What is a Calorie?

A calorie is a unit of energy. We tend to associate calories with food, but they apply to anything containing energy. For example, a gallon (about 4 liters) of gasoline contains about 31,000,000 calories.

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Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy, or heat, it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). One calorie is equal to 4.184 joules, a common unit of energy used in the physical sciences.

Most of us think of calories in relation to food, as in "This can of soda has 200 calories." It turns out that the calories on a food package are actually kilocalories (1,000 calories = 1 kilocalorie). The word is sometimes capitalized to show the difference, but usually not. A food calorie contains 4,184 joules. A can of soda containing 200 food calories contains 200,000 regular calories, or 200 kilocalories. A gallon of gasoline contains 31,000 kilocalories.

The same applies to exercise -- when a fitness chart says you burn about 100 calories for every mile you jog, it means 100 kilocalories. For the duration of this article, when we say "calorie," we mean "kilocalorie."