Let’s talk calories. It’s everyone’s favourite subject… isn’t it? Do we need calories? What the heck even is a calorie? A calorie is just a calorie, right? Or is it? In this article, we’ll explore these questions about our friend (or foe) the calorie.
Let us start by taking a step back and answer the question “What is a Calorie?”. A calorie isn’t a “thing”. You can’t actually see a calorie or taste it… it is a unit of measure. A calorie is typically defined as the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. Therefore, a calorie is a unit of energy. Now, you’re armed with information that many of your friends don’t have, go out and tell someone!
Funny enough, when people are standing around talking about calories or you’re in the grocery store reading a food label and looking at the number of calories in food, those are actually kilocalories (kcal). A kilocalorie is sometimes referred to as a “large calorie”. The definition for kcal is a bit different. A kilocalorie is typically defined as the amount of heat required to heat 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree celsius. Therefore, a kilocalorie is equal to 1,000 calories (or small calories). For the purposes of this article, we will refer to a kilocalorie as a “calorie”.
If a calorie is the amount of energy or potential energy that an object contains, what does that mean to me? And do I need them?
Yes, you absolutely need a certain number of calories to survive. If you consumed zero calories for an extended period of time, your body, your organs etc. would begin to shut down and stop functioning. Energy is required for our bodies to function. The way we acquire calories/energy is in the form of food and drink that we consume.
If all we need is energy to fuel our systems, then a calorie must be just a calorie. Are all calories created equal? Now, this is a much more difficult and highly debated question to answer. The quick answer I will provide is NO, not all calories are created equal.
When looking at weight management, the question is how do calories factor in? It is generally believed that to “lose weight”, all you have to do is burn more calories than you consume. Is it the simple belief that by dropping daily caloric intake one drops unwanted pounds? This is where the debate starts … “is a calorie just a calorie”? In theory, yes, if you burn more than you consume, you’ll eventually lose weight. What this doesn’t take into consideration is the make up or quality of those calories. Certain sources of calories have a very different impact on our bodies.
At a very high level, the caloric load of our 3 main macro-nutrients are as follows (per 1 gram):
· Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
· Fat: 9 calories per gram
· Protein: 4 calories per gram
Taking a quick glance at the information above it’s easy to see why we might cut down on our daily intake of fat if we’re just trying to “manage” our daily intake of calories. Wouldn’t it make sense to eat a little more carbohydrates and protein and drop the fat? Fat has over double the caloric load of
carbohydrates and protein (9 vs 4) per gram. But (there’s always a but), is it that simple? If I reduce my dietary fat intake and eat a little higher amount of carbs and proteins, while keeping my calories at a “reasonable” level, will I lose the weight I want to lose? To answer that question, I will refer to the past 50 years as our test case. Over the past 50 years, the North American population has gotten heavier and unhealthier in the form of obesity and chronic diseases. Since about the 1960-70s, our percentage of total daily calories in the form of fat has indeed dropped, by approx. 10% (from about 40% to 30%). Now the question is what has gone up?
In short, carbohydrate consumption is what has increased over the past 50 or so years. One quick example is that the consumption of soft drinks and fruit drinks has increased tremendously over this time period. As a conservative calculation, 1 can of a soft drink consumed a day equates to approx. 15.6 lbs of weight gain per year. This is most likely higher as items that elevate your insulin (storage hormone) rapidly, will cause you to gain more weight even if the calories are the same. You might be thinking, “thank goodness I don’t drink a can of pop every day, this doesn’t apply to me”. This isn’t reserved to a can of pop or fruit drinks. That sweetened tea, sweetened latte, few cookies, Halloween treat, store bought crackers/snacks etc. (processed foods) all have a similar impact.
Here’s the thing, we’re not trying to vilify all carbohydrates. The message that we’re trying to point out is that processed foods, especially those with added sugar (almost 75% of packaged foods do) are the ones that we really need to limit/avoid.
Calories aren’t the enemy. They are nor good nor bad. Carbohydrates are nor good, nor bad and the same goes for fats and protein. (In case you missed it, check out our previous blog post regarding fats.) Not all calories are created equal. You can eat the same amount of calories in the form of snacks, juices, pop etc. versus wild salmon, broccoli and sweet potato and have a very different outcome of health and weight gain/loss. Keep the vast majority of your daily/weekly/monthly caloric load in the form of “real food” and your health and waistline will thank you for it.
Remember, a calorie is not just a calorie. In the end, embrace all the calories you consume, they make up the energy of life. Just make sure the calories you are consuming are coming from a great source. Take control of your calorie consumption. Take control of your health.
Is a Calorie a Calorie? Processed Food, Experiment Gone Wrong