What Are Calories ? + Thankful Thursday

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What Are Calories and Why Do We Need To Talk About Them?

In the fitness & health industry we hear talk of ‘calories’ all the time–but what are calories, really?

The reason I bring this up is this : I find it is hard to achieve success, results, or even make steps toward a goal unless I am informed about each particular within that goal realm. Wouldn’t you say that if a person were concerned about his/her fitness and health, he/she should want to know everything he/she could about that specific concern?


Well, turns out that knowing the answer to the- what are calories question -is the important piece to achieving success in health and wellness goals! Calories are vital to our health-and the knowledge surrounding them is crucial to our goals and aspirations to become the healthiest we can be.

What Are Calories : The Facts

  • 1 Calorie = 1/1000 Kil0calorie . Because Kilocalories would be no fun to use on serving labels (hello lots of 0000s!), the USDA uses the standard word “calorie,” which in actuality is a substitute for kilocalorie.
  • That kilocalorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree (Celsius) on a thermometer (at sea level). (see also this)
  • Thus a calorie is a unit of measure for the amount of energy in a food (i.e. to what degree would that piece of food increase the water temperature)
  • A calorie is also used as a measure of energy for the body (i.e. “I burned 400 calories during that run”<—really means I used 400 calories of energy for completing that run)
  • Calories are stored in the form of various byproducts from food we eat (and ATP is the energy ‘currency’ in any cell)
  • Calories are burned when energy is expended (i.e. walking, breathing, swimming, etc.)
  • Calories are NEEDED to for normal body processes and functions
  • To maintain body weight: calories in = calories out. To decrease body weight : calories in < calories out
  • An excess of calories will be stored (eventually) as body fat <—does not matter ‘what kind of calorie’
  • A calorie IS a calorie. So a carrot calorie is the same as a cake calorie, but each food comes with different benefits (or negatives) that influence the overall health of the person <—thus the argument to eat “calories that matter.


Calories In

The “calories in” part of the equation could be consumed by just eating cookie calories (say from my healthy chocolate chip cookies ;)), but the drawbacks would far outweigh the benefits of that decision in the long (and short!) run.

Thus it is better for the overall health of the person to eat a varied and colorful diet. Yes, technically the persons would both weigh the same if the same number of calories from carrots and cookies were consumed (and exercise was not changed), but let’s be honest, that would be totally boring!  And the person who ate the cookie ‘diet’ would get to eat so little (in terms of grams of food), that he or she would be very deprived. And the carrot-eating person would have to eat a buttload of carrots–and would probably turn orange. Just sayin’!  *This illustration was demonstrating the idea that a calorie is the same in any food–which is a common misconception among the general population. Remember, a calorie is a measure of energy.*

as delicious as they are....

Calories Out

The ‘calories out’ part of the equation comes from a myriad of avenues.

  1. Basal Metabolic Rate (aka metabolism)
  2. Physical Activity (aka muscular work)
  3. Dietary Thermogenesis (yes, we use calories to digest and process food. Hence the saying that the more often one eats the more the person ‘stokes’ the metabolism, and uses calories!)

There are many ways to increase the ‘calories out’ part of the equation.

1. To increase one’s metabolism (or Basal Metabolic Rate) the person would either need to a.) get taller, b.) gain weight (yes, the more we weigh the higher the metabolism), or c.) get more muscle mass. I don’t know about you all, but I am going with option c :) I like to weight train (usually in the form of teaching BodyPUMP), and building more muscle, which uses more energy (calories) at rest than fat mass does, is the best way to go in my opinion!


2. To increase the expenditure of physical activity calories a person could change his/her exercise duration, mode, or frequency (i.e. playing with the FITT Principle). These changes usually force the body to expend more energy (called overload principle). The body gets used to where it is and stops using up as much energy (so calorie expenditure decreases), so after a few weeks it is good to switch up moves (in weight training), cross train (for those who are training for a race), or find a new activity to do.

3. To increase the expenditure via dietary thermogenesis the answer is simple : eat more often. This may seem counterintuitive to those persons looking to lose or maintain weight (or gain muscle mass and lose percent of body fat), but it actually makes sense in a scientific way. The trick is to eat more often with smaller meals or snacks. Instead of filling up 2-3 times per day (which is known to happen around here on really busy days by the way–no one is perfect!)-, our bodies would function better and more optimally if we ate every 3-4 hours (from waking up time). This also increases the number of times that our bodies use calories to digest and process that food. Every calorie DOES count –both on the incoming and outgoing sides, when it comes to health!

small meal--one of many!

Word Of Caution

I was once obsessed with calories and calorie counting, and it nearly drove me to depression (and further anorexia stages). So I say this as a word of caution to any readers, notice the food you eat, yes.  Check labels to stay informed, definitely. But do not obsess over it. If we listen to our bodies they usually let us know whats up!

What are calories to me, you ask? They are something I am aware of but do not count on a daily basis. I probably track my eats every 3 weeks or so for 1-2 days, just to *see* my carbs,proteins,sugars,fats breakdown, vitamins/mineral intakes, and yes, to see if I am on track with the right amount of calories I should consume.

Thankful Thursday

  1. I am grateful this post is done–I bet you are too–this was LONG! {but fun to write!}
  2. I am thankful for working Internet again (never know what you have until it is gone!–it was down from a storm)
  3. I am way grateful for Greek yogurt! I <3 that stuff :)

YOUR turn—what are calories to you??  What did YOU learn new today-if anything?? heh. What are YOU thankful for?

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  1. AMAZING POST and you are so right…you NEED to know about calories and the energy equation if you want to reach your goal. I love that you added the caution about becoming to obsessed with it though. Those cookies are calling my name;)

  2. caroline says:

    very informative post, gave me a lot to think about. Thanks!


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