Understanding the Humble Calorie
Calories. We all 'know' that it’s important to watch what we eat and reduce our caloric intake if we want to lose weight. But is that even correct? What the heck ARE calories anyway?
It's the automatic phrase we often hear when trying to lose weight, "Weight loss occurs when calories out exceed calories in." Although it is well-known that a big slice of apple pie contains far more calories than a plain old apple, what exactly does that mean? What ARE calories anyway and why do calories matter? Let's take a further look.
Those Humble Calories Explained
Unlike contrary belief, calories are not "tiny creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes a little bit tighter every night." In fact, a calorie is a unit of energy. They can be gained from food and beverages and burned from physical activity, hence the concept of "calories in, calories out." Although calories are feared at times, the body needs calories, as they are essential in keeping the human body living. Calories can be thought as gas fueling a car; calories fuel the body and keep it going. The heart beating, the lungs breathing, and the kidneys filtering all need that precious caloric energy to maintain those functions. Without them, the body moves into starvation mode where critical processes start to slow down. Long-term calorie deprivation can ultimately be fatal. On the other hand, too many calories can cause weight gain and contribute to chronic diseases.
The Quality and Quantity of Calories
Like previously mentioned, too many or not enough calories can have negative effects. Since each and every single person is different, the amount of calories varies. Some calorie ranges are estimated with equations but 2000 calories stands to be a general guideline, especially for weight maintenance. However, women generally need less than men related to body weight. Active individuals and ample muscle mass also demands increased calorie requirements.
Ever heard of "energy dense" and "nutrient dense?" These terms help to describe the composition of the food in regards to size. For example, a lower energy dense food provides less energy (or calories) per gram of food, meaning you would be able to eat quantifiably more without consuming too many calories. Oftentimes, low energy dense foods are higher in nutrient density. Think of a plate of veggies versus a plate of cookies. The veggies are low in energy and high in nutrients while the cookies are high in energy and low in nutrients. Even if comparing the plate of veggies to just one cookie, the veggies supply fiber and nutrients unlike a cookie can.
In more standard terms, carbohydrate and protein sources provide fewer calories (four calories per gram) than fat does (nine calories per gram). It is also important to take into consideration added versus natural sugars. Naturally, sources such as fruits, vegetables, and milks contain sugar. Refined, table sugar is typically added to baked goods and prepackaged foods to enhance flavor and shelf-life. However, added sugar (like in the cookies) can drastically increase the energy density of the products.
Realistically, the source of the calories matters most to health and weight loss. If thinking back to the gas fuel and car, the car will be able to run if fueled. However, higher quality gas provides the car with the finest care the way quality foods provides the body with essential nutrients and energy for optimal functioning.
Although we should not always stress out about calories, they are important to take note of and consider. Luckily, there are tips to keep them in check and not overestimated. Nutrition labels on foods can help guide calorie intake. It is important, though, to pay attention to serving sizes as the calories identified are per serving and not the whole container or box. Restaurants are also taking longer strides in helping their customers make healthier choices. Not only are menus featuring fresher, nutritious foods, they also are labeling the calorie amounts. As a final note, increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables and decreasing high fat foods and desserts is a natural effort to reduce calorie intake and maximize nutrients.