For years now, calories have been all the rage—people are counting them and cutting them, and you'd be hard-pressed to find something at the supermarket that does not list its calories per serving somewhere on the package. But have you ever wondered what exactly a calorie is?
What Is A Calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy. We tend to associate calories with food, but they apply to anything containing energy. For example, a gallon (about 4 liters) of gasoline contains about 31,000,000 calories.
Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy, or heat, it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). One calorie is equal to 4.184 joules, a common unit of energy used in the physical sciences.
Most of us think of calories in relation to food, as in "This can of soda has 200 calories." It turns out that the calories on a food package are actually kilocalories (1,000 calories = 1 kilocalorie). The word is sometimes capitalized to show the difference, but usually not. A food calorie contains 4,184 joules. A can of soda containing 200 food calories contains 200,000 regular calories, or 200 kilocalories. A gallon of gasoline contains 31,000 kilocalories.
The same applies to exercise—when a fitness chart says you burn about 100 calories for every mile you jog, it means 100 kilocalories. For the duration of this article, when we say "calorie," we mean "kilocalorie."
What Calories Do?
Human beings need energy to survive—to breathe, move, pump blood—and they acquire this energy from food.
The number of calories in a food is a measure of how much potential energy that food possesses. A gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories, a gram of protein has 4 calories, and a gram of fat has 9 calories. Foods are a compilation of these three building blocks. So if you know how many carbohydrates, fats and proteins are in any given food, you know how many calories, or how much energy, that food contains.
If we look at the nutritional label on the back of a packet of maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal, we find that it has 160 calories. This means that if we were to pour this oatmeal into a dish, set the oatmeal on fire and get it to burn completely (which is actually pretty tricky), the reaction would produce 160 kilocalories (remember: food calories are kilocalories)—enough energy to raise the temperature of 160 kilograms of water 1 degree Celsius.
If we look closer at the nutritional label, we see that our oatmeal has 2 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein and 32 grams of carbohydrates, producing a total of 162 calories (apparently, food manufacturers like to round down). Of these 162 calories, 18 come from fat (9 cal x 2 g), 16 come from protein (4 cal x 4 g) and 128 come from carbohydrates (4 cal x 32 g).
Our bodies "burn" the calories in the oatmeal through metabolic processes, by which enzymes break the carbohydrates into glucose and other sugars, the fats into glycerol and fatty acids and the proteins into amino acids.
These molecules are then transported through the bloodstream to the cells, where they are either absorbed for immediate use or sent on to the final stage of metabolism in which they are reacted with oxygen to release their stored energy.
Your Caloric Needs
Just how many calories do our cells need to function well? The number is different for every person. You may notice on the nutritional labels of the foods you buy that the "percent daily values" are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
2,000 calories is a rough average of what a person needs to eat in a day, but your body might need more or less than 2,000 calories. Height, weight, gender, age and activity level all affect your caloric needs.
Calories, Fat and Exercise
So what happens if you take in more or fewer calories than your body burns? You either gain or lose fat, respectively. An accumulation of 3,500 extra calories is stored by your body as 1 pound of fat—fat is the body's way of saving energy for a rainy day. If, on the other hand, you burn 3,500 more calories than you eat, whether by exercising more or eating less, your body converts 1 pound of its stored fat into energy to make up for the deficit.
One thing about exercise is that it raises your metabolic rate not only while you're huffing and puffing on the treadmill. Your metabolism takes a while to return to its normal pace. It continues to function at a higher level; your body burns an increased number of calories for about two hours after you've stopped exercising.
Lots of people wonder if it matters where their calories come from. At its most basic, if we eat exactly the number of calories that we burn and if we're only talking about weight, the answer is no—a calorie is a calorie.
A protein calorie is no different from a fat calorie—they are simply units of energy. As long as you burn what you eat, you will maintain your weight; and as long as you burn more than you eat, you'll lose weight.
But if we're talking nutrition, it definitely matters where those calories originate. Carbohydrates and proteins are healthier sources of calories than fats. Although our bodies do need a certain amount of fat to function properly—an adequate supply of fat allows your body to absorb the vitamins you ingest—an excess of fat can have serious health consequences.
- How Things Work, "Calories and How they work". 2003