What is the difference between calories and nutrients?

Quick Answer

Calories are a measure of the energy content in food, while nutrients refer to the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats that foods contain. Calories provide the energy needed for basic bodily functions and physical activity. Nutrients provide nourishment that helps support growth, maintenance and repair of the body.

In Detail

Calories and nutrients are both important parts of a healthy diet, but they serve different purposes. Understanding the difference between the two is key to making informed food choices.

What are Calories?

Calories are a measure of the energy stored in foods and beverages. They are typically used to measure the amount of energy that foods and drinks will provide to the body.

When we eat or drink, the calories are absorbed into our bloodstream and converted to energy that our bodies can use. The key functions calories provide energy for include:

  • Basic bodily functions like breathing, circulating blood, controlling body temperature, moving muscles, etc.
  • Physical activity from exercise, sports, working, playing, etc.
  • Daily activities like cooking, cleaning, walking, typing, thinking, etc.
  • Metabolic processes like growth, cell repair, hormone production, etc.

The number of calories a food contains tells us how much potential energy it provides. A calorie is actually a unit of measure for the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

When we talk about calories in regard to food, we are actually referring to kilocalories or “Calories” with a capital C. One food Calorie = 1,000 calories.

The calories required each day varies by individual based on factors like age, sex, size, activity level, etc. The average recommended intake is around 2,000 Calories per day for women and 2,500 for men.

Where Do Calories in Food Come From?

The calories in food and beverages come from three main nutrient sources:

  • Carbohydrates: 4 Calories per gram
  • Protein: 4 Calories per gram
  • Fat: 9 Calories per gram

Carbs, protein and fat are macronutrients that provide calories or “energy” in the diet. Alcohol also provides calories, at 7 Calories per gram.

When you look at a food label, it will list the calories along with the grams of carbs, protein and fat in a serving. You can check the “Calories from fat” to see how many calories specifically come from the fat content.

The amount of each macronutrient and the total calories will vary in different foods. For example:

Food Calories Carbs (g) Protein (g) Fat (g)
Apple 95 25 0.5 0.3
Chicken Breast 230 0 43 3.5
Avocado 227 9 2 21

As you can see, the number of calories varies based on the specific amounts of carbs, protein and fat in different foods.

What are Nutrients?

While calories provide energy, nutrients provide nourishment that helps sustain essential body functions. Nutrients include:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Carbohydrates
  • Water

There are 16 essential nutrients that are vital for health:

Vitamins Minerals
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxal phosphate)
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin)
  • Vitamin B9 (folic acid)
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Calcium
  • Chloride
  • Chromium
  • Copper
  • Iodine
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Sodium
  • Zinc

Each vitamin and mineral plays important roles in bodily functions like:

  • Bone health
  • Muscle function
  • Nerve signaling
  • Hormone production
  • Immune support
  • Heart health
  • Energy production
  • Building and repairing tissue
  • Absorbing other nutrients
  • Blood cell formation
  • Electrolyte balance

Protein, fat, carbs and water also provide essential nourishment:

  • Protein: Needed to build and repair tissues as well as make hormones, enzymes and cellular messengers.
  • Fat: Provides energy, helps absorb vitamins, and supports cell membranes and hormone production.
  • Carbohydrates: The main source of energy for the body.
  • Water: Needed for nutrient transportation, chemical reactions, temperature regulation and waste removal.

While calories fuel our bodies, nutrients allow our bodies to function properly and stay healthy. Eating a balanced variety of nourishing foods can help ensure you get the full range of essential vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, carbs and water.

The Relationship Between Calories and Nutrients

So what is the relationship between calories and nutrients? In short:

  • Calories provide energy for vital body functions and activity
  • Nutrients provide nourishment for growth, maintenance and repair

Calories and nutrients work closely together to keep us healthy. We need calories to allow our bodies to use the nutrients we consume. And we need nutrients to enable our bodies to properly utilize the energy from calories.

Most nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, dairy, etc. also contain calories. So when we eat these healthy options, we get both the key nutrients our bodies require as well as calories to fuel our activity.

However, it is possible to get sufficient calories without enough nutrients or vice versa. For example:

  • A diet high in processed junk foods may provide ample calories but lack nutrients.
  • Strict dieting may provide nutrients through supplements but inadequate calories.

That’s why it’s important to focus on getting enough of both quality nutrients and calories from wholesome food sources. This provides the balance our bodies need to maintain energy levels and overall health.

Key Differences Between Calories and Nutrients

To recap, here are some of the key differences between calories and nutrients:

Calories Nutrients
  • Unit of energy
  • Measured in Calories (kilocalories)
  • Provide fuel for body functions and activity
  • Come from carbs, protein, fat and alcohol
  • Total calories listed on nutrition labels
  • Vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, carbs, water
  • Measured in grams, milligrams, micrograms
  • Provide nourishment for growth and health
  • Each has unique roles and benefits
  • Listed individually on nutrition labels

Focusing on both calories and nutrient content is important when selecting balanced meals and snacks. Getting enough calories ensures you have enough energy to power through your day. And getting a variety of nutrients ensures your body can function at its best.


In summary, calories provide the energy that fuels us while nutrients provide the essential components that nourish us. Calories allow our bodies to carry out vital functions and be physically active. Nutrients enable our bodies to perform optimally, develop properly and remain healthy.

While they have distinct roles, calories and nutrients work closely together. We need calories to utilize the nutrients we eat, and we need nutrients to properly metabolize the calories we consume. Eating a balanced diet focused on nutrient-dense whole foods will help ensure you get the winning combination of quality nutrition plus energy.

Leave a Comment