What is lost when a calorie is burned?

Bart Loews:

According to the laws of thermodynamics, nothing. In terms of your body, it’s not terribly helpful to think in terms of calories, because they’re just a measure of heat.

Let’s drill down to your energy systems and how your muscles work. Your muscles are composed of two strands of proteins: myosin and actin. The myosin has little hooks that grab on to the actin and then pull it in to create a contraction. It does this using ATP.

The myosin head takes on the ATP and shears one of the phosphate molecules off. The remaining ADP binds to the actin and then rotates pulling the actin down. The ADP molecule is then released and a new ATP molecule is taken on. The ADP molecule is then recycled.

This is what is actually happening when your muscles contract. The shearing of the phosphate from the ATP does generate heat and creates a little bit of excess waste, which is where the calorie theory started from, how you heat up when you perform activities.

Okay, so what does that have to do with loss? I’m getting there …

ATP cannot be stored long term. It’s a comparatively large molecule and it is water soluble, so it will break down inside the cells if left unused. Your body has to have a way of creating it on the fly using fuel sources that can be stored long term.

These fuel sources are:

  • Glucose (sugar)
  • Adipose (fat)

Both sugar and fat can be broken down into acetyl CoA in the cell and then turned into ATP using the Krebs (or Citric Acid) cycle.

During this cycle the primary yield is ATP, while the primary byproducts are water and CO2. The CO2 is exhaled while the water is either repurposed in the body or urinated out. This is one of the major reasons why you lose weight: the conversion of sugars and fats into energy.

The other reason is that your body requires a certain amount of glucose to be stored in your liver, kidneys, and muscles for optimal performance. If you don’t have enough glucose through food, your body will synthesize glucose from fats and proteins for storage as well.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.