What Is a Calorie?

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iStock

The word calorie carries a lot of weight. We know we're supposed to avoid too many of them, but things get more complicated after that. What, exactly, are calories, and how do I burn them?

THE SCIENCE OF THE CALORIE

A calorie is a unit of heat energy that fuels your body, making it possible to move, breathe, think, sleep—and even digest food to make more energy.

While there is some disagreement about who first coined the term calorie, we know the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier used it in experiments he conducted during the winter of 1782–1783. He used a device called a calorimeter to measure how much ice melted in a metal container due to the heat emitted by guinea pigs housed inside it. Over time, that measurement was refined by other scientists to mean the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by 1°C—what's known as a kilocalorie.

The food calorie and a kilocalorie (kcal) are technically the same thing, but we use the term calorie rather than kilocalorie because of an American chemist named Wilbur Olin Atwater. In the late 1880s, Atwater traveled to Germany to study at physiologist Carl Voit's laboratory, where Voit was researching the nutritional value of food and animal feed. Inspired by that research, Atwater took measurements of different foods with a bomb calorimeter—a device that essentially measures the heat in food when burned—by having study participants eat, and then measuring and subtracting [PDF] the amount of heat leaving their bodies through respiration and waste. He used a respiration calorimeter to measure their breath and a bomb calorimeter to burn their poop, and from that calculated just how many calories were left in their bodies to be used. When writing about his research, Atwater used the word calorie (kcal wouldn't be used in America until 1894, when it was published in a physiology textbook).

Based on his experiments, Atwater created a system for calculating the calories that human bodies can get from our food. There are three types of food nutrients that deliver caloric energy—fats, proteins, and carbohydrates—and Atwater arrived at a caloric measurement of each: A fat gram has nine calories, while a gram of protein and a gram of carbohydrates each have four. That system was modified [PDF] by USDA scientists in 1973, but it's otherwise still the basis for how calories are calculated today.

WHAT HAPPENS TO A CALORIE IN YOUR BODY

When you eat, enzymes in the mouth, stomach, and intestine break down nutrients by turning fats into fatty acids, sugars into simple sugars, and proteins into amino acids. Then, using oxygen cells throughout your body, these components are broken down into energy—a process known as metabolism.

Most of the calories we burn each and every day are used just to keep our body functioning, with about half going toward powering our major organs—the brain, liver, kidneys, and heart. We use the rest for physical activity and the process of converting food to energy. Anything not used by the body is then stored, first in the liver and eventually as fat cells.

Some foods, like honey (carbohydrates), are easily digestible, whereas nuts (a mix of carbohydrates, fat, and protein) can't actually be fully digested at all. There are also digestibility differences within the same type of food. For example, in plants, older leaves tend to be sturdier (and therefore harder to digest) and less caloric than younger ones. Most significantly, especially in terms of human evolution, whenever we cook or process food, the body can get more calories as compared to that same food eaten raw. All of this has an impact on the amount of calories we can actually use.

There's no food you can eat to speed up the rate at which you burn calories (changes from foods like spicy peppers are fleeting), but factors like age and rapid, drastic weight loss can slow it down.

Building more muscle can increase your metabolic rate (although how much is debatable), since muscle requires more energy to function than fat does. And while cardiovascular exercise might not permanently boost your metabolism, it does burn calories; just how much depends on your weight and how vigorously you exercise.

Examples of higher calorie burning exercises include cycling and running, but almost every activity burns something, so you could potentially burn more calories throughout the day by consistently doing low-energy activities like gardening or pacing during a conference call than you would during 30 minutes of fast cycling.

CALORIES: A SCIENCE IN FLUX

We still use the Atwater system for calculating food calories, but it's far from perfect. For one thing, a USDA study found that people absorbed fewer calories from nuts than had been estimated under Atwater's system—a serving of almonds, for example, provided not 170 calories, but 129. There's some evidence that people tend to digest food at all sorts of different rates too, depending on the individual makeup of our gut bacteria, meaning that the absorption of calories may differ from person to person.

Scientists now believe the numbers on food labels are more of an estimate than a precise measurement. While companies are required to provide caloric information on food labels, the FDA doesn't specify exactly how those calories should be calculated. Some companies, like McDonald's, send their food to a lab for measurement, while others estimate the total by adding up the calorie count for each food component from the USDA's massive food composition database. As scientists continue to refine how we calculate calories, we'll come to have a better idea of the energy we can actually get from these different foods.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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It's Black Birders Week—Here's Why Celebrating Black Scientists and Naturalists Matters

Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images
Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images

BlackAFInSTEM, a community of Black scientists, kicked off the inaugural Black Birders Week from May 31 through June 5. What started as a group chat organized by birder Jason Ward evolved, in a matter of mere days, into a week-long celebration of Black naturalists. “It is a movement that was started out of pain, and its goal is not necessarily pleasure, but uplifting,” Alexander Grousis-Henderson, a zookeeper and member of BlackAFInSTEM, tells Mental Floss. “We want people, especially our community, to come out of this stronger and better.”

The movement started after a video of a white woman harassing and threatening Christian Cooper, a Black birder, went viral. As part of Black Birders Week, you can follow along as professional and amateur Black naturalists, scientists, and outdoor enthusiasts share their expertise and experiences and celebrate diversity in the outdoors. Throughout the week, members of BlackAFInSTEM are facilitating online events and conversations like #AskABlackBirder and #BlackWomenWhoBird.

Though Black Birders Week was created for Black nature enthusiasts, everyone is welcome to participate. Follow along the #BlackBirdersWeek hashtag, or check out the @BlackAFInSTEM Twitter account. Ask questions, engage with their posts, or simply retweet the scientists to help amplify their voices.

Scroll through the hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, and you’ll find a stream of Black naturalists honoring their love of the outdoors. “We want kids to see our faces and attach them to the outdoors, and we want our peers to recognize that we belong here too,” Grousis-Henderson tells Mental Floss.

Not only does Black Birders Week make space for Black birders to share their passion, it’s also a way for the community to raise awareness of their unique experiences and address systemic racism in nature and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). According to Grousis-Henderson, it’s an opportunity to foster a dialogue within the birding community; to prompt conversations about diversity within the outdoors.

“We wanted to draw on what we know about the diversity of biological systems and bring that perspective to social systems,” Grousis-Henderson says. “A diverse ecosystem can stand up to a lot of change, but a non-diverse ecosystem, one lacking biodiversity, is easy to topple.”

The movement goes beyond birding. Alongside Black Birders Week, Black outdoorspeople are sharing their experiences of what it’s like to be a Black person in nature—a space where they’re far too often made to feel unwelcome and unsafe. Organizations like Backyard Basecamp, Melanin Base Camp, and Outdoor Afro continue to foster the Black community's connection to nature.

"Black Birders Week is an opportunity to highlight joy and belonging, to showcase expertise, and to remind people that Black people have been inextricably connected to nature for generations," Yanira Castro, communications director for Outdoor Afro, tells Mental Floss in an email. "It is a celebration of that relationship."