If you want to stay away from the calorie counting madness all around you, there’s just one place left that offers refuge – and it’s called home. Unless you like to buy anything that’s edible and packaged. Even restaurants love the calorie counting preoccupation. You can’t even go to the gym these days without the treadmills telling you how many calories you’re burning. When a word is this familiar, we stop thinking about what it means. What exactly is a calorie?
It’s that thing that makes you pack a lot of weight or lose it, right? Well, if that were so, whycan you eat 500 cal worth of vegetables every day and not have it fatten you but if you ate enough M&Ms to make 500 cal, you’d probably see it on the weighing scale the following morning? It’s because calories are not anything simple at all.
Let’s start out by breaking a few myths to do with what people think calories are. For instance, people think that calories are actually fuel for our bodies. One hates to quibble, but a calorie isn’t energy. It’s just a unit that you would use to measure energy – kind of like a mile is a unit of distance. It was more than 100 years ago that the US Department of Agriculture decided to use it as a unit for food.
How do scientists actually measure how many calories are in something? Scientists actually burn your food and calculate how much heat is released. It’s that simple really – your body burns food in quiet ways to gain access to the energy contained therein too. And your body doesn’t just burn fat for energy either. It burns carbohydrates and proteins as well. So to just say that calories are the energy your body uses would be oversimplifying things.
Let’s come to the interesting part – why all calories aren’t the same. As we just saw, your body burns fats, carbohydrates and proteins all together for energy. And not every kind of calorie is the same either. When there’s fat in your food, that’s almost pure energy. So your body just has to burn about 5% of the energy and the fact to actually digest it.
Carbohydrates are the same, too. Proteins on the other hand are notoriously difficult to digest. The body, to get any calories out of proteins, needs to burn a third of the calories contained therein. See, that’s the reason why 500 cal worth of proteins and 500 cal worth of fat are not the same. One is almost free energy. The other is expensive energy.
With the kind of hoopla that surrounds gyms and exercise, you would think that most of the calories we burned, we burned exercising. But that isn’t at all true. If you camped out at the gym and lived and breathed the treadmill, you’d maybe burn a third of your calories there. That’s it. Almost all of the calories you burn, you burn just staying alive. Your body needs to manufacture new cells, keep warm, digest food, fuel your brain and so on.
So basically, it isn’t just about counting calories. It’s counting calories the smart way.