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What Our Bodies Burn: Understanding Calories



Peter Orszag wrote a recent article detailing one of the growing problems with the food stamp program. While the average family of four receives about $500 in food aid each month, a vast majority of these families spend more than half of that amount within the first half of the month, leaving very little food or money for the end of the month.

Orszag goes on to state that caloric intake drops over the month. The caloric intake for many food stamp families is 10 to 15 percent lower at the end of the month. While most people are aware of calories, not many people know what they are or how they affect our bodies.

What is a Calorie?

A calorie is a unit of energy. It can apply to everything other than food. Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

That sounds simple enough, but things get muddy because the calories we know—what you will find on a food label—are kilocalories, which are equivalent to 1,000 regular calories. So a can of soda that says it is 150 calories is 150,000 daily calories. This applies to exercise as well. Burning 100 calories during a mile jog means you’ve burned 100 kilocalories.

For the most part, assume that when someone is talking about calories, they mean the kilocalorie amount.

Burning Calories

Much like your car, your body needs fuel to operate and sustain itself. Calories are our fuel, powering every little thing that goes on in our bodies. The number of calories required to keep your body function is known as your basal metabolic rate or naturally your metabolism. Your metabolism takes up about 60 to 65 percent of your energy expenditure.

Your BMR accounts for your body at rest. If you move, you burn more calories. The more intense your activity or, the more time you spend doing that activity, the more calories you’ll burn.

Of course, not enough calories can lead to a variety of problems, leaving your body without enough energy to function. The families that Orszag mentions, for instance, are probably not nearly as active at the end of the month as they are at the start.

Calories and Weight Loss

To maintain your current weight, you would have to take the same number of calories that you use up. However, any calories that you don’t use up are stored as fat in the body. A pound of fat is equivalent to about 3,500 calories.

To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. Unfortunately, many people assume that that means starving yourself. Many people forget that what you eat matters just as much as the calories you consume. It’s okay to eat a lot, as long as it’s a lot of good, usable stuff. It’s the difference between putting gas in your car and putting mud in your car.