What is a calorie? Let’s get in depth with this question so we can understand what a calorie is and how what we eat affects us. The first thing is to understand is the most basic definition of a calorie. This is just a unit of heat that we use to standardize what constitutes how much energy a typical food has when consumed. When we talk about calories in food, which as we know is a unit of energy, we are talking about Calories with a capital C. Why does it matter? Because the calories that we know, like 150 Calories in a small Doritos bag, is actually 150,000 lower case calories.
Basically, each food Calorie is actually a kilocalorie, or 1000 calories. So basically everything we eat is in Capital C Calories. I will use a Capital C on Calories when referring to food Calories for the rest of this article.
Now we know that a calorie is a unit of measuring energy through heat right? So how much heat is a Calorie? A Calorie is the amount of energy it takes to increase the temp of 1 Liter of water by 1 Degrees Celsius. The problem is that even if you know this, where’s the value? I mean how does that relatively compare to how much a human eats right?
This is where daily nutritional values come in handy. These are those recommended daily calorie intakes that the nutrition label uses as a daily recommendation. FOLLOWING that is going to lead to disappointment. Everyone from a 100 pound woman to an active 220 pound football running back have DRASTICALLY different calorie needs.
So far we have gotten that calories are a unit of energy based on measuring heat, and that the daily recommended values you see on nutrition labels that say “based on a 2000 calorie diet” are completely useless. So what can we use on a nutrition label?
The important thing to look at on a nutrition label is the grams and mg of nutrients, not the percentages. Remember that.
So now there are two steps left to understanding how calories. The first step is to break down calories, and the second step is to find out how many calories you need to burn.
Getting the total amount of calories in a food source stems from the basis of how much macronutrients there are in a food. Macronutrients are comprised of 6 things. They are fat, protein, carbs, water, vitamins, and minerals. All of these things are necessary to survive. (Technically you could live without carbs with ketogenesis talked about HERE.)
Calories are a type of energy source, right? The first thing you have to understand is that all of those macronutrients are essential for your survival. But that doesn’t mean that all of these macronutrients have calories. In fact the only macro nutrients that contain calories are fats, protein, and carbohydrates.
These three comprise the total amount of calories a food has no matter what. Now to go more in depth, we have to see what each of these macronutrients do in terms of calories.
This is the building blocks of muscles, and protein has a lot of roles in the body. They help with DNA replication and sequencing and help keep your strength up. These proteins have 4 Calories per gram. When you see a whey protein with 24 grams of protein, it must have 96 calories just from protein. Protein can come in the form of animals and plants, like beef, nuts, and beans.
Coincidentally, carbohydrates have 4 Calories per gram as well. Carbohydrates are plant based, and every carb (same as carbohydrates) must come from plants. There are no such thing as animals with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can be considered complex or simple, but either way our body breaks them down to create simple sugars to use as an energy source. When we have too many total calories, our body has the ability to convert carbohydrates into fats. So yes, you can get pure fat from too many carbohydrates.
Now this is the villain of foods in today’s world, but unjustly so. Fats are necessary to have a good healthy diet, and they shouldn’t be vilified for all the health problems Americans are facing on a daily basis. Now to be clear, fats are calorie dense. In fact, a gram of fat has 9 calories, a whooping 2.25 times more than the same amount of carbs or protein! This is why you can look at a tablespoon of olive oil and be shocked that it has 120 calories. Fats are found in both animal products and plants, such as nuts.
As humans, we need a lot of vitamins and minerals, as well as water. The thing is, all of these things have no calories, so we don’t have to worry about the rest of the nutrition label except thing like salt and sugar. But overconsumption of certain vitamins and minerals can lead to health problems. Instead of getting into the specifics, I think the best approach to this is to vary your food sources to include a great variety that will help keep you healthy and provide a different vitamins and minerals that your body may need.
Your Calorie Maintenance
Understand the above on how the 3 macronutrients fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are the basis of calories. Now we have to discard those B.S. percentages you see on the nutrition labels. This is because we have to know how many calories we need as an individual. So this comes down how active you are and what your general BMR is.
BMR = Basel Metabolic Rate
A BMR is your basal metabolic rate. This is the amount of calories you need to maintain your weight if you did nothing all day. You can think of this as your base, from which any activity you do increases your total daily calorie expenditure. There are many ways to get your BMR, from using a dexa scan, to going to a testing facility that has you sleep for 8 hours. Now these things are most likely impractical for most of us, so HERE is a calculator you can use to test for you BMR.
Now depending on how much you exercise, your actual daily calorie needs can vary greatly. I discuss this in greater detail here. So basically you have to multiply your BMR by either 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, or 1.4 depending on how active you are. Using this can get you the amount of calories you need in a day.
Going back to our understanding of how calories are comprised of fats, proteins and carbs, we need to take your average daily calorie expenditure and divide it between the 3 big macronutrients. A good example is using a typical breakdown of 20% protein, 30% fat, and 50% carbohydrates. Depending on your goals, you can adjust this like adding protein if your an athlete building muscle or reducing fat. Reducing fat can help with making a person feel more satiated as well.
Here at Supplement Reality, we believe that a calorie is a calorie, and that any energy source is the same. At the same time we believe in whole foods and complex carbs, as they keep you feeling great. Follow these tips and use your newfound knowledge of calories to make smart decisions at the grocery store!