Calories: Everything You Need to Know

May 8, 2022

Calories get a lot of attention in conversations about health and diet. They take up a lot of space on nutrition labels and are probably one of the first things that come to mind when you hear the word “diet.” Calories are the energy you need to survive and they affect your body in important ways. So, it’s important for everyone to understand the role calories play in their health. In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about calories. 

What are Calories?

A calorie is a unit of energy, specifically the energy that you take in from food and drinks and use to fuel your body. You need calories; they provide the energy you need for everything you do, from exercise to sitting still in a chair. The more calories that are in a food, the more energy it has.

Terms to Know

  • Empty calories: calories that come from foods with little or no nutritional value; the only thing these foods provide is energy. Foods that have empty calories contain almost no fiber, amino acids, vitamins, or minerals. These foods are often high in added sugars (for example, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup) and solid fats (such as butter). Sugary drinks, alcohol, and donuts are a few examples of foods that contain empty calories.
  • Nutrient-dense: a food that supplies you with vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients. Eating nutrient-dense foods gives you more than just energy. These foods are really healthy!
  • Calorie deficit: a state in which you are eating fewer calories than your body is using during the day. This leads to weight loss.
  • Cal vs. kcal: a cal is a “small calorie” and a kcal is a “large calorie.” These terms are used to measure energy contained in substances other than food. However when talking about food and reading food labels, cal and kcal are used interchangeably.

How Many Calories Do You Need?

The average man needs 2,700 calories per day and the average woman needs 2,200 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight. However, these are very rough estimates. Everyone’s individual caloric needs are different and it is nothing to worry about if this number is not accurate for you. How many calories you need depends on several factors, including your age, overall health, activity level, sex, and weight.

If you take in the same amount of calories that you use up during a day, you will maintain your current weight. Eating more calories than you use leads to weight gain, generally in the form of fat. Eating fewer calories than you use leads to weight loss. Your body will first burn fat and then eventually burn muscle mass.

Tracking Calories

Many people who are trying to gain or lose weight count calories to stay on track towards their goals. This involves recording how many calories you consume and use during a day and making changes in your behavior accordingly. Some common ways to track calorie intake include keeping a food diary or using a smartphone app. Many people use smartwatches or apps on their phone to track their exercise and energy expenditure throughout the day.

There are pros and cons to tracking calories. On the one hand, it can be helpful if you’re just starting a weight loss or weight gain program and need to measure your habits to find your baseline calorie intake and expenditure. Counting calories consumed and burned is a straightforward way to measure your daily activity. On the other hand, it is a lot of work. For some people, counting calories can become an obsession and this can lead to unhealthy eating habits. Plus, although calories have a big impact on your weight, for optimal health you need to focus on what you’re eating, not just how much. Eating a nutrient-rich, well-balanced diet is always a healthy choice, but a low-calorie diet might not give you all the nutrients you need.

Key Takeaways

Calories are a unit of energy and your body needs calories to survive. You are constantly using calories and you take them in every time you eat. Balancing how many calories you eat with how many you burn off during the day will allow you to maintain your current weight. You can gain or lose weight by increasing or decreasing the amount of calories you consume, respectively. Calories can have a big impact on your weight and health, but they’re not the only thing you need to consider about your diet – vitamins and other nutrients are important too!

Now that you have some more information about calories, you can make more informed choices about your diet. To learn more about food and nutrition, check out our other articles!