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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be a medical professional. I am a mom with some research skills. What I share below is simply knowledge I have gleaned from books I have read. It should in no way be construed as medical advice. Never make your health decisions based on something you read on somebody's blog. Please consult your health care professional who can make educated suggestions tailed to your specific needs and your specific circumstance.
Calories … are little units that measure how good a particular food tastes. Fudge, for example, has a great many calories, whereas celery, which is not really a food at all but a member of the plywood family, provided by Mother Nature so that mankind would have a way to get onion dip into his mouth at parties, has none. -Dave Barry, Dave Barry's Guide to Life (affiliate link).
Did that get your attention? Clearly, Mr. Barry’s explanation of what calories actually are is less than scientific. But, just like Dave, although we’ve grown up hearing about calories our whole lives, very few of us know what a calorie actually is or why they are important. Today I am going to tell you everything you need to know about calories…. and nothing more. My explanation will be a little more scientific than Dave's, but it will be easy to understand. Ready?
So, what is a calorie?
Just like a car burns gas to get the energy it needs to move, our bodies need to burn fuel to get the energy we need to move. The fuel that our body burns is food. Calories are the unit of measurement that we use to measure the amount of energy food provides.
Scientists figure out how many calories (or how much energy) is in our food by placing it in something called a calorimeter. They burn the food and the calorimeter measures the amount of heat produced. One calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 liter of water by 1 degree Celcius.
As we go through our day we expend energy through our movements. That energy needs to come from somewhere. It comes from our food in the form of calories. In his book Eating Well For Optimal Health (affiliate link), Dr. Andrew Weil explains how many calories we need each day:
Depending on gender, body size, and activity level, most adults need to consume between 2,000 and 3,000 calories a day. Women, and smaller and less active people, need fewer calories; men, and bigger and more active people, need more. If you are eating the appropriate number of calories and not varying your activity, your weight should not fluctuate greatly.
He further goes on to explain that:
- 50-60% of our daily calories should come from carbohydrates and as many of those as possible should come from unrefined low-glycemic indexcarbohydrate foods. (Did your eyes just glaze over? Don't worry! I'll explain that later…)
- 30% of our daily calories should come from fat (mostly from monosaturated oils and foods high in omega 3 fatty acids). (Again, don't worry. I'll explain this another day.)
- 10-20% of our daily calories should come from protein
Calories play an important role in giving us enough energy to power us throughout the day. They also help us to maintain a healthy weight.
It's obvious that if we want to maintain or lose weight, we should not eat more calories than we need. However, sometimes when people are trying to lose weight they think, “The fewer calories I eat, the more weight I will lose.” This is not the way it works! If we don't eat enough calories our body will go into “emergency” mode and will store up fat. We need to try to take in only the amount of calories our body needs. No more and no less.
Tools To Track Calories
Many people (who are more organized than I am!) keep track of how many calories they are consuming each day. For those of us who need a little help, a variety of tools are available to help you track your calorie intake. Here are a few:
- The Project Girl offers a Free Printable Food Journal
- Frugal Family Fair has this really useful printable Weekly Calorie Balance Sheet
- Etsy offers several attractive printable calorie trackers and food logs
- Exercise4Weightloss.com offers a Calorie Intake Excel Spreadsheet
- Several phone apps do a great job tracking calories. You might check out My Fitness Pal (This is the app I'm currently using), My Calorie Counter, Calorie Tracker by Livestrong, Fat Secret, FitDay, Lose It, and Obesity Help Health Tracker
Fancy Terms You May Hear
If you are being intentional about tracking your calories, you're likely to start noticing terms like “Calorie Free”… “Low-Calorie”… “Reduced Calorie.” What exactly do these terms mean?
- “Calorie Free” means that there are less than 5 calories per serving. (Be careful! We often eat more than one “serving” of food at a time.)
- If a food is considered “Low-Calorie” it contains less than 40 calories unless it is a main dish. If the food is a “low calorie” main dish it has 120 or less calories in it.
- “Reduced Calorie” items must have at east 25% fewer calories than the regular version of that same food item
What are Empty Calories?
Calories are good. They are what gives us energy to get us through our day and our life. That is, calories are good until they're bad. The bad calories are called “Empty Calories” and you'll see why in a minute.
You see, all our food contains calories. Nutritious food also contains vitamins, fiber, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids and/or other nutrients. But foods that contain empty calories (mainly sugar and alcohol) do not have these extra nutrients. Empty calories will still provide energy to the body, but they won't provide any other nutrients. You see, nutrient poor foods take up space in your stomach, but they do very little to nourish your body. In fact, they act as antinutrients, working against the body. We may eat a lot of these nutrient poor foods, but since those foods contain very little nutrition, they can actually lead to malnourishment.
On that note, I will stop for today. On Monday I will resume and we'll be talking about some of the nutrients that build the body up! See you then!