The abstract calorie

There are several definitions for the word calorie. I like to think of calories as energy.  My favorite definition is “unit of energy.” A calorie is a unit of energy-producing potential in food. A calorie is technically the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

Imagine going back in time to a middle school science lab. To determine the calorie content of a food requires that the particular food is heated (burnt to a crisp) then transferred to water. As the water absorbs the heat, its temperature rises. The mass of the burnt food, the volume of water and the change in the water temperature determine the calories per gram of food. The more heat the food gives off, the higher the caloric content. 

Food companies are required by the FDA to print accurate calorie data on their food labels, but they don’t specify how those calories must be measured. Many companies use the extensive USDA published nutritional data list to estimate calories. Or, they will use various labs to test their foods. 


The food labels must be within a 20 percent accuracy which leaves quite a margin of error in some instances. If you are counting calories fanatically, just know that it is an estimate more than an exact measure.

Calories are like money, but more difficult to count. Everyone has a certain calorie budget. Most people have no idea how many calories should be in their calorie budget. (You can get an estimate of the calories you need at

Like money, if you spend too much, you will go into debt. Not good with real money, but good for weight loss. If you take in more calories over your budget, you will obviously gain weight.

Counting calories can be tedious. It requires extensive food label reading, measuring (the most important aspect!) and research from books or the Internet. It is often the last thing that people want to do to control their weight. Research has shown that people can underestimate how many calories they consume by an average of 20 percent to 40 percent. 

Calorie counting does work, but you have to do the hard work of tracking and recording.  You can lose twice as much weight if you keep accurate food records.

There are many tools available to help you count calories. Always refer to the food label first.

The Internet can be a great resource. is an ideal website for looking up calories in various foods. is another great website for online food record tracking. 

If you decide to count calories, just know that you can’t do it without the use of measuring cups and sometimes a food scale. That is the only way to assure better accuracy when counting those elusive calories.