The Basics of Calories

(added new information to flesh out the content, plus used some of the old information)

When you read the nutrition facts on the label of every food item you buy, no doubt the first thing you look for is the number of calories the food contains. If that number looks too high, immediately you think, "Oh no, I shouldn't be eating that."

But do you really know what calories are? What is it about "high calorie foods" that are so bad, and what makes "low calorie foods" good? In order to make smarter food choices, it's time to understand the truth about calories…

What are Calories?

Calories are simply a measurement of energy. They're not some mythical number that you can't really understand, but it is simply a number that tells you how much energy your body will be able to produce thanks to the food.

If you notice, next to every calorie number, there is a number of kilojoules in your food. kJ is the metric unit for measuring energy, just like kilograms measure weight and meters measure distance. Calories are the Imperial measurement of energy, like pounds and inches. Most of the Western world uses calories, and they have become a much more popular, more widespread way to measure the energy potential of a food.

When you consume 100 calories, your body is able to produce 100 calories' worth of energy. This means that you will be able to run, jump, and play until that energy runs out. Just like your car, your body needs fuel (in the form of calories) in order to function.

So, if calories are just a unit of measurement, why are we so afraid of them? Well, that is all thanks to the unique design of the human body. You see, your body can only use so much energy at a time. If you consume more energy than it can use (via a heavy meal or high-calorie foods), it has only two choices: get rid of the energy or store it. Obviously, the smarter choice would be to store the energy, ensuring it's available to use later when you need more energy but haven't eaten any food.

The average person burns anywhere from 1600 to 2200 calories per day. This number changes according to your gender (men tend to burn more than women), your BMI (people with more muscle burn more calories than people with a lot of body fat), your activity levels (the more exercise you do, the more calories you burn), and even your height (taller people tend to have more muscle, hence an increase need for energy). If you end up consuming more calories than your body burns in a single day, you store energy. The only way your body can store energy is in the form of fat.

This is why "high calorie foods" are seen as bad: they can cause you to increase your body fat. The body turns that 200 calories' worth of energy in the form of carbs into 200 calories' worth of energy in the form of body fat, which it can then store for later. The more you add to that storage, the higher your body fat.

For this reason, it's vital that you control your calorie intake. If this means cutting back on the portion size of your meals or doing more exercise, so be it. It's the only way that you will avoid adding extra weight.

Total calories are calculated per serving, so a little math is needed to determine the amount of calories you are eating. This requires comparing the serving size to your personal portion size.

  1. Find the relationship between the serving size and your portion size.

A box of cereal has a serving size of 3/4 cup. You ate 1.5 cups of cereal so your portion size is two times greater than the serving size.

  1. Use above relationship to determine calories in your portion size.
    There are 120 calories in a serving size of 3/4 cup. Multiply 120 by two to get your caloric intake of 240 calories for 1.5 cups of cereal.

Some serving sizes are represented in grams. However, the exact same set of rules applies to determine the amount of calories you are consuming.

  1. Find the relationship between the serving size and your portion size.

A box of cereal has a serving size of 100 grams. You eat a 40 gram portion of cereal so your portion size is 40% of the serving size.

  1. Use above relationship to determine calories in your portion size.

There are 436 calories in a serving size of 100 grams. Multiply 426 calories by 0.40 to get your caloric intake of 174 calories for 40 grams of cereal.

The above set of rules is a useful way to count your caloric intake and stay within your healthy eating goals.

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