I have to apologise in advance. For the purposes of this article, I need to use an extremely offensive word.
Nobody likes them, but we can’t get away from them. What do we need to know about calories in our efforts to fight them?
What exactly is a calorie?
Most of us realise that a calorie is something that makes you fat. But there is plenty of science behind the unloved calorie.
It’s all about energy. Every part of the human body needs energy to function. Right down to your cells. Every bodily function requires energy, it’s the very thing that keeps you alive.
We get our energy from nutrition. A calorie is simply the unit in which this energy is measured.
Calories vs kilojoules
Just like calories, kilojoules also hide in your closet at night and make your clothes smaller – that much you know. But on a serious note, what’s the difference between the two?
Technically, they are the same thing. Both refer to a unit in which energy is measured.
Before we get to the difference between the two, one should note that the term ‘calorie’ is commonly used when referring to what is actually a kilocalorie.
This is the ‘kcal’ that you sometimes see on food labels.
Health24 explains it as follows:
- A calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1ml water by 1°C at 15°C.
- A kilocalorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1000ml (one litre) water by 1°C at 15°C.
‘Kilo’ refers to a thousand, so a kilocalorie is equal to a thousand calories. It’s the same with kilojoules, with a thousand joules equalling a kilojoule.
Therefore, when comparing, it makes sense to compare calories with joules, and kilocalories with kilojoules. One kilocalorie is equal to 4.2 kilojoules.
How do calories make you gain weight?
Weight gain is a complex matter which can occur for different reasons in different individuals.
Calories give us energy, which we need, so calories aren’t really the villain we make them out to be. But, as with all things in life, excess is the problem.
When we eat, our food contains calories which gives us the energy needed for our body functions and daily activities.
When we ingest too many calories and we are not going to use that energy, it will not just disappear into thin air (or a thin body for that matter).
Your body will take the excess energy, turn it into fat, and store it for later use.
How many calories will make you gain a kilogram? This is another complex matter. An interesting thing to note is that pure fat is not the same as body fat.
Body fat contains fat cells, but also fluids and proteins, and therefore contain less calories than pure fat. Body fat contains about 87% pure fat.
It is generally accepted that there are about 7 700 kcals in a kilogram of fat in your body. So, to lose a kilogram you would have to, over a period of time, consume 7 700 kcals less.
The healthiest way to lose weight is slow and steady. This also reduces your odds of gaining it all back again. Weight loss at a rate of maximum one kilogram per week is considered healthy.
Consuming 7 700 kcal less over a week therefore means that your calorie intake per day should be 1 100 kcal less.
This is, however, an extremely rough calculation, and not the final answer. If, for example, you exercise regularly, one would have to bring the number of calories burned into the calculation.
Another factor that can influence this number is the body’s reaction to weight loss.
When you suddenly drastically reduce your calorie intake, your body makes you burn fewer calories in an effort to reserve energy.
It can also happen that you lose muscle mass as well as fat, which also reduces the number of calories you burn. This phenomenon is known as starvation mode.
Another vital piece of information before you can calculate how many calories to cut, is how many calories you need per day in order to function normally.
Generally speaking, women need about 2 000 kcal per day. The amount of kcal you need per day can be influenced by the following factors:
- Age. It’s no secret that small children are extremely energetic. They need calories (from healthy sources) to keep going.
- Your activity levels. Sitting on the couch all day doesn’t require much energy. A busy mom will need more, and an athlete even more.
- Your height and current weight can affect the rate at which you use energy.
The calorie content of your food
Healthline identified a list of foods that not only contain very few calories, but the body actually has to burn more calories to digest them, compared to other foods:
Apples, asparagus, beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cauliflower, cucumber, garlic, grapefruit, onions, peppers, strawberries, spinach, tomatoes, watermelon and zucchini.
As mentioned earlier, calories in itself aren’t necessarily the enemy. There are plenty of calorie-rich foods that are healthy. The secret is portion control.
These foods include: red meats, chicken, fish, avocado, bananas, chickpeas, wholegrains, nuts, cheese and milk.
One of the biggest culprits in weight gain are foods that contain what is commonly known as empty calories.
While an avocado is high in calories, but also stacked with nutritious fats, a cookie, for example, will make you fat without adding any benefit.
Food with empty calories are, let’s admit it, the foods we enjoy eating. Especially when we are depressed about the number on the scale. It’s a vicious circle.
These are things like fast food, cake, donuts, candy, chocolate, ice-cream and condiments. They typically contain large amounts of sugar, which is why they are so addictive.
The types of food that add to your waistline, but not so much to your health, are normally found in the centre aisles of your grocery store.
The food in this part of the store comes packaged, and are usually produced in a factory, where all kinds of unhealthy ingredients are added.
Hence the well-known rule of healthy eating: buy from the side aisles. Take a look next time you go shopping. This is where you will find fresh food: fruit, veggies and unprocessed meat.
Some dieters find that they don’t lose weight, despite following a healthy, calorie-controlled eating plan. Of course there are many reasons for this, one being hidden calories.
It’s a fairly common dieting mistake to consume large amounts of calories, simply because they are sometimes lurking in unexpected places.
Sources of hidden calories include:
- Salad. The lettuce, tomato and cucumber is perfect, but watch out for things such as dressing, croutons or bacon bits.
- Some alcoholic beverages have a high calorie content. Mixing it with a soda is a big diet no-no.
- It’s easy to view fruit juice as a healthy option, but in truth they are often loaded with sugar.
- As seen earlier, certain kinds of fruit have a high calorie content, despite them being healthy.
- Dried fruit contains a large amount of sugar.
- Another healthy, yet calorie-rich food that is best enjoyed in moderation, is nuts.
- Yoghurt is a popular diet food, but beware. Even low-fat yoghurt is risky as it might be low in fat, but high in sugar.
- Breakfast cereals that are marketed as ‘healthy’ is often also a source of too much sugar.
The role of exercise in weight loss
Apart from helping to maintain a healthy weight, humans need exercise in order to stay healthy.
Exercise is a sure way to burn calories. The more vigorous your exercise routine, the more calories you burn.
The most effective exercise plan will consist of both cardio and strength training. Cardio burns more calories than strength training.
However, strength training promotes muscle growth. Medical News Today explains that muscle requires more energy to maintain than fat.
This results in a person burning more calories, even while they are not exercising, as they build more muscle.
It is possible to lose weight without exercising, but it’s not recommended. Exercise should always be part of a healthy weight loss plan.
This sometimes causes dieters to desperately indulge in exercising as much as they can. This is also not the way to do it. While exercise helps, weight loss is always about what you eat.
This is because there are so many calories in certain fattening foods that it will be impossible to exercise enough to burn it. You can never outrun a bad diet.
However, exercise plays a vital role in keeping off the weight you’ve lost when you finally reach your goal weight.
Calorie counting the right way
In 2010 Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition, decided to test the theory that you will lose weight if you consume less calories than you need, no matter what you eat.
For 10 weeks he ate Twinkies, Doritos and other sugary, processed foods.
He made sure to consume less than 1 800 calories per day, considerably less than his usual 2 600 calories per day.
Sure enough, he managed to lose 12kg in two months. During his diet, Haub did take dietary supplements and ate vegetables on occasion, but two thirds of his meals were junk food.
Despite this, his health markers improved, and his body fat dropped from 33.4 to 24.9%, which left him confused. Is healthy food really that important?
One thing is clear: carrying too much weight is bad for you. And while you can lose weight eating Twinkies, experts agree that Haub’s health would’ve suffered without the supplements.
Don’t be tempted. You’ll lose weight on a calorie-restricted junk food diet, but you risk developing serious malnutrition.
Too much processed foods could lead to heart disease and a lack of protein puts you at risk of muscle atrophy, to name a few. You can simply not get away from having to eat healthy.
Calorie counting is a logical way to approach weight loss. It makes sense to only give your body what it needs and no more.
Keep it healthy by ensuring everything on your plate is fresh and unprocessed, and you will be well on your way to losing those extra rolls and keeping them off.