Which is heavier, a ton of bricks or a ton of feathers? If you’ve heard this one before, you know that the answer is both weigh the same as a ton = a ton albeit you’d need a lot more feathers than bricks to make a ton. Now, which is worse for you, a calorie of broccoli or a calorie of candy? While both are one calorie, they are not the same. A calorie is only one dimension of a measurement whereas health is made up of a lot more.
So what is a calorie? Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. It is the energy needed to raise 1g of water 1 degree Celsius. So why do we talk so much about calories when it comes to food? Calories are the base unit for food measurement because it is a measurement of how much energy a piece of food has.
So if calories are just a measurement of heat, why do we use them for food? Fun fact: food labels don’t show calories, but rather kilocalories. That is, if you look at the back of a Coca-Cola can and see that it has 120 calories, that means it actually contains 120,000 real calories or 120 kilocalories. A single calorie is so insignificant that it doesn’t really do much to measure it. However, 1,000 calories (1 kilocalorie) has enough impact where measurement means something. So as nutrition measurement came into play, calories were used, but they were actually kilocalories instead of individual calories.
Back to the question: 1 Calorie of candy vs 1 Calorie of broccoli. Which is worse? You probably know that the answer is that candy is worse, but don’t know how to articulate it. Well, besides measuring units of energy and heat, we have to talk about the contents of each calorie. Candy is basically pure sugar, whereas broccoli has fiber, is a vegetable carbohydrate and also contains a bit of sugar. The difference? Sugar in candy burns/metabolizes instantly whereas sugar in broccoli, carrots and kidney beans metabolizes slowly. This means the energy in these foods is released slowly and released later when you would use it. Sugar, on the other hand, is burned instantly and if not used, your body stores it away for later…as fat.
What to do? If you watch bodybuilders compete, some eat a bunch of sugar right before posing because it makes their veins pop. Similarly, before sprints or races, some runners will eat a candy bar in order burn the energy from it right away. However, if you’re not planning to do some intense physical activity right away, then maybe put down the candy, sweets, etc and open a can of delicious kidney beans. Actually, it would be better to time your food. If you need the sweets, don’t do it at a desk. Instead, do it before you do a workout. Otherwise, get some fruit that has sugar and fiber and will metabolize later for when you’re at the gym.