1. Defining Calories

A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of a gram of water by 1 degree Centigrade. So what the heck does that mean? Calories (or the energy) in foods are measured by a scientific method called “direct calorimetry.” Through this process, foods are actually burned in a chamber surrounded by water to determine how many calories are contained within that particular food. Let me explain what this means to you.

Understanding Calorie Counts

Calorie counts are given to foods to show how much food energy they supply. You get this information on nutrition labels found on food products as well as in many books, the Internet, and other resources. It’s easy to become obsessed with calorie counts in the foods you eat, without understanding the role they provide in maintaining your life and health.


Protein, carbohydrates, and fats (and alcohol) are the only substances that contribute calories or energy to our diets.

Calories are those little buggers that we count, track, eliminate, and discuss all the time. They are used to measure the amount of energy found in food. The more calories a particular food has, the more energy it contains. If calories are energy, you may wonder why we count them to avoid getting fat. Read on.

Balancing Energy Needs

Energy gives us the ability to move, be active, and do work. By understanding your energy needs, you can manage your weight. Your goal should be to know what type of energy goes in and how that energy is used up. The energy in food is measured and counted in calories. When the calories going in your body balance the energy you use going out, body weight is maintained. When the calories going in exceed energy going out, body weight can be gained. And when the calories going in are less than energy going out, body weight can be lost. Basically, the more food energy you eat, the fatter you get unless it is offset by activity. Counting your calorie consumption may seem time consuming at first, but by understanding the definition you can define your waist.

2. Yummy, Nutrient-Rich Foods

All nutrients are not created equal. There are three main groups of nutrients that contribute calories to our diet: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Protein and carbohydrates each contribute 4 calories per gram of food. Fat contributes 9 calories per gram of food. Dietary recommendations suggest reducing fat in the diet primarily because fats are so highly concentrated in calories. (Alcohol is not considered a nutrient, but it also contributes calories to the diet at 7 calories per gram.) Foods usually contain a combination of the calorie-contributing nutrients. These nutrients together contribute to that food’s total caloric value.

To simplify, let’s look at some snacks and see if that helps to illustrate how calories from protein, carbohydrates, and fat work together in one food item. For example, 1 ounce of cheese crackers has 3 grams of protein, 19 grams of carbohydrate, and 7 grams of fat. To determine how many calories the crackers have from protein, multiply the amount of protein (3 grams) times 4 calories/gram, and you see that they have 12 calories from protein. To determine how many calories the crackers get from carbohydrates, take the amount of carbohydrates (19 grams) and multiply it by 4 calories/gram to get 76 calories from carbohydrates. And to determine how many calories the crackers get from fat, multiply the amount of fat (7 grams) times 9 calories/gram to get 63 calories from fat. The total calorie count for the crackers is 151 calories per serving.

On the other hand, a ½ cup of low-fat cottage cheese has 12 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrate, and 2 grams of fat. Multiply the 12 grams of protein times 4 calories/gram, and you see that the cottage cheese has 48 calories from protein. Multiply the 4 grams of carbohydrate times 4 calories/gram, and you see that it has 16 calories from carbohydrate. And multiply the 2 grams of fat times 9 calories/gram, and you get 18 calories from fat, for a total of 82 calories per serving.

Determining Nutrient Percentages

To determine what percentage of each nutrient is in a food product, divide the calories from the nutrient by the total calories. For example, to find the percentage of fat, look at the cheese crackers and cottage cheese again. Determine now what the percentage of fat is in a serving of these foods. To do so, divide the calories from fat by the total calories. So for the cheese crackers, divide 63 calories by 151 calories, and you see that 42 percent of the crackers’ calories come from fat. For the cottage cheese, divide 18 calories by 82 calories, and you see that 22 percent of the calories come from fat. You can see from these examples that the cheese crackers are almost half fat while only a fifth of the calories come from fat in the cottage cheese. The cottage cheese contributes a greater amount of protein and less fat than the snack crackers. Hopefully this gives you a smart way to choose better calories for your lifestyle.

Recommendation for Daily Calorie Intake

An overall healthy diet should include a combination of foods that contain protein, carbohydrates, and fats. The Institute of Medicine advises the following Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) for adults. By combining a variety of foods, you can meet this profile:

  • Protein: 10 to 35 percent
  • Carbohydrates: 45 to 65 percent (The majority of these should be complex carbohydrates and no more than 10 percent from simple sugars.)
  • Fat: 20 to 35 percent (No more than 10 percent should come from saturated fat.)

This program respects your individuality. These guidelines are great because they give you a range to allow for your unique lifestyle and health concerns. Remember, it’s all about you! No diet will work unless you make it your own!

3. Making Friends with Good Carbs

Carbohydrates have been getting a bad rap lately. People are determined to eat fewer of them. The part nobody mentions is that most of the people claiming to lose weight by cutting out the carbs were eating way too many to begin with. Too much of any food is too much, plain and simple.

Cyndi’s Secrets

If your body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to use for energy, it will use protein (muscles, body tissues, and so on) for the energy it needs. So go get your good carbs!

Carbohydrates primarily include sugars and starches that come from plant sources, along with the natural sugar found in milk. These foods include simple sugars like sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), lactose (milk sugar), and maltose (malt sugar), and complex carbohydrates often referred to as starches. Choose complex carbohydrates because they are loaded with vitamins, minerals and are often lower in fat, calories, and higher in fiber. Additionally, they help the body to maintain normal blood sugar (glucose) levels by promoting a slower, healthier digestion of foods. Starches take longer to digest than sugars. (This is why competitive athletes are encouraged to eat a diet high in complex carbohydrates prior to competition.) You can lose weight and still enjoy an appropriate amount of complex carbs.

How Carbohydrates Are Used in the Body

All carbohydrates are broken down during digestion and converted to glucose (blood sugar), where they are then carried to body cells to be used for energy that the body needs. The pancreas then releases insulin to help move the glucose to the cells, where it is burned for energy. If there is more glucose than what the cells need, the remainder is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen and reserved for later use. If the glycogen stores are full and there is still more glucose, it is then stored as fat. This is why some of the carbohydrate hype is valid for quick weight loss, but read on for the caveat.

Carbohydrates and Weight Reduction.   Many people believe that eating carbohydrates is taboo when it comes to weight reducing. This is a total myth. Carbohydrates only become a problem with weight gain when too many and the wrong type are consumed or when preparation methods add excess amounts of fats, like covering pasta (a healthy complex carbohydrate choice) with excess amounts of cream sauce (a not-so-healthy higher-fat choice). Rice with butter, mashed potatoes with gravy, and a bagel with cream cheese are also similar examples of adding fat to a healthy complex carbohydrate food.

Complex carbohydrates are actually the food of choice when seeking to reduce body weight. These foods are highly nutritious, low in fat, and high in fiber. Just don’t eat too many of them.

Contribution of Carbohydrates to the Overall Diet.   If carbohydrates contribute 55 percent of the total calories in the diet, and a person consumes a 2,000-calorie diet that would equate to 1,100 total calories from carbohydrates. Vegetables, fruits, and grains such as breads, pasta, rice, and cereals, are high in carbohydrates. Legumes (dried beans and peas) are excellent sources as well.

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