What is a Calorie?

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

One trip through a grocery store and you will be bombarded with labels stating their product is calorie-wise, low calorie, calorie free, or some other variation of the same statement. Then you hit the check-out to be faced with magazines and tabloids toting low calorie recipes, smoothies, treats, and diets. Finally you make it out of the store confused and questioning everything you thought you knew about your diet.

So what is a calorie? A calorie is a unit of measurement that represents the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by 1 degree centigrade. Which is a fancy way of saying, a calorie is a unit of energy. More importantly, a calorie is where the body gets it's energy from.

Why are we so worried about limiting our calorie intake? To put it simply, if the body takes in more energy than it uses then it stores the excess, usually as body fat. On the other side of the coin, if the body takes in less energy than it uses then it is forced to use stored energy. There are exceptions to these rules and this process of energy input vs energy output in detail can be quite complicated but that is not the purpose of this article. This article is for basic knowledge and understanding.

Let's dive a little deeper into what makes up calories. Calories are made up of macronutrients. Macronutrients are fat, protein, and carbohydrates. These are the three building blocks of how your body gets it's energy. The three macronutrients and nucleic acids are also the organic molecules that make up the cells in your body. Already we can see that not just one of these macronutrients directly contributes to weight gain since they all make up calories and excess calories cause weight gain.

So I just have to count our calories and limit our intake to loose weight, right? Not so fast. Yes having a calorie deficit will help you loose weight but it's not a fool proof system. You're body needs a bit of all three building blocks. If you are just counting your calories you could end up leaving one out of the equation which can cause all kinds of problems depending on which one you're forgetting. This is why people counting calories often report still feeling hungry. Their body is missing something and it's trying to tell them.

OK, I just need to make sure I have a good break down of all three macros and keep my calories super low and the weight will just melt off. Nope sorry, still not quite there. The standard recommendation for healthy weight loss is a 500 calorie deficit from your maintenance caloric intake. Maintenance caloric intake is a neural energy balance as opposed to the positive and negative energy balances we went over earlier. Most commonly people are looking to loose weight but for the few that are looking to gain weight, the guidelines we are going over can be used in reverse.

Your calorie deficit doesn't necessarily have to come from taking in less calories either. Calories make up the energy we use which means we burn calories when we exercise. If you are burning plenty of calories during your workout and then cutting them from your diet as well, it could cause you to feel tired or burnt out, slow your metabolism, and cause your body to feed on lean muscle mass to get what it needs.

There are tons of calorie calculators online. I suggest finding one you like and using it to find your maintenance caloric intake, then do the rest of the math yourself. Most calculators have a bunch of options asking you how many times a week you exercise and/or how much weight you would like to loose or gain. Select no exercise and maintain weight. The reason being, the calculator doesn't know anything about the type of exercise you're doing. You could be doing aqua fit, playing basket ball, or weight lifting which will cause your body to use different amounts of energy while the calculator is just using an average number. There are also calculators to more accurately figure out how many calories your are burning during your workouts.

Then there is the question of how should your macronutrients make up those calories. The common break downs to start with are some variety of 33% to 40% protein, 33% to 40% carbohydrates, and 20% to 33% fat. If you want to calculate your percentages into measurable amounts you should also know how many grams per each make a calorie.

Proteins - 4cal per gram

Carbohydrates - 4cal per gram

Fats - 9cal per gram

Diet is a simply complicated subject mostly because there isn't a one size fits all solution. We all have different bodies, different goals, and different lifestyles. It is a trial and error process to find out what works best for your body but make sure you don't skip one of those three building blocks. I suggest doing your homework to make sure you are feeding your body properly and when in doubt, ask a qualified person for advice.

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