Diet MythbustingFood ScienceHealthy Weight Loss

Are All Calories the Same?

Everywhere you turn, calories are there. Calories are in your food, listed on nutritional labels, discussed among friends, and spoken about with doctors and nutritionists. You simply can’t escape calories. But what do we really know about calories? Do you know enough about them to make the best decisions regarding your weight and health? And more importantly, are all calories the same in how they impact our bodies?

In this article, we’ll explore what calories are and if they are all the same. 

What Are Calories?

The amount of energy that is found in things, such as food and other resources, is measured by calorie units. All living things require energy to survive. We can determine how much energy is going in and out at any given time through the measurement of calories.

How Do Our Bodies Process Calories?

In the human body, we process and convert energy through a process called metabolism. Mainly, when we consume food and drink, our bodies use the method of metabolism to convert the energy found within these things into the energy our body needs.

Everybody has unique caloric needs, also known as your basal metabolic rate. Your basal metabolic rate carries out processes and essential functions, such as breathing and cell repair. Things like age, sex, and weight can all influence how the basal metabolic rate is determined. Thermogenesis (how your body digests food) and activity levels also play a role in determining individual caloric needs. A calorie calculator can help you estimate the calorie amount that’s best suited for your body.

Calories In vs. Calories Out

The term “calories in vs. calories out” refers to how many calories you are consuming versus how many calories you are expelling and burning. The concept is based on the notion that, as long as the amount of calories you consume is less than or equal to the number of calories you burn each day, you can expect to maintain or lose weight.

Losing weight is very often associated with caloric balance, and rightfully so. Essentially, if you’re looking to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume within a day. This process needs to be balanced appropriately, as the under-consuming of calories can lead to body systems not functioning properly due to lack of energy. Your metabolic rate is also impacted when there aren’t sufficient calories present.

The concept of calories in and calories out sounds simple enough, but it’s more complicated when you dig a little deeper; this is because the calorie source impacts how your body processes it.

Does Calorie Source Matter?

Quite simply, the way your body converts an apple into fuel is very different than the way it converts broccoli into the energy it needs. Certain foods are metabolized faster and some slower, which impacts how your body retains and burns energy. So while the calorie count is crucial, there are other factors present that can affect results:

  • Protein – It’s recommended that about 10 to 35 percent of caloric intake should be derived from proteins for adults. Consuming protein-rich foods can help you feel fuller faster, which can reduce your caloric intake.
  • Fat – Adults should be getting 20 to 25 percent of their calories from fat, according to experts. Fat calories are important for energy; however, they do not process into energy as quickly as calories from protein.
  • Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates should allot for about 40 to 65 percent of calories consumed. The entire amount of carbohydrates consumed is turned into energy; however, carbohydrates also contain a high amount of glucose, which is stored by your body and can be converted into fat if over-consumed.
  • Sugar – Calories from sugar should be limited to no more than 25 percent. In this category, the sugar source also matters. Fruit is a good source of sugar because it also contains fiber and other nutrients. Candy and other processed sugars should be avoided.

Nutrient density is also key when choosing foods for calorie content. When you consume nutrient-rich foods, you’re healthily obtaining calories while also gaining essential vitamins and minerals. Nutrient-rich foods have been shown to reduce heart disease, diabetes, and other problems. Nutrient-dense calories can be obtained through eating sugar, fat, protein, and carbohydrates; however, some sources will contain fewer nutrients than others.

Empty Calories

Empty calories refer to foods that contain calories mainly from fats and sugars, and that otherwise provide no nutritional value. It’s important to avoid these foods as much as possible when attempting to maintain a healthy weight and caloric intake. Some examples of foods with mostly empty calories are:

  • Ice Cream
  • Soda
  • Cake
  • Candy
  • Butter
  • Oil
  • Wine
  • Beer

While you don’t need to cut out empty calories entirely (could you imagine no ice cream?), the bulk of your caloric intake mustn’t be reliant on these types of foods.

Developing a Healthy Relationship with Calories

Consuming calories in a healthy, energy-producing way is a learning process. As you’ve seen in this article, it’s not as straightforward as choosing low-calorie foods to maintain a healthy weight. In fact, calories are a necessary part of your diet to give your body the fuel and energy it needs to get through the day. The critical takeaway is where you choose to derive your calories from and finding the right balance between calories consumed and calories burned.

If you’re looking for some healthy foods to promote weight loss and management, below are some examples of foods with good fats, calories, and protein that can contribute to a healthy diet:

  • Salmon
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Eggs
  • Baked potatoes
  • Chicken breast
  • Turkey breast
  • Cottage cheese
  • Tuna
  • Cauliflower
  • Chia seeds
  • Regular yogurt
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Avocados
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Fruits

By rotating foods such as listed above, you can promote a healthy diet and caloric intake. Remember, balance is key. Healthy weight management can come with deriving calories from the right foods and balancing the number of calories you consume versus the number of calories burned.

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