Calories can hold a lot of energy—literally and figuratively!
For people with strained relationships to food and their body, the word ‘calorie’ may trigger a negatively visceral response. For others, a calorie may mean nothing more than a unit of energy in their food and drinks.
So, are calories good or bad? There are actually different types of calories. Knowing the difference and how to actually count them may help bust the calorie myth so many of us have come to know.
Undoubtedly, benefits of calories exist and may lead to improved health markers like reduced blood sugar and even weight loss. How so?
Read on to discover the truths and myths of calorie counting.
What Are Calories?
Quite literally, a calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of water by one degree celsius. In other words, calories are units of energy within food and drinks as well as other non-food entities such as coal.
While daily recommended calorie intake varies based on many factors, calories help quantify the amount of energy within nutrition. People can then take this information and make more informed, hopefully healthful decisions for their health.
Along with consuming calories, humans also burn calories through many ways, the most well known being exercise. However, humans burn calories doing just about everything - from growing and repairing during sleep, to completing household chores, and everything in between.
Kcal Vs Calories
Calories and kilocalories (kcals) are often discussed interchangeably. Interestingly, there are small and large calories.
A small calorie is the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1° celsius. A large calorie, on the other hand, raises the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree celsius. So, 1 kcal equals 1,000 calories.
Ironically, food labels display the word calories but actually refer to kcals. Thus, that cup of cereal that is 150 calories on the back of the label is truly 150,000 calories.
Most likely, this is a psychological dupe by the food industry because large numbers and values tend to elicit more of a startling reaction.
Another Different Type of Calories
Less known as a categorization, there are also empty and nutritional calories. “Empty calories” refers to calories that provide energy (as all do) but little to no nutritional value. This includes in the form of fiber, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, or any other beneficial compound.
Conversely, nutritional calories are thought to be “good calories” and provide some of these health benefits. This is important to note because it helps to bust the calories in versus calories out myth discussed in the next session.
But before, empty calories tend to arise from processed foods in the form of added, refined sugars and fats. Processed fats such as margarine and vegetable oils are typically added to food during industrial processing but also home cooking.
Added sugars are also frequently added to foods and beverages during large scale processing and sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup are the biggest culprits. As a whole, sugary drinks like soda, sports drinks, and alcohol are the leading sources of empty calories in America.
The additions of processed fats and sugar tend to make food and drink more palatable. However, they are major contributors of many health problems like type II diabetes and obesity. Thus, for health purposes, it is prudent to avoid or limit empty calories. Sources of empty calories include:
• Donuts and pastries
• Cakes and cookies
• Processed meats (hot dogs, salami, bologna, etc.)
• Processed cheeses
• Energy drinks and sports drinks
Myths of Counting Calories
Many people completely and (unknowingly) accept the concept of calories in, calories out. This refers to the notion that weight loss equals balancing how many calories one consumes and expends through activity of all kinds. This is accurate to some extent, but truly holds little merit for most people.
So many factors besides consuming and expending calories affect weight loss and overall health, even. Some of these other factors include:
• Hormone health
• Genetic metabolism
• Type of activity
• Non-exercise activity
• Quality of food
Many qualified health professionals agree that hormone health and quality of food completely bust the calorie myth.
Hormone health requires an entire article to itself. But circling back to the above section, the nutritional quality of calories highly affects metabolism, health, and the ability to lose fat and gain muscle. But, how?
Fiber, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and other nutritional compounds directly and positively affect cells. At the deepest level, cellular health and how efficiently the mitochondria function determine overall metabolic health. In turn, metabolic health governs gaining and losing weight among other health parameters like blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The aforementioned nutritional compounds provide an abundance of health benefits and often do not cause the human body to store calories consumed as fat. Rather, they allow cells within the body to function optimally and shuffle nutrients to the organs and physiological systems that need them most. This prevents unnecessary weight gain and can also aid the building of muscle or repair of tissues.
A phrase many registered dietitians endorse is, “Count colors not calories.” This rings especially true because colorful whole foods include the most nutritional compounds such as antioxidants and other phytochemicals. Aiming to eat mostly whole foods in various colors will benefit metabolism, weight, and long-term health most and for the best.
The Bottom Line
Calories are units of energy often linked to weight and obesity. However, measuring them is more complicated than taking them at face value.
Instead, it is more important to consider the other nutritional components in addition to the mere energy. Not all calories are created equally and whole, colorful foods contain the best type of calorie!