At their most basic level, calories are a unit of heat energy. Your body uses calories from food as heat energy to fuel your body, just as gas energy is responsible for fueling your car. So, some may think of calories as these “things” that make us gain or lose weight, but really, our bodies just see calories as energy to produce heat.
Bottom line: our bodies need calories to function.
Micro- vs. Macronutrients – Where Our Calories Come From
Not everything has calories. Vitamins, minerals, water – these micronutrients do have great health benefits and are necessary to maintain life, but they do not contain calories. What does have calories are fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
Of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), fat is the highest concentrated source of calories that our bodies can use. One gram of fat contains 9 calories. Each 1 gram of both protein and carbohydrate contains 4 calories. And, although it’s not a macronutrient, alcohol is a source of calories, and it clocks in at 7 calories per gram of alcohol.
Our Bodies Need & Require Good Calories to Function Properly
Most commonly, we reference calories when trying to lose weight, decrease body fat or change the shape of our body. A common misconception is that weight loss is a game that is all about calories consumed vs calories burned. And to some degree, that can be true – but there is always more to it than that.
Some people think: “Oh, well if carbohydrates, protein, and fat are where calories come from, then I’ll just eat less of one of those and I’ll lose weight!”
This mode of think is flawed, as it is not only important to know the total amount of calories consumed, but also the kind of energy those calories will deliver our bodies for proper function and better performance.
The truth is, our bodies do care about where their energy comes from. For example, it’s never a good idea to eat less in your meals, just so you can enjoy alcohol more liberally because you are focused on a daily caloric total only. Just as it’s not a good idea to only limit one macronutrient (i.e. to go on a low-carb or low-fat diet) because our bodies need a good balance of all the nutrients. Our brains need carbohydrates to continue functioning normally, and our muscles need protein to help repair themselves after tough workouts. We even need to consume healthy fats, as a means to consume fat-soluble vitamins, which aid our skin, cells, brain development, hormones.
It’s All About Balance & Smart Calorie Choices
So while we don’t want to completely exclude one certain group of nutrients, we can use our knowledge of calories to make better choices, especially when trying to lose weight. Instead of going on a low-fat diet, we can choose low-calorie, highly nutritious foods, like a vegetable salad, and add some healthy fat from olive oil, nuts, or avocado. Not only will this give our bodies important micronutrients, but the extra calories from fat will help fight hunger pangs longer. We can choose carbohydrates that are from a whole grain source, like oats, which will provide energy that our bodies need, but offer more minerals and vitamins from the whole grains, and also add more fiber, which will help our digestive health and make us feel fuller and more satisfied.
This is also where the idea of “volume eating” comes from – calorie for calorie, if you look at a plate of 100 calories of steak versus 100 calories of spinach; you’re going to be able to eat a lot more spinach than steak. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some lean steak every once in a while, but it does mean that it’s a great idea to balance a higher-calorie option with a high-nutrient, low-calorie side (like broccoli, a side salad, a fresh fruit cup, etc.)
A Warning About Zero or Negative Calorie Foods
Enhanced waters, or diet sodas for example, may claim to have “0 calories” but they are still flavored with chemicals that are not healthy for you to consume. So, not only do you want to be concerned about how many calories you intake or expend, but even more importantly, you should be looking at what kind of ingredients are in the food and drinks you consume. For more info on the harmful effects of soda, click here
Once you understand the concept of calories and how our bodies use them, it’s much easier to make healthier choices and fuel your body in a way that’s going to leave you feeling stronger, leaner, and healthier than ever.