The technical definition of a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise a specific amount of water (1.0 milliliter, to be precise) by a 1.0 degree Celsius. To most people, this is nerdy science talk that is best left to people wearing white lab coats who have committed the Metric system to memory.
With this in mind, it is sufficient to say that a calorie is a measurement of heat energy, with the key word being energy, that is contained in any type of fuel, be it wood for your stove, propane for your boiler, or the food that you eat. In terms of food, the calorie measures how much energy the body will derive when it is eaten. That energy is then used by our bodies to do drive every single bodily function, from the simple act of thinking (which is hardly a simple act) to eating and breathing. And, of course, the building of muscle tissue.
In many ways it’s like putting fuel into a car. Gasoline is the food, which is chock full of calories, not to be consumed by humans, of course. We feed the gasoline into our cars, which it then burns in it’s engine, thereby converting the calories into heat that drives the pistons and moves the car. The gasoline in cars, however, is used for the sole purpose of locomotion. Continually pumping in gas will accomplish nothing towards the building or repair of the car. In the unfortunate but unavoidable event that something does break down, we will generally find ourselves burning cash instead of calories in order to fix the problem.
Not so with the human body. When you get down to it, factoring in the incredible amount of repetitive motion that they go through, you’d be hard pressed to find any man made material as versatile and durable, not to mention reliable, as muscles. The reason for this is that the muscle tissue is constantly being repaired and replaced by the body. While under certain circumstances we’ll need to see a doctor to fix something that is broken, like a bone or an organ, this usually (hopefully!) doesn’t happen with too much frequency. Through responsible, everyday usage, the human body takes care of itself.
But it cannot accomplish this without two critical things – fuel to run the process, and the basic materials to do the building/repair. And this is where calories come into play when the body builds muscle. It is important here to note that not all calories are created equal. They fall within three basic categories: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
Fats and carbohydrates are considered ideal fuels in the energy department. Carbohydrates (breads, cereals, fruits and veggies) are the quickest most readily available fuel source, being the easiest for the body to convert into energy. Fats (meats, dairy, and oils), meanwhile, are harder to burn but contain more bang for your buck, i.e., more calories. An unfortunate consequence of carbohydrate and fat consumption, and one we know too well, is that when we consume more of them than our bodies can use, the body stores them as fat, a wonderful (or not-so wonderful) evolutionary adaptation that probably came about in order to deal with times of famine.
Proteins (meats, dairy, and legumes) on the other hand, while not an efficient source of calories, are necessary for muscle development because they provide their basic building blocks, amino acids. When we eat the more common types of proteins in the form of meat, be it chicken, beef, pork or fish, we are in fact consuming the muscle tissue.
It is in this way that calories enable the body to build muscle mass. Calories from carbohydrates, fat and to a lesser degree, proteins, provide the energy to run the process of building/repair while proteins provide the building blocks in the forms of amino acids.
So the next time you’re enjoying a meal or snack, take a moment to appreciate all that your body is doing and make some sensible choices in what you eat. Your body will thank you for it, and so might your partner when he or she gets a look at all those muscles.