A No-Nonsense Look at Calories

What is a calorie?  Technically speaking, a calorie is the energy that’s required to raise one gram of water by 1 degree celsius.  Dietary calories are actually kilocalories (kcals) and are 1000 of these calories.  However, as important as calories are, there is a substantial amount of misinformation regarding these units of energy.

Misconception #1: Calories that come from “healthy foods” are better than calories coming from “junk foods”

This pseudoscientific claim may, at face value, seem to make some sense, but the reality is that a calorie is a calorie.  What people who espouse this phrase are more likely to mean is that “healthy foods” tend to have calories that come from more nutrient-dense sources, and that is what makes them different.  While calories from these sources do tend to have more micronutritional density, the fact remains that from a body composition standpoint, a given number of calories from any type of “healthy food” will have the same effect as that given number of calories, had it come from “junk food”, assuming that the calories are coming from the same macronutrients – more on that next.

Misconception #2: As long as I count my calories, that’s all that matters for my body composition as well as weight.

Not so fast.  Calories come from three (well, including alcohol we have 4) sources – there are 4 calories per gram of protein, 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate, 9 calories per gram of fat, and 7 calories per gram of alcohol.  However, the thermic effect of these macronutrients varies quite a bit.  The thermic effect of a macronutrient is the energy required to process the said macronutrient after it has been ingested.  For protein, the thermic effect is quite large, with most literature citing ranges from 25-30%.  What this means is that if you were to consume 25 grams of protein, you would be taking in 100 calories from protein, and 25-30% (in this case, 25-30 calories) of those calories would be used by your body to aid with breaking it down.  For carbohydrates, the thermic effect is 5-10%, and for fat, the thermic effect is also within the 5-10% range.   Surprisingly, alcohol comes in second to protein, with a thermic effect of about 20% (note: this does not give you an excuse to binge drink – for optimal fitness and physique gains, if you choose to drink alcohol, you should only do so in moderation).  Thus, The types of macronutrients you use to reach your caloric requirements can cause your body to burn more or fewer calories than it otherwise would have.  On the macro scale, if someone were to consume 2,000 calories worth of protein vs. carbohydrates and fat, then he or she would end up burning 500-600 calories from the protein, as opposed to only 100-200 calories burned from consuming carbohydrates or fat.  Although this example is an extreme case, it properly demonstrates how much of a difference consuming a high protein diet can make in terms of burning additional calories.  This is one of the many reasons why I’m a big proponent of diets that have a high protein intake.

I’ll be covering more misconceptions later on, but in the meantime, familiarize yourself with these two, and your food choices and results will undoubtedly improve.

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