What Are Calories?

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No caveman ever counted calories, skipped a meal to reduce the day’s caloric intake or avoided a tasty food because it contained too many of the little diet saboteurs. What makes us so concerned about them now?

Discovered in 1824 by Nicolas Clément, a calorie is scientifically classified as a unit of heat energy, and it is abbreviated “cal.”

Specifically, it is the tiny amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius—or about 4.19 joules.

Again, our cavemen friends would hardly be impressed. What’s that got to do with dinner and waistlines?

Well, in the worlds of diet, nutrition and food science, the calorie that we are familiar with is technically a kilocalorie, kcal or 1,000 cal., a so-called “large calorie” or “food calorie,” abbreviated “Cal.”

This is the “calorie” we typically see mentioned on packages of food. It is the larger amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius—or about 3.968 Btu.

So what is it about this calorie that causes us to have a love/hate relationship with it?

Calories are fuel for our bodies. We burn them for energy. And we store them as energy reserves in the form of fat.

How many calories does a pound of fat contain? About 3,500 of them. And as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows, they are not so easy to get rid of.

To burn off a pound of fat a week, we need to create a daily deficit of 500 calories a day through exercise, dieting or both.

And fat is not the only source of calories. Carbohydrates like sugar are, too. That’s why just because something is “fat free” doesn’t necessarily mean it is also “calorie free.”

Our bodies use hundreds of calories a day just to function at the most basic level. The number of calories your body requires when resting is called your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which you can figure out by using a BMR calculator.

Your BMR will tell you what your minimum calorie requirements are. Any amount of activity beyond staying in bed all day will increase your body’s energy needs and the number of calories burned.

It’s easy to see that if you consume only enough calories to meet your BMR and you do a bit of exercise, you will of necessity have to burn some stored energy (fat) and therefore lose weight.

Which brings us back to the cavemen and why they didn’t care about all this. Hunting, gathering and seasonal migration burned off most the calories they consumed. Those stored as fat were mostly used up during lean periods of little food.

So that’s why no caveman ever met a calorie he didn’t like. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could say the same?

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