What Are Calories? Why Are We So Terrified Of Them?

Fitness Friday_ What is a calorie_ (1)


Calories.

The word itself strikes fear into the hearts of anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight… EVER.

Okay, maybe not… but still, if you’ve ever felt the pressure to get in shape, then you know just how scary the word “calories” can be.

Trust me… I’m counting them right now. Because I know when I’m bored, I have a tendency to overeat, or snack on things that give me none (or very little) of my dietary needs.

But here’s a little food for thought (no pun intended)… we don’t really talk about what a calories are. Sure, we know that you’re meant to count them and try to get exactly the amount you need, no more, but do we actually understand what a calories are?

What, exactly, is a calorie?

What's a calorie_

According to several sources (many of them will be listed below), a calorie is a “unit of food energy”. (source)

It’s the amount of heat energy needed to heat 1g of water to 1 degree C.

Nowadays, we tend to think of calories as these evil little monsters that destroy our ‘bikini bodies’ and make it hard for us to look nice in the black dress we bought for date night. But if that were the case, the ideal would be to never eat another calorie as long as we lived.

Truth is, as hard as it is to count calories, you need them to live. They are, in essence, the fuel that makes it possible for you to function.

So even though it is important not to overeat, it’s more important to think about what kind of calories you’re getting. For instance, a calorie of protein is different from a calorie of fat is different from a calorie of carbohydrate.

Same unit of measure, different macro. And yes, that differentiation DOES matter.

*Note: Please keep in mind that I am NOT a R.D.N. (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) OR a healthcare professional in any capacity. I am simply using my experience to seek out information from the most reputable sources I can find and parrioting that information to you. Always, always, ALWAYS do your own research into these topics and talk to your doctor.

You can’t really talk about calories without talking about macronutrients, so let’s get into those and what they do for your body.

What are macronutrients?

The term “macronutrients” refers to the substances we need in large amounts in order to live. These substances are separated into 3 main groups:

Carbohydrates

Proteins

Fats (a.k.a., Lipids)

Let’s talk about each one separately.

Carbs

Carbohydrates

Carbs are not the devil. They play a vital role in your health, and you need them. The problem is that you need to find foods that also have other nutrients in them.

Basically, carbohydrates come 3 ways: starches, sugars, and fiber. (source) The first 2 are broken down into glucose (blood sugar) to be used as energy, and the 3rd either a) brings down your cholesterol levels and help with blood sugar control (soluble), or b) help you poop (insoluble)…

(Fiber is the reason why vegans poop so much… ahem… moving on.)

Basically, you want to make sure that the foods you’re eating contain a little bit of all 3 of these things, as well as some other essential nutrients. It’s mainly when eating refined foods (cookies, candy, refined grains) that you start to take on the empty calories that that make you gain weight.

These foods will be rich in added sugars or starches, but will be lacking in fiber and other nutrients (vitamins, protein, etc.) that you need. This is what makes you more likely to overeat.

Proteins

Proteins

Ok… I find proteins to be the most interesting.

So you got 20 amino acids, right? They’re the building blocks of your protein. Amino acids linked to each other in chains, and the sequence of the chain is what makes each protein unique. Depending on the sequence, the protein will have a specific structure and function. (source)

Pretty cool, right? But wait… it gets cooler.

11 of your amino acids are nonessential, which means that your body can produce them by breaking down other proteins in your body. But 9 of them are essential, which means you can only get them from your food.

Essential

  1. Leucine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Lysine
  4. Methionine
  5. Phenylalanine
  6. Threonine
  7. Tryptophan
  8. Valine
  9. Histidine

Nonessential

  1. Alanine
  2. Arginine
  3. Asparagine
  4. Aspartic Acid
  5. Cysteine
  6. Glutamic Acid
  7. Glutamine
  8. Glycine
  9. Proline
  10. Serine
  11. Tyrosone

Protein is super important for growth (particularly in children) and cell repair. They contain good amounts of your B vitamins, are involved in most of your major body processes, and makes up MOST of your body (i.e., hair, skin, nails, internal organs… pretty much everything important).

Now, normally I don’t do plugs to convince people do go vegan… I’m more of a ‘lead by example’ kind of girl than an evangelist… but a diet lower in meats, processed meats, and processed poultry (chicken) help to reduce your risk of the following:  

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Heart (cardiovascular) disease

  • Obesity

  • Some forms of cancer

There are plenty of ways to get your protein from whole plant foods, like legumes, nuts, and seeds. You no longer need to eat a ton of meat to get it. So even if you don’t ever go vegetarian or vegan, a reducetarian lifestyle (one that limits the intake of meats and other animal products) can ultimately be better for you and the animals/environment.

Fats

Fats

And last, we have the pariah of the group… fats. People are TERRIFIED of the word “fat” because it’s become synonymous with obesity (and the complications that go with it).

But the thing is that, like calories, fats are not bad in and of themselves. It mainly comes down to the type of fat and the amount that you’re eating to determine your health.

Like fiber, allowing the right amounts of fat into your diet can help you feel full and satiated, so you’re less likely to overeat… if, of course, you’re eating the right kinds.

There are 3 basic kinds of fat (or lipids): saturated fats (sat fats) unsaturated fats, and trans fats.

Saturated Fats

Solid at room temp, also referred to as “solid” fat. You find this most often in animal products like beef, pork, and chicken. Some leaner meats have less.

You want to be aware of your intake of these; they spike your cholesterol, which means they contribute to blockages in various areas of your body. #CloggedArteries. Ouch.

Unsaturated Fats

The “good” fats, present in plant sources (olives, nuts, seeds) as well as fish. Usually referred to as oils, these fats are liquid at room temperature. They contain monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, which are important for your body functions. (source)

Trans Fats

Bad, bad, BAD… trans fats are what are considered the “bad” fats.

They’re basically what happens during the hydrogenation process. (source) During this process, hydrogen atoms are added to the carbon chain (the structure of the fat molecule, which consists of carbon and hydrogen atoms bonded together). This is what turns the oils solid.

Avoid trans fats as often as possible. This means staying away from (or seriously moderating) your intake of processed junk foods… yes, even the vegan ones.

So as you can see, it’s less about cutting fat out and more about getting the right amounts of the right types.

Circling back, what does all this crap have to do with calories?

Mmkay, so recapping what we talked about earlier with the calories, we agree that a calorie is a unit of measure that indicates the amount of heat needed to heat 1g of water to 1 degree C.  It’s equal to 4.184 (4.19) joules- the SI unit of work or energy.

I was NOT good with chemistry, so I’m going to stop going too far down that road before I break my brain… or yours.

But basically, that’s why you have to do physical activity in order to burn calories. The energy in your body is the heat, and the more energy you put in, the more calories you burn. Of course, you’ve got your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the amount of calories you burn at rest, a.k.a. just being alive. I think for the average person that’s determined by their Body Mass Index (BMI), but that’s between you and your doctor.

Here’s where the macros come in: each macro contains a different number of calories per gram. Carbs and protein are both equal to about 4 calories per gram, while fats are equal to about 9 calories per gram. If the foods you’re eating supply you with your appropriate amount of macros each day, you should be good in the calorie department.

But this complicated shit is why I use Cronometer to track most of my dietary stuff. Honestly. It lays it out real simple for you. Based on your height, weight, and age, it calculates your BMR and how much of each macro, vitamin, and mineral you should be getting each day.

Each column is yellow until you reach the suggested intake, at which point it turns green. If you go too far over that, the column will turn red.

Genius.

So easy a 3-year-old could do it.

Of course, as I always say, make sure you talk to your doctor. Your needs might be different from mine; you may have a chronic illness or preexisting condition that means you’re gonna have to tailor your intake to fit your needs. But once you’ve determined that, Cronometer is a nice way to keep yourself in check.

Count calories, but don’t fret about them.

They are important, but they aren’t everything.

The number of calories you eat should correspond with the amount of macros you need to eat on any given day.

From what I’ve seen, the average diet allows for between 1500-2000 calories to get all the nutrients you need. If you’re eating more than that and still not meeting your daily values, your diet is probably missing something and your body is trying to compensate.

That’s why we snack or crave foods. So definitely keep track of your macronutrients at the very least.

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Sources I used:

Nutrition.gov: What’s In Food

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calorie#Definitions

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/calorie

https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=8567

MedlinePlus: Carbohydrates

FDA Nutrition Facts Label: Proteins PDF

AHA: Fats & Oils

USDA: How many calories are in 1g of fat, carbohydrate, or protein?

MedicineNet.com: Medical Definition of Amino Acid, nonessential

Harvard Health Publishing (Harvard Med School): The Truth About Fats: The good, the bad, and the in-between

ChooseMyPlate.gov: Saturated, Unsaturated, and TRANS Fats

Sources you should check out:

USDA Food Composition Databasees

Mayo Clinic

USDA.gov

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

VeganHealth.org

JackNorrisRD.com

The Vegan RD (Virginia “Ginny” Messina)

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