What makes you fat? The answer is pretty simple—taking in too many calories and not burning enough. But what exactly is a “calorie?” What is this invisible but quantifiable measurement of ingestible substances that so often feels like a pain in your super-sized ass? How many do you need, how quickly do they add up and how do you control them without allowing them to control you? This week, the Weekly has the answers to these questions and more. Keep reading (and then read the rest of the paper for an hour total and you’ll scorch through 88 calories, according to calorie-count.com) to learn as you burn.
A calorie is the amount of energy, or heat, it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The calories in food, sometimes but rarely written with a capital C, are actually kilocalories (1,000 calories), but we refer to each kilocalorie as a single food calorie—don’t ask, we just do. We all need energy every second of our daily lives, not just to run a 10K or keep up with the kids, but for the simple acts of breathing and pumping blood, and we only get this energy from food. The number of calories in a particular food refers to the potential energy that food has to offer. In other words, a Big Mac, weighing in at 704 calories, will give you more energy to burn than a kiwi fruit with its 60 calories. But, alas, your body only needs so much energy to function.
There’s about 3,500 calories in one pound of body fat, thus you must create a deficit of 3,500 calories in order to lose a pound, or accumulate an excess of that amount in order to gain a pound. It’s a lot easier to unknowingly scarf down too many calories than it is to cut them from your diet (you can eat an extra 3,500 calories in just one day, but you would have to burn the same amount over a few days), which is why gaining weight is much easier than losing it. The number of calories needed to maintain a healthy body weight varies according to age, gender, weight and activity level, but generally ranges from 1,600-2,400. If you consume more calories/energy than your body needs, your body will put that fuel into storage—i.e., you gain weight. A variety of websites can help you figure out how many calories you need, but make sure you pick one run by a respected health organization and not a diet company. The West Virginia Dietetic Association, at wvda.org, has a good one.
After you know how many calories you need, it’s time to start paying attention to calorie content. For example, an order of charbroiled chicken nachos from Baja Fresh has 2,020 calories! It would take 287 cups of raw spinach to equal the same number of calories. No one’s suggesting you live off vats of spinach, but calorie awareness can help you limit fattening treats, while filling up on healthy foods that tend to have far fewer calories in relation to their volume, and usually more nutrients. Start reading nutrition fact labels, paying close attention to the serving size pertaining to the listed calorie content. You can also check out websites such as calorie-count.com, thecaloriecounter.com or chowbaby.com. These sites include calorie counts for hundreds of foods, including many prepackaged or fast foods. And remember—exercise depletes your fuel stores, meaning that you can eat more and stay the same size. Suddenly aerobics class doesn’t sound so bad.