Medically reviewed by Dr. Shunmukha Priya, Ph.D. in Food Science and Nutrition
Weight loss diet, healthy meal plan, how to lose weight in 3 months, how many calories I should eat to lose so and so weight in XYZ months… Do these ring a bell?
Well, these are some of the most searched topics on the internet by people who want to shed some fat.
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When it comes to weight loss, there is no dearth of information. We are bombarded with a plethora of facts and opinions that after a point, we are visibly left confused with what to believe and what not to believe.
Varied conclusions and opinions regarding calories in food have made it difficult to decide what to eat, how much to eat, how to stay healthy, and the foods to avoid. This has paved the way to the current calorie-obsession.
To understand calories, you must understand the basic things and start from the fundamentals. Once this is figured, you will easily understand what are the functions of different types of food are in our body.
What is a Calorie?
Calorie is the unit of energy.
According to an article titled “History of the Calorie in Nutrition” in the Journal of Nutrition (1863) , “calorie means the energy required to raise the temperature of 1g of water by 1 degree Celsius”. So, in literal terms, it means energy. This energy is required by the human body to function efficiently.
The body receives calories from mainly three macronutrients- carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Whatever we eat is a combination of these nutrients in some form or the other.
The body needs all nutrients in varying amounts, even cholesterol and sugar, which are a type of fat and carbohydrate respectively. These are the powerhouse of energy sources and produce energy.
Calorific Value of Different Nutrients
It is imprudent to believe that eating proteins, carbohydrates and fats in equal quantities will provide the same amount of calories.
Consuming one gram of carbohydrates provides around four calories per gram and is the main source of energy. So if you are active and doing some brain work, then eating complex carbohydrates is a good thing as it will provide your body with the required energy as well as vitamins and minerals too.
However, when you remain inactive and eat refined carbohydrates more than your body needs, instead of using it as a source of energy, your body starts storing it as fat.
Focus on taking whole grains like whole wheat, ragi, jowar, bajra, brown rice etc. These whole grains contain carbs, which are mainly fibres enhances metabolism, prevents absorption of fats in the body. Apart from fibre, these grains contain other micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals which are beneficial in the physiological process.
Say no to refined carbohydrates like sugar, white bread, maida based products, pasta, cookies, fizzy drinks, etc. as these are laden with calories without providing any nutrition to the body. In short, they provide just energy without any other nutrients. This energy is known as empty calories. It will be stored in the body as fat for future. 
Fats are very essential for our body. They are used for cell wall repair, regulation of hormones, and absorbing as well as storing fat-soluble vitamins.
So if you remove fat completely from your diet, your body will face problems in performing one of the above functions.
One gram Fat provides around nine calories per gram and if you eat foods high in good fat, you will not face the problem of eating high calories.
What is the difference between good fat and bad fat?
Good fat helps in avoiding the risk of heart disease and keeps the cholesterol level under control.
The good fat is the unsaturated fat such as omega-3 fatty acid which is present in some types of fish, walnuts and flaxseed. It is also present in pumpkin seed, peanut oil, cashews, sesame seed, hazelnuts, almonds, etc.
Trans fat is a by-product of hydrogenation and is the worst dietary fat. Consuming foods rich in trans fats increases low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream and reduces beneficial HDL cholesterol. The bad fat is saturated fat which is mostly present in animal products like poultry, red meat, high-fat dairy, fried foods (French fries, donuts), margarine, baked foods (cookies, cakes, pastries) and – palm oil.
It raises the cholesterol level and the risk of heart disease. Therefore, it should be avoided.
Protein are the building blocks of the body. Proteins repairs in the body on a daily basis and helps in building muscles. Proteins, like, carbohydrates give four calories per gram.
The advantage it holds over carbohydrates is that it provides satiety. You can relish protein-rich foods like lentils, beans, peas, eggs, cottage cheese, etc without feeling guilty.
Different Calories Requirement
The amount of calories a body needs is determined by age, gender, weight, height, physiological status,ailments if any, and physical activity.
People from different countries and different physiques have different calorie requirements.
How Calories from Healthy Food is Different from Unhealthy Food
Regardless of how many calories our body needs, it still wants calories from a healthy, nutrient-rich diet. So the calories obtained from pizza aren’t the same as calories from a bowl of vegetables.
All the calories are not equal. If you eat a slice of pizza and a bowl of fruits, and both carry the same calories, then the bowl of fruits will have more impact on your body as the fruit will also provide your body with essential fibres, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
The human body is a complex system. Our body receives the calories in different ways and the energy process will be regulated differently.
Another important factor is that junk foods are always unhealthy and their caloric value doesn’t count.
Calories received from nutrient-rich food are different than calories received from nutritionally poor food (like processed food or refined carbohydrates). If you eat nutrient-dense food, then it will keep hunger at a distance, balance out the blood glucose levels and stabilise it, reduce the cravings, and gives signals to the brain that our stomach is full.
On the other hand, nutritionally poor food will do exactly the opposite. It creates an imbalance in the hormone levels; increases the insulin levels, induces more cravings and gives an unsatisfied feeling. This will, in turn, encourage you to overeat.
Looking At Bigger Picture- Stop Counting Calories
We repeat all calories aren’t equal. Two spoonfuls of chocolate chips and 350 grams of broccoli have the same 100 calories.
Similarly, a big burger loaded with beef, cheese, and sauce, along with large fries and 600 ml coke can give 2,000 calories to the body.
On the other hand, you will receive the same 2000 calories from a plate of green salad, 90g of tuna, a small avocado, one tablespoon of pumpkin seeds, and a handful of cherry tomatoes. However, you do the math and decide what will have a greater impact on your body.
Eating unhealthy food neither provides us with the essential vitamins and minerals, nor it helps in balancing out the carbohydrates, proteins, and good fats. Counting calories is an unusual way of eating food.
Doing this will constantly keep you on the edge and you will hardly be able to enjoy the food. You will also find it difficult to eat at social gatherings.
Balancing Between Nutritious and Junk Food
We all want our taste buds to enjoy tasty food. Nobody can eat salads for life. The magic happens when you learn to balance between healthy foods and occasional treats.
Deficiency of vitamins and minerals can make us ill. For example, deficiency of iron can make us feel lethargic and the chances of catching a cold are high. Deficiency of calcium causes bone damage and the list is never ending. So instead of just looking at calories, focus on the bigger picture, which is a balanced diet.
In a well-balanced diet, you will be including whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, non veg foods, seeds, which will help you in weight management as well as help the body to function properly.
Focus on the nutritional value instead of just calories in the food. Eat healthy and wholesome foods for a better and healthier body. While trying to lose weight, aim for fat loss.
Eat healthily, be active and lead an energetic life!
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