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Everything you need to know about Calories

Calories are one of those things that get talked about and thrown around as if we all completely understand what calories are. Calorie counts appear on just about all food packaging labels. We all have a basic understanding that we need to pay attention to calories. 

But there is real science behind the term calories. Calories play an essential role in our fitness and health. Calories are simply an abstract number to be counted. When we talk about calories, we should probably have some understanding of what we mean. 

The fact is, not all calories are bad. We need calories in our diet to fuel our bodies. It is when we consume too many calories that we run into problems. And it is not only the number of calories that matter. The minds of calories we consume also determine how healthy they can be. 

What are calories? What do we mean when we talk about the number of calories in foods and drinks? What are the different kinds of calories? And what is the importance of calories? We will give you everything you need to know about calories so you can be better equipped to stay healthy and fit.  

What are calories?

First of all, some may find it surprising that calories are not a substance in food like vitamins, cholesterol, or fats. Calories are a unit of measure of the energy content of foods and beverages. 

A calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. This sounds extremely technical but as we will see, it translates into some understandable features of foods and drinks. 

Calories as a unit of measure translate into the energy you derive from the things you eat and drink. Even to maintain the most basic functions of your body requires calories. When we consume excess energy stored in the form of calories, we retain that excess in our bodies. This is where we find one of the most central issues in fitness. 

Too many calories, or too many of the wrong kinds of calories, will be stored in the body and this is what leads to weight gain. We need to burn the calories we consume or we will retain the sources of those calories. 

Types of calories

Calories come in different forms. Some foods contain calories that are easily burned by our metabolism, and other foods contain calories that tend to stay with us. We need to pay attention to the number of calories as much as the sources of the calories. 

High-calorie foods

Some foods are considered high-calorie foods. These foods contain dense quantities of calories per serving size. Oils, butter, fried foods, and sugary foods are high-calorie foods. 

This said, not all high-calorie foods are in the category of junk-food. Avocadoes, quinoa, olive oil, and whole grains are all high-calorie foods. What makes them different is the nutritional value that comes with these foods. This can be weighed against the actual calorie content. Another high-calorie food is dried fruits. This means dried fruits are packed with available energy. 

Low-calorie foods

Low-calorie foods have a low quantity of calories per serving size. Fruits and vegetables tend to have low-calorie counts. Two cups of shredded romaine lettuce, for example, contain only 16 calories. The same amount of spinach also contains only 16 calories. Oranges, although sweet and packed with natural sugar, have about 70 calories.  

Empty calories

These are foods that contain calories but no real nutritional content. Things like fats and added processed sugars are empty calories. These foods provide calories that are not offset by anything of any value. Some foods that have empty calories are natural like butter, shortening, and fats from some meats. 

By far the most dangerous empty calorie foods and beverages are junk foods. Things like soda pop, pizza, processed meats, and cheeses are all loaded with calories but have no nutritional value. The problem with these kinds of empty-calorie foods is that the calories provide little to no benefit in terms of usable energy, but store calories in the body and lead to substantial weight gain. 

Importance of calories

As we said at the outset, calories are units of energy. This is the energy your body needs to fuel your metabolism and all bodily functions. Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and sugars all contain the energy your body needs to keep you alive. Even the basic processes of breathing, maintaining a heartbeat, and digesting food require energy. 

Your body converts things like proteins into amino acids that can then be used in your body. This process requires energy that comes in the form of calories from the foods you eat. The number of calories you need comes down to a combination of your metabolic rate and your level of energy expenditure. From this, you can determine the kinds of foods you should eat and what kinds of foods you should cut down on or eliminate. 

When we consume more calories than we burn, we retain calories and store them up. This is where the problem of weight gain comes into the equation. Once we begin to store calories, it can become difficult to burn the excess. 

How to distribute your daily calories

The number of calories you consume in a day certainly matters. But just as important is when you consume your calories. Learning to distribute nutrients and calories strategically is one of the best ways to stay fit.

Whether you want to lose weight, keep weight off, or maintain your activity level, the distribution of calories will help you. You can link your calorie consumption to the rhythms of your daily life such that you do not accumulate calories and excess weight.  

Certain times of the day are ideal for burning calories whereas other times are more conducive to building muscle. Learning how to use your natural rhythms is a great way to lose weight or maintain your weight.  

A recent study showed that misaligning our eating habits with our natural biological rhythms is a major factor in problems with metabolic health. Eating, sleeping, and being exposed to sunlight at times that are not naturally attuned to our rhythms are contributing factors for things like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. 

To begin, it turns out breakfast is the ideal time to consume most of your daily calories. Researchers tracked overweight and obese people over 12 weeks. What they found was that people who eat 50 percent of their calories at breakfast, 36 percent at lunch, and 14 percent at dinner lost weight at a rate 2.5 times faster than people who consumed calories in the reverse of this pattern. 

People who consume the bulk of their daily calories with breakfast also had better glucose tolerance and lower fasting insulin levels. Science shows that we should be consuming about half our daily calories at breakfast time and taper our calorie intake through dinner. 

Further research found that extending the nightly fast also helps people lose weight and keep weight off. It turns out that extending the period between dinner and breakfast to 18 hours results in substantially lower BMIs. Simply by extending the time between calorie consumption, we can lose weight. 

Even if it is simply not possible for you to eat most of your daily calories at breakfast, there is no reason to be concerned. Weight loss, maintaining your weight, or sustaining your energy levels just comes down to a simple equation with calories. 

You can distribute calories according to your needs and lifestyle. You simply need to pay attention to the simple formula of more out than in. As long as you are expending more calories than you consume, you will not store and hold onto calories in the form of excess weight. 

Calories and weight loss

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a healthy diet as one that provides sufficient amounts of essential nutrients from nutrient-dense foods. These are foods that cover all the basic food groups and provide you with enough calories to maintain your metabolic processes. 

The best way to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight is to balance your calorie intake against your basal metabolic rate (BMR). There is a simple formula to determine your BMR. The BMR formula for men and women is below: 

  • Male: (88.4 + 13.4 x weight in kilograms) + (4.8 x height in centimeters) – (5.68 x age)
  • Female: (447.6 + 9.25 x weight in kilograms) + (3.10 x height in centimeters) – (4.33 x age)

Once you have figured out your BMR, you simply determine your physical activity level and adjust the figure with your BMR. This formula is below: 

  • Sedentary: BMR x 1.2
  • Lightly active: BMR x 1.375
  • Moderately active: BMR x 1.55
  • Very active: BMR x 1.725

The final number is the number of calories you need in a day to sustain your metabolism and physical activity level. This is a time, to be honest with yourself. If you spend your days sitting at a desk and do not regularly engage in physical exercise, you fall into the sedentary category. If you are extremely physically active, you are in the very active category. 

From this final number, you can calculate how many calories you should consume and how many to avoid. Remember, the simple formula of fewer calories in than calories you burn, and you will have a calorie deficit. This is the best way to use calories as a benchmark for losing or maintaining weight. 

Calories FAQs

What are calories? 

A calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. This sounds extremely technical but as we will see, it translates into some understandable features of foods and drinks. 

Are there different kinds of calorie foods? 

There are high, low, and empty calorie foods. High-calorie foods are things like fats and sugars, but they are also healthy foods like avocados. Low-calorie foods have relatively low calories per serving size. These include leafy greens and fresh fruits. Empty calorie foods are those that are loaded with calories but provide no nutritional benefit like soda pop and processed sugars. 

How do I use calories to lose or maintain my weight? 

The simple formula is to consume fewer calories than you use. If you are an active person you will burn plenty of calories. Make sure you eat foods that provide the necessary calories without the fat and sugar we find in foods that contain empty calories. 

Conclusion

It is common knowledge that calories matter when it comes to weight loss. Counting calories may be one of the oldest diet methods around. Keeping track of calories is generally the first order of business when we are trying to lose weight.

But we need to also understand that calories are not in themselves bad things. A calorie is a unit of measure of energy, and we need this energy to stay alive and healthy. We must consume the right number of calories and the right kinds of calories every day. 

Everything from breathing to building muscle requires calories, The basic function of our metabolism runs on calories. It is when we consume calories from bad sources or consume too many calories that we run into problems. 

Thankfully, the simple method of keeping track of calories is all we need to know. Consume fewer calories than you burn, and you will lose weight. Just make sure you consume enough calories to sustain your body and your health. 

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