Can Calories Turn Into Fat?

22 September, 2020
Do you look at the calories content of food to see if it’s fattening or not? Read on to learn more about excess calories in your diet and how they’re stored.

Until a few years ago, the energy value of food and the belief that calories become fat were the focus of weight-loss diets. The energy balance was almost the only parameter to be valued.

Today we know that this isn’t the only aspect to think about. The type of food we eat, the main nutrients they provide, how our hormonal system responds, or the time we spend between meals are other aspects that also have a major impact on our body composition.

What are calories and what happens when we overeat?

We use calories to measure the amount of energy a food provides. Calories provide the body with the fuel it needs to perform vital functions and create structures.

After digesting food, the energy it contains is released and used by the different cells. All that isn’t currently used is stored for later use:

  • The first energy store in our body is in the muscles and liver where it’s stored as glycogen.
  • The other form of energy reserve is adipocytes or fat cells, in which the energy that we don’t use in the form of lipids builds up.

That’s why we say calories become fat because when we eat more than what our body needs, excess energy is stored in the form of fat.

However, a high percentage of adipose tissue can be harmful to health as it’s related to the appearance of metabolic problems, among others.

A cluster of cells.

Beyond calories: other things to consider

Calories are one of the determining factors when we talk about eating and gaining or losing weight. In reality, what’s important is when that intake and burning of calories are balanced. But other aspects also come into play and relate to each other. These include the following:

Nutritional composition of food

Calories don’t work in the body in the same way if they come from different macronutrients. For example, proteins have a high satiating capacity and a higher thermogenic effect than fats or carbohydrates.

On the other hand, depending on the general composition of our daily diet, metabolic pathways, or others are activated. And this also affects the way we metabolize calories and they become fat.

Read more: What is lean protein and how can it help your diet?

Final calories that end up being absorbed

We need to understand that we don’t always absorb the total energy that food gives us. Some factors influence this aspect, such as how we’ve cooked the food or the state of our intestinal flora.

Hormonal aspects

Calories give us energy, but the way to process and use all this energy is regulated by hormones. Any influence on our hormonal system will eventually change the way we use and store calories.

Filling effect of food

Not all foods fill us up the same. The predominant nutrient of a meal or how we prepare it will make us feel more or less satisfied when eating it.

When the stomach is full it sends signals to the brain that make it understand that we should no longer eat. Therefore, the total calories consumed should be more or less the same at the end of each meal.

Can calories turn into fat: it’s also a matter of quality

A platter of food.

Whether we want to gain or lose weight, we tend to look almost exclusively at the number of calories we eat. Although this may be necessary on these specific occasions, we can’t forget the quality of the calories.

The same amount of calories from different food types won’t have the same effect on our bodies. It’s important to assess the type of food that’s part of the diet. Today we know that highly processed foods are directly related to:

  • Increased risk of obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Metabolic problems
  • High LDL cholesterol, among others

Therefore, you should get into the habit of eating fresh and unprepared foods, such as fruit, legumes, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, etc. Our consumption of prepared dishes, snacks, biscuits, or pastries must be less frequent.

If we base our diet on foods in the first group, its impact on metabolism, satiety, or thermal effect will be much more balanced than if we eat more than the second group. This way, excess calories won’t become fat as easily. It’ll benefit your health in the long run!

Read more: Discover how many calories you should eat per day

A calorie deficit isn’t healthy

So far we have seen how, sometimes, excess calories become fat, and this can be harmful to us.

However, reducing calorie intake too much isn’t healthy either. People usually reduce their calorie intake out of fear of storing them as fat, but it’s not recommended.

An insufficient supply of energy also means a lack of other basic nutrients that our body needs to function and build structures, such as vitamins, minerals, or proteins. This can lead, in turn, to mood problems, lack of concentration and lack of energy, among others.

In addition, in the long term and against what might seem logical, we can end up gaining weight and fat. This is because the body becomes very sparing in the face of scarcity. Failure to detect food intake makes it reluctant to release accumulated fat to maintain some energy reserves.

It’s much better to burn more calories than to lower intake without changing what we burn. 

Calories turn into fat, but more factors influence them

You need to stop thinking only in terms of calories and start thinking about the quality of the food you eat, its nutritional composition, or how you cook and eat it.

In addition, we need to remember that all aspects that influence our hormonal system, such as exercise, sleep, or stress, also have an impact on the way our body processes and stores calories.

  • Bentley R.A, et al. U.S. obesity as delayed effect of excess sugar. Economics and Human Biology. Enero 2020.
  • Howell S, Kones R. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Perspective. Noviembre 2017. 313(5): E608-E612.
  • Leaf A, et al. The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. International Journal of Exercise Science. Diciembre 2017. 10(8):1275-1296.
  • Osilla E, Sharma S. Calories. Stat Pearls Publishing. Enero 2020.
  • Pérez Martínez P et al. Lifestyle recommendations for the prevention and management of metabolic syndrome: an international panel recommendation. Nutrition Reviews. Mayo 2017. 75(5):307-326.
  • Poti J.M et al. Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health – Processing or Nutrient Content?. Current Obesity Reports. Diciembre 2017.6(4):420-431.
  • Prinz Ph. The role of dietary sugars in health: molecular composition or just calories?. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Febrero 2019. 73(9):1216-1223.
  • Srour B, et al. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé). British Medical Journal . Mayo 2019.
  • Veldhorst M, et al. Gluconeogenesis and Energy Expenditure After a High-Protein, Carbohydrate-Free Diet. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Setiembre 2009. 90(3):519-526.