Understanding Calories

We have all heard the phrase “counting calories”, and most of us are aware that the number of calories we ingest is directly related to maintaining a healthy weight. But what exactly is a calorie? How do they affect our weight and health? And how can we tell how many calories we need? Understanding how calories work isn’t all that complicated, if you break it down to a simple explanation.

What Are Calories?

A calorie is a measurement of energy. Foods contain energy, and this is passed into our bodies when we consume them, for our bodies to burn and use to keep us going. Although the word calorie has come to have a negative connotation in our weight-conscious society, the fact is that we all require calories in order to live. The energy calories provide to our bodies is used to perform basic functions like keeping the heart pumping. We also need that energy just to perform daily tasks, from showering to housework to walking the dog. All of these activities burn calories.

The Effect of Calories on Weight and Health

Simply put, when we consume more calories than our bodies are burning, we gain weight. This means that a person who leads a very active lifestyle can generally consume more calories than a sedentary person, because the calories are being burned.

You may have come across the expression “empty calories”. While it is true that a calorie is a calorie as far as the amount of energy it contains, some calories are “empty” nutritionally. Foods that are high in calories but low on vitamins and minerals may provide energy to the body, but without the nutrients, they aren’t helping to keep the body healthy. By choosing most of your daily calorie intake in the form of nutrient-rich foods, you can ensure that every calorie you ingest has value to your body.

A high calorie food is not necessarily a bad thing, if it is providing your body with necessary nutrition, and it is eaten in moderation. Still, foods that are both low calorie and nutrient dense, such as leafy green vegetables, are the staples of a healthy diet. Because they are providing a lot of important vitamins and minerals with few calories, they can be consumed in larger quantities. Filling up on this type of food will help to maintain a healthy weight.

How Many Calories Are Needed?

How many calories a person needs varies greatly and is dependent on a number of factors. Age, gender, and lifestyle all determine how many calories are required. Special circumstances such as pregnancy and lactation will also change the body’s caloric requirements. Your metabolic rate – or how fast your body burns calories, is influenced by all these things. Men tend to have a faster metabolism than women. As we age, especially past 40, the metabolism slows and can not burn calories as quickly or efficiently.

If you live an active lifestyle and are at a healthy weight, you are probably consuming the correct number of calories already. However, if you are overweight, or are struggling to lose weight, chances are you are taking in too many calories for the amount of exercise you are getting. Reducing calorie intake or increasing physical activity will balance things out.

If your diet consists of healthy foods that are mainly low calorie and high in nutrients, you are probably on the right track.

Maintaining a healthy weight requires an understating of how the calories you take in affect your body’s function. Finding the right balance for you might take a little time, but it will result in a healthier body.

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