What Am I Really Eating?- Calories and What They Mean

By this point it should be fairly well established that the only way to actually lose weight is to consume less calories than you are burning on a daily basis. And obviously, by contrast, to gain weight you must eat more than you utilize each day. Given this, the key to designing an efficient diet is to adequately account for your daily calorie needs and adjust accordingly.

In order to calculate your daily caloric intake, however, it is necessary to know how the calories are comprised. The reason that an unhealthy source of food, like a fried chicken strip, is so much more calorie laden than its counterpart, say, a grilled chicken breast, is due to the way in which it is cooked (obviously). But why? How could adding a small amount of oil suddenly triple the caloric value of that same chicken breast? The answer is in the breakdown of the nutrients themselves.

What is a Calorie?

Contrary to what many may think, a calorie is not a nutrient or food source- instead it is simply a unit of measurement – it is the amount of heat that is required to raise a kilogram of water by 1 degrees Centigrade. It has become associated with body composition levels because it can assist with determining the amount of energy expended by the body as compared to the amount derived from food sources.

In addition, although we are used to the term calories, the amount of energy that is derived from food (and expressed on nutrition labels) is actually referred to as kilo-calories (1,000 kilo-calories is equal to one calorie). But for the sake of simplicity foods are expressed in terms of calories.

Exercise is often expressed in the same way – burning calories as a source of fuel to lose weight, but this, too, is an expression of kcals. To really calculate the effects of an exercise routine you must determine both the amount of calories you are consuming and the amount you are burning to see the net yield. If it is less than the calorie consumption you will lose weight, if it is more you will gain weight. You can find help online to calculate your BMR and see how many calories you actually need on a daily basis to sustain yourself and to see how many are required to gain/ lose weight depending on your goals.

Where do They Come From?

Calories refer to how much potential energy a food represents and the body breaks the food down through a series of metabolic processes to release and utilize this energy.

The three main sources of calories are fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. A single gram of fat contains 9 calories, while both carbohydrates and protein contain 4 each.

Fats are actually the most calorie laden substance you could consume in terms of calories per gram, coming in even after alcohol, which contains about 7 calories per gram.  A 1.5 oz shot of unsweetened liquor contains about 100 calories. That is in addition to whatever carbohydrates a beer or an oz of liquor contain. Alcohol can be especially problematic, as once it has been consumed it actually halts the digestion of other food sources to signal the immediate breakdown of the alcohol. When consumed while eating, this can cause the other nutrients to be stored as fat instead for long term energy usage.

Fiber is the remaining calorie mystery. While sources of fiber do actually contain calories (4 per gram) they are typically insoluble, which means that the body cannot digest them. Thus, the net yield from eating a gram of fiber is about zero. Think of fiber as a “free” food if you will, because it doesn’t necessarily need to factor in to your calorie intake, BUT the foods that contain fiber still have calories from other sources.

What Does This Mean?

Now you might view the obvious solution to be to simply cut all fat out of your diet to lose weight, but unfortunately it is not that simple. Fats are actually an essential part of your diet and are necessary for both weight loss and muscle gain (try to stick to heart-healthy sources like nuts, fish, and avocados). The problem is not in consuming fats altogether, only in eating them to an excess, as this tends to place you far over your daily calorie requirements without realizing it.

This typically comes in to play when eating at restaurants, as apparently in American society flavor has become synonymous with unhealthy- the easiest way to make something taste better is to add oil and salt. Unfortunately, the unnecessary oils and dressings that are added to most dishes can cause a once healthy food to skyrocket in calories. Try to adapt to healthier methods of cooking like grilling or broiling and don’t go overboard on the extras – the cheeses and sauces on a burger can actually contain more calories than the burger itself.

They key is balance – don’t cut out any one part of your diet, but instead opt for sources that are beneficial to you and can fill you up.

Comments

What Am I Really Eating?- Calories and What They Mean — 112 Comments

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