is calories in and calories out. To lose weight we need to be in a caloric deficit, no one will debate that. However, it is accurately measuring them that is challenging. This article is going to explain why measuring caloric intake is hard. We will discuss calories out later on.

Video Credits to Emma Bryce - TEDed

What is a calorie?

First things first, a calorie is not a physical thing. It is just a unit of measure. By definition, 1 food calorie is the amount of energy that is needed to raise the temperature of 1kg of water by 1 degrees celsius.

In other terms it is energy. When food is broken down it will release X amount of energy depending on how much carbs, fats, and proteins it contains.  

Remember that carbs and protein produce 4 calories of energy per gram. So, if I ate 10 grams of protein or 10 grams of carbs, I would get 40 calories of energy. Fat contains 9 calories per gram, so if I ate 10 grams of fat, I would get 90 calories of energy.

Check out this table of foods to visualize this a little better.





Total Calories

Slice of Bread

18 x 4 = 72


3 x 4 = 12


0.5 x 9 = 4.5


375ml can of Coca-Cola


40 x 4 = 160


0 x 4 = 0


0 x 9 = 0


200g of Chicken Breast


0 x 4 = 0


58 x 4 = 232


7 x 4 = 28


½ medium avocado


4 x 1 = 4


3 x 4 = 12


34 x 9 = 306


This brings us to the meaty part of this discussion. A Calorie is a great concept, the same way as winning a game of basketball by scoring more points is a great concept. What I mean by that is that the score at the end of a basketball game only tells you who won, nothing else.

This is the same as calories, the total amount you consumed is important, but it only tells you how much energy you have put in. It does not tell you what happened to that energy, where they have come from, what the hormonal response to them is, or anything else.

If you want to use this concept, here are a couple of points you need to think about.

Accuracy of the Number

If you are working out your caloric intake you are probably using an app such as MyFitnessPal. This is fine, but you have to appreciate the fact that the numbers that these apps use may not be completely accurate.

This is a direct quote from FSANZ, which is the governing body for Food Standards in Australia and New Zealand.

“Food composition data may represent an average of the nutrient content of a particular sample of foods and ingredients, determined at a particular time. The nutrient composition of foods and ingredients can vary substantially between batches and brands because of a number of factors”.

It is a general rule of thumb that food labels can vary under or over the stated amount by up to 20%. Imagine that you were consuming 20% more calories than you thought every day for a week. Over the course of an entire fight camp that would add up.

You may not absorb all of the calories from food

There are a number of factors that determine how many calories your body can take from a particular food. Digestive enzymes, overall gut health, and hormones all play a role in how well we digest and absorb energy from food. If there are any issues with these, and we are unable to completely digests food, then we do not get all of the calories from it.

An example of this is pancreatitis. A side effect of this is a limited production of bile. Bile is important for the digestion of fats. If there is no bile then the fats that you eat pass through your system and exit (as fatty poop) undigested.

Differences in Metabolic Demands

Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body needs to perform its most basic functions at rest. Your body is a clever machine and this number quite often changes. A major determinant of that is activity level and body composition. This is a good point of how people handle calories differently.

Say person X has an athletic body composition, trains MMA 5-6 times a week and is generally healthy. As muscle is more metabolically active than fat, their metabolism will be higher than person Y who is inactive and has more body fat.

If person X and Y both eat the same large bowl of pasta, both will break it down into glucose, but those calories will get used differently in the body. For person X it will likely be used as energy by their muscle, for person Y it will likely be stored as fat.

This difference occurs because of their differing metabolic demands, which causes a difference in hormonal response (one uses the calories as energy, and one stores them as fat). This idea is one of the main reasons why two people can both eat the same food, but both get very different results. We will go over this in more detail when we discuss hormone sensitivity and resistance.

What does all of this mean for you as an MMA fighter?

1. A calorie is a measure of energy, not a physical thing, and food releases this energy when we digest it.

2. There is an individual difference in how people digest food, so just because a food has X number of calories doesn’t mean your body will get X number of calories.

3. It is generally accepted that the number of calories on food labels and tracking apps can be off by up to 20% and this number varies between brands of the same product.

4. Our hormones play a large role in how we digest food, and each person hormonal systems differ, meaning calories from similar foods can be treated differently.

As I said earlier, calories in and calories out is a fundament concept in Nutrition. However, accurately measuring these is more challenging than it seems. In our next posts, we will discuss the concept of calories out and how you as a Mixed Martial Artists, may measure this and how to implement into your MMA diet.

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