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What is a Calorie?

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Bodybuilding and Fitness Newsletter 8/24/2022

What Exactly is a Calorie?

Most people know that in order to control your weight, you need to get a handle on the calories that you take in and burn off on a daily basis. But hardly anyone ever stops to consider the most basic question of all when it comes to energy balance: just what is a calorie, anyway?

Let’s find out.

Scientific (Thermodynamics) Definition

According to Merriam-Webster, a calorie is:

the amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius that is equal to about 4.19 joules

This is the definition that scientists use, too, though they often will replace “heat” with “energy.” This makes sense because heat is a form of energy, and it also makes sense from a dietary perspective because we usually think of calories in terms of energy provided.

“Large” Calorie

If you look closely at that Merriam-Webster entry linked above, you’ll see that there is another definition for calorie:

the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius : 1000 gram calories or 3.968 Btu - abbreviation Cal - called also large calorie

This is the “calorie” that we usually talk about when we’re considering diets and energy expenditure in our bodies, so it’s the calorie of nutritionists and physiologists. If you read closely, you’ll notice that this calorie is 1000 times larger than the base scientific definition of the word.

So, while you may THINK that banana you’re eating has about 100 calories, it really has around 100,000 calories. That’s OK, though, because you don’t burn 100 calories when you walk a mile, either — you burn 100,000 calories.

Why the confusing distinction?

Well, as Webster points out, the physiological calorie was originally a Calorie (capitalized) but it has become such a common term that we’ve dropped the caps. So “calorie” has become the name we all understand for measuring the energy content of food, and we speak in numbers that represent kilocalories — or Calories — because it’s more convenient.

Thinking of that banana again, which is easier to say and write: 100 or 100,000?

There is nothing mystical about calories, but it’s always good to know exactly what you’re working with, especially when it comes to your health.

At it’s most basic, the calorie is nothing more or less than a unit of energy.

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