What Is A Calorie and Why Is It Empty?

A calorie (small ‘c’) is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gm of water by 1 degree Celsius under normal conditions. Similar to joules, it is a unit of energy which originated from Physics and, now also, used to judge which, and how much, food we should eat. We use Calories (1000 calories = 1 Kilo calorie or simply Calorie – note the ‘C’ is capitalized) because we were able to quantify energy expenditure, in the form of heat generated, by the human body for basic metabolism through a process referred to as calorimetry. A good way to think about Metabolism is to think about normal human body functions or physiology.Our understanding of metabolism has since improved and since Calories measure only the energy derived from food, the concept of Empty Calories has gained popularity. An empty calorie is a calorie (food or ingredient) that has little to no nutrients. This definition which you undoubtedly will see after consulting Google (link) is a bit misleading.

You see, Nutrients are classified as Macro and Micro Nutrients based on the amount we generally are required to consume. Macro Nutrients (required in larger amounts hence the use of Macro as a suffix) consist of Proteins, Fats, Carbs, Fiber and Water. Micro Nutrients on the other hand are required in much lesser quantities and consist of Vitamins and Minerals; they provide us with the essential elements (used generally) which get incorporated in our enzymes and other proteins to keep our body working properly ie Metabolism.

Skip this part if you know what Metabolism refers to:
Physiological functions (there is a lot of them) include Catabolism of macro nutrients into energy in the mitochondria along with Anabolism to create macro molecules in the human cell. Remember Catabolism + Anabolism combine to make Metabolism. Catabolism simply refers to breakdown of macro-molecules and Anabolism refers to the building-up-of or synthesis of large molecules. Both require energy and are facilitated by enzymes through intricate pathways. Kinda cool if you really think about it! A macro-molecule is usually a polymer or chain of smaller sub-units. So Amino-acids form proteins, fatty-acids form lipids. Proteis and lipids get together to form cell membranes. Proteins get together to form muscles along with a stored energy source called Glycogen which is .. that’s right you guessed it; a macro molecule made from a whole bunch of glucose! So on and so forth.

So what is an Empty Calorie again? The definition seems to have focused on defining an empty calorie as energy derived from added sugar or ‘lots of sugar’ and fats with very little vitamins and minerals. Since this definition was, and still is, rather vague scientists came up with the concept of Nutrient Density, a ratio of Macro and Micro Nutrients. Nutrient Dense foods are those foods that provide you with more nutrients per unit energy. The concept of Nutrient Density makes more sense, since we can now begin to qualify our foods.

Which foods are better? The answer is simple. If you are to choose between Option A and Option B, of which, Option B has ‘more’ micro-nutrients then it makes sense to choose Option B provided everything else is equal. We’ve seen various attempts of using Nutrient Density (ND) in grocery stores but since there isn’t as yet a ‘standard’ way of calculating Nutrient Density, its scalability is questionable. Moreover, there is a body of science that exists where different permutations and combinations of macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients are used to figure out what is best for us and under what conditions. So while ND is cool, it isn’t the end all for food decision making.

So the point here? The point is that counting calories, is like, a really outdated way to figure out what you should eat. Why? ‘Cause Calorie counting, alone, is unsatisfactorily correlated to health outcomes. And health outcomes are really what we want.

Blah di blah di blah .. Why do we want to relate eating behavior to health outcomes? You no doubt are wondering by now!

You may have guessed already that in the Wild West / Asian Badlands of Nutrition correlating eating behavior to health outcomes is important because we all eat food; and for those that consider food as a means to healthfulness, understanding the effect of Empty Calories Vs Nutrient Dense foods on metabolism can lead to a greater understanding of why certain behaviors lead to unhealthy Vs healthy physiology. But really, its about not being fooled into making bad decisions. We live in an era of misinformation and there is a lot of information on how to make healthy food choices.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics,  you’re thinking now by channeling your inner Twain.

We don’t blame you. Instead of making it simpler to decide what to eat we’re making things complicated by suggesting you give up your Calorie Limiting Methodologies to focus on understanding which foods are more nourishing for you.

How are you going to do that? No clue? Don’t worry, that is where we come in 🙂

There is an increasing body of science that is going to completely change the way we think about Food from a systems perspective.

Keep watching this space .. our job is to help you navigate the Badlands!

Have questions? Tweet them to us @GorMonjee

Photo Credit – Sarah Hillebrand “Washing Calories” on Behance and Flickr

Model – Ana Baptista