What Is A Calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy. We tend to associate calories with food, but they apply to anything containing energy. For example, a gallon (about 4 liters) of gasoline contains about 31,000,000 calories.
Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy, or heat, it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). One calorie is equal to 4.184 joules, a common unit of energy used in the physical sciences.
Most of us think of calories in relation to food, as in "This can of soda has 200 calories." It turns out that the calories on a food package are actually kilocalories (1,000 calories = 1 kilocalorie). The word is sometimes capitalized to show the difference, but usually not. A food calorie contains 4,184 joules. A can of soda containing 200 food calories contains 200,000 regular calories, or 200 kilocalories. A gallon of gasoline contains 31,000 kilocalories.
The same applies to exercise -- when a fitness chart says you burn about 100 calories for every mile you jog, it means 100 kilocalories. For the duration of this article, when we say "calorie," we mean "kilocalorie."
What Calories Do?
Human beings need energy to survive -- to breathe, move, pump blood-- and they acquire this energy from food.
The number of calories in a food is a measure of how much potential energy that food possesses. A gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories, a gram of protein has 4 calories, and a gram of fat has 9 calories. Foods are a compilation of these three building blocks. So if you know how many carbohydrates, fats and proteins are in any given food, you know how many calories, or how much energy, that food contains.
If we look at the nutritional label on the back of a packet of maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal, we find that it has 160 calories. This means that if we were to pour this oatmeal into a dish, set the oatmeal on fire and get it to burn completely (which is actually pretty tricky), the reaction would produce 160 kilocalories (remember: food calories are kilocalories) -- enough energy to raise the temperature of 160 kilograms of water 1 degree Celsius.
If we look closer at the nutritional label, we see that our oatmeal has 2 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein and 32 grams of carbohydrates, producing a total of 162 calories (apparently, food manufacturers like to round down). Of these 162 calories, 18 come from fat (9 cal x 2 g), 16 come from protein (4 cal x 4 g) and 128 come from carbohydrates (4 cal x 32 g).
Our bodies "burn" the calories in the oatmeal through metabolic processes, by which enzymes break the carbohydrates into glucose and other sugars, the fats into glycerol and fatty acids and the proteins into amino acids.
These molecules are then transported through the bloodstream to the cells, where they are either absorbed for immediate use or sent on to the final stage of metabolism in which they are reacted with oxygen to release their stored energy.
Your Caloric Needs
Just how many calories do our cells need to function well? The number is different for every person. You may notice on the nutritional labels of the foods you buy that the "percent daily values" are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
2,000 calories is a rough average of what a person needs to eat in a day, but your body might need more or less than 2,000 calories. Height, weight, gender, age and activity level all affect your caloric needs.