Burning calories, counting their contribution




My son was surveying the aftermath of a recent party we hosted.

His head resembled a Wimbledon spectator's as he paused at one soda bottle label and then another and then gazed back to the first one. This went on for several seconds before he looked up and asked, "What's the difference between diet soda and regular soda?"

"There's more sugar and calories in regular soda," I responded, tying up a bag of trash.

The few seconds of silence that followed told me another question soon would be heading my way.

"What's a calorie?"

It would have been a lot easier had he asked about sugar. I could have shown him the three types - white, brown and confectioners' - that are in my pantry.

But how to describe a calorie?

You can't say that it's a measurement of how much weight you'll gain/lose when you eat (or don't eat) a certain item. There are too many factors - exercise, good nutrients vs. empty calories, etc. - to make it that simple.


Then my husband came in the room and said, "Isn't a calorie a measurement of energy?"

And while that description is close to the mark, our 6-year-old just looked at us like, oh, OK, whatever.

Calories are hard to explain to anyone, regardless of age, because they can't be seen or touched, says Melinda Hemmelgarn, coordinator of the University of Missouri's Nutrition Communications Center.

"It's really difficult to grasp. It's not something you can put on a plate," Hemmelgarn says.

She recommends giving children an example - how they can feel calories being burned, such as when they're playing, get hot and then take a layer of clothes off.

"That heat is calories burning up," says Hemmelgarn, a registered dietitian and associate state nutrition specialist. "I like to tell people that they can 'feel' them burn - when we are out playing and work up a sweat, we are burning calories. But actually we burn them all day long - even when we sleep.

"I think it's kind of interesting to explain to children that we need energy (the calories in food as well as the life-giving nutrients) for everything we do - from blinking our eyes to smiling, to running down the street, to thinking."

Calories are simply units of energy.

A calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. In practical terms, calories represent the energy that is "locked inside" fats, protein and carbohydrates, Hemmelgarn says. We burn energy, or store it as body fat.

Hemmelgarn says she wouldn't recommend teaching about calories per se, that it's more important to talk about nutrients in food - "How many nutrients do you get for your calories?"

To learn more about healthful eating, check out these Web sites recommended by Hemmelgarn:


Baylor College of Medicine, Children's Nutrition Research Center. Sign up for the free nutrition newsletter and check out the portion information that is posted.


Subscribe to the free "Feeding Kids" newsletter by Connie Evers. Evers is a registered dietitian and mother of three. She shares a science-based yet common-sense approach to feeding kids. Past issues of the newsletter can be viewed.


The home site for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Read the policy statements on topics such as television viewing or juice consumption.


The Center for Science in the Public Interest. Check out the Harry Potter/Coca-Cola Campaign to Save Harry, as well as the reports on soft drink consumption, including "Liquid Candy."


University of Missouri-Columbia Nutritional Sciences Web site.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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