What Is a Calorie?

Written By:

Empty plate with serving set

The word “calorie” is one of the most frequently-used terms in the entire field of nutrition, but how many of us know what a calorie really is, in its most literal and scientific sense? Some people want more of them in their daily diet and many people want less. We count them, we avoid them, we put them into categories, but unless we understand how they work, we may be missing an important piece of the nutritional puzzle. In this intriguing new video from IPEtv, Marc David, Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, explains what a calorie actually measures, and why different bodies process the same amount of calories in very different ways. Tune in now, and get a whole new perspective on the power of the calorie.

In the comments below, please let us know your thoughts. We love hearing from you and we read and respond to every comment!

Here is a transcript of this week’s video:

Greetings, friends. I’m Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. We’re going to talk about a really good topic today.

What is a calorie?

Now, here’s the thing. We could walk through life. And there are certain words, there’s certain terms, there’s certain concepts that carry a lot of charge around them. Like what happens in your body when I say the word calorie? For so many people, calorie, it causes contraction because we are trying to control the calories. A lot of people are even obsessing a little bit about them.

But do you actually know what a calorie really is? This thing you might be trying to control, this thing you’re afraid of because it’s going to make us fat and make us unlovable?

So let’s talk about what a calorie is.

Simple definition.

A calorie is the measure of heat released when you burn something. That’s all a calorie is. It’s a measure of heat released when you burn something. Now, there’s a special apparatus that scientists use to torch any substance to a crisp. And then they measure how much heat is released.

So, more specifically, everything has a caloric value. If you’re sitting on a chair right now, your chair could have hundreds of thousands of calories in it. A sheet of paper probably has about 75 calories in it. Your own body, you, if you were eaten by a lion right now, the average 150 pound person is a 500,000-calorie meal to a lion. Wow. We’re fattening.

Now, the official definition of a calorie, more specifically, it’s the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water by 1°C. So that’s the more specific aspect of it.

But here’s the deal. Caloric theory assumes that the body is this perfectly predictable input-output combustion calorie-burning machine. We’re not a machine. We’re a human body. And the body is magical. Did you know that every person burns calories at a different rate? We all have a different resting metabolic rate.

It’s the same as a car. You want to buy a car right now. You can look. “Well, this car burns gasoline at 20 miles to the gallon. Or this one burns it at 70 miles a gallon.” It’s the same gasoline. It’s the same amount of calories in that gasoline. But each car burns it differently.

You and I burn differently.

So your calorie-burning rate is impacted by the time of day that you eat. We burn calories differently at different times of the day. It’s going to change whether you shift your balance of macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbohydrates—the more carbohydrates you’re doing, the more calories you’re going to hold in your body.

So your hormonal profile, your health, the toxins in your diet, the health of your gut microbiome, your prescription drug use, the amount of stress that’s in your body, and more impacts the rate at which we burn calories.

So here’s what I want to say. The bottom line is, please don’t obsess about calories. Stop looking at food like a bunch of numbers. We’re crunching numbers when it comes to food. We’re not eating food. How bizarre is that?

So here’s the trick.

One of the ways that we take calories and we make them more fattening is when we’re under stress because stress produces more insulin and cortisol. Those two hormones signal the body to store weight, store fat, not build muscle. It slows the calorie-burning rate down for most humans.

So one of the great ways to decrease the amount of calories in your diet is not even to decrease them, but to relax and enjoy and eat in a nourishing way. And liberate yourself from food prison, my friends, and assess the value of a food not by its caloric content, but by the story that food has to tell, the quality of it. Where is it grown? Who grew it? How good is it? How good is it? How real is it? How natural is it? How organic is it? How much is it in alignment with the truth of the human body? Because when you let go of all the stress and fear around calories, your metabolism starts to reach its natural place.

And that, my friends, is the magic of the world.

I hope this was helpful!

Empty plate with serving set

Become a Mind Body Eating Coach

Make real, lasting change - in your life and the lives of others using eating psychology coaching tools.


Subscribe to The Psychology of Eating Podcast

Get notified when new episodes go live.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Listen to The Psychology of Eating Podcast

Follow Us

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.