Stop counting calories!

CaloriesLabelCalories are getting in the way of eating a healthy diet

We’re so obsessed with calorie counting that plenty of people now believe “low calorie” means healthy.  By that line of reasoning, diet soft drinks, fake fat salad dressings and low calorie Cool Whip are healthy.  You could create an entire diet of fake foods, engineered to be lower calorie than real foods, completely lacking in taste or satiety value.  But allegedly “healthy” because the calories are lower.

Not that this obsession has helped stem the tide of obesity or chronic health problems.  Now a group of doctors who specialize in heart disease has proposed that we all stop counting calories.  It’s a failed strategy.  Our obsession with calories hasn’t improved our health, and obviously hasn’t made people thinner.  These doctors propose a radically new strategy to improve health: forget calories.  Just focus on a foods with high nutritional value.  Ironic that just eating healthy whole foods is a radical idea.

I’ll take their proposal further.  It’s not just about health and weight.  Our calorie obsession has perverted our appreciation of food and our understanding of health.  Eating is now a dreary numbers game.  Eat so much of this and so much of that and it should all add up to some magic number that supposedly leads to weight loss, which supposedly leads to better health.  Physical activity also becomes a dreary chore — do this or that to burn so many calories, then spend the rest of the day sitting, since you’ve fulfilled your calorie-burning quota.

Calorie counting has also distorted peoples’ understanding of what calories are.  They are metabolic fuel.  We can’t live without calories anymore than a car can move without fuel.  Our brains run on calories; our hearts beat using calories; our digestion and lungs and muscle run on calories.  Yet we’re bombarded with the message that calories are bad and your main goal should be to avoid eating them.  We end up with nonsense products like calorie-free “energy” drinks, that provide zero energy.

When your understanding of food is reduced to calorie counts, you lose the whole point of eating.  Food becomes the enemy, something to fear and control, rather than something to enjoy.  Instead of eating according to actual hunger, people pick foods to eat according to numbers.

The FDA and other government bureaucracies have aided and abetted this behavior by mandating calorie counts on food packages and, soon, on restaurant menus.  Food companies have made good use of our calorie obsession for marketing purposes.  Reduced Calorie, Low Fat, Low Calorie and other labeling ploys lure consumers into buying products.  And where would fad diets be without calorie counting?  Out of business.

Calorie obsession has had another unintended consequence: people try to game the numbers so they can reward themselves with treats after eating low calorie foods.  You pick a virtuous diet lunch of tuna mixed with non-fat mayo, then reward yourself with a large ice cream cone later.  Or you “eat back” calories you supposedly burned by jogging for 30 minutes, in the form of cake or cookies.  And sadly, when you do eat actual real food, you feel guilty.

What’s the alternative?  The doctors want a shift away from quantity of food to quality of food.  The health benefits of a plant-based Mediterranean-style diet, with vegetables, nuts, olive oil and little meat or sugar are well documented.  When people switch to a quality Mediterranean-style diet, they quickly reduce risk and severity for heart disease events, and can also lose weight without counting calories.  Another benefit: it’s much easier to stick to this style of eating because the food is far more satisfying than a diet loaded with tasteless manufactured low calorie food items.

Real food is not your enemy.  Eat accordingly.

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