I’m done with calories

You read that right.  I’m completely done with calories as a nutritional obsession.  I realize a person in my profession is expected to focus most of my attention on calories, advising everyone to worry about them and add them up everyday.  But not any more.  It’s over.

This isn’t an overnight decision.  I’ve been annoyed by our cultural fixation on calories for a very long time, but recently a straw broke the proverbial camel’s back:  Gatorade Zero.  I’ve heard the radio ad several times in the last couple of weeks, touting Gatorade Zero has “all the electrolytes, zero sugar“.  To which I respond: “well then, what’s the point?”  Gatorade and other sports drinks were developed for use by athletes who were exercising heavily and sweating.  The electrolytes are meant to replace those lost in sweat.  The sugar (a pretty minimal amount by the way) was meant to boost the athlete’s energy supply so she or he could continue exercising or competing.  It all made sense.  Now we have a product that makes zero sense.  But unfortunately it probably sounds like a really good idea to the poorly informed average person who thinks healthy eating means zero calories.  Why not have a sports drink that provides no energy?  We really should re-name it Gatorade Zero Sense.

Meanwhile more calorie stupidity obsession is here courtesy of the FDA, which has finalized the rules (it only took them 8 years) requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.  This is supposed to solve the obesity epidemic.  Restaurants, convenience stores, movie theaters, vending machine operators and grocery stores all have to post calorie information.  Now you’ll know that your Big Gulp has 500 calories (or whatever it has) or your large fries have 300 calories or the pint of broccoli salad from the grocery deli has 250 calories.  Pizza chains apparently are obliged to post literally thousands of possible calorie counts for all the thousands of possible variations on pizza orders.  The sausage pizza with green pepper is different from the sausage pizza with mushrooms which is different from the sausage pizza with extra sausage……….. This numbers game is supposed to make you lose weight.  If only.  Many restaurant chains have been posting this information on websites and menus boards for several years already.  McDonald’s is one example.  Obesity hasn’t gone away.

Wait, isn’t calorie obsession the path to weight loss?  Well, if that were true, we’d all be thin.  So apparently it’s not true.  I’m not discounting the fact that some people count calories and try to stick to some level everyday to control weight, based on the idea that one pound of fat has 3500 calories.  We know this because if you put one pound of fat into a bomb calorimeter (a food burning contraption that measures heat), the combustion releases 3500 calories of energy.  Theoretically, if you cut 3500 calories out of your diet in a week, a pound of fat should disappear, as it’s mobilized to make up for your deficient energy intake.  But if you’ve ever dieted you know it doesn’t work this way.  You might cut back on food and lose 5 pounds in a week.  Yay!  But most of that initial loss is water.  You keep counting calories, using food labels or websites or those numbers cluttering up menus.  Yet your weight loss is inconsistent.  Why?  Let me count the ways:

  1. Here’s one dirty little secret few people know about.  The numbers on food packages and restaurant menus have built-in inaccuracies.  Since it’s hard to get 100% exact numbers on the amount of calories in a serving of any food, variation is permitted.  20% variation in fact.  Your french fries may say “300 calories”, but in fact have 360.  If you’re religiously adding up your calories using numbers like that, you could easily be eating more calories than you thought.  Another dirty little secret: no one is checking on the accuracy of those numbers.   The FDA doesn’t require food companies to prove the calorie counts are accurate.  They only have to show that they made a good faith effort to provide reasonably accurate information.  In many cases, that means using a database and adding up all the ingredients in some recipe.  But if all the numbers for the various ingredients are inaccurate, the total for the whole recipe will be even more inaccurate.  Sometimes consumer groups sue a company, claiming a calorie count is inaccurate, but given all the thousands of potential targets for lawsuits, this approach isn’t very meaningful or helpful.
  2. Portion sizes are all over the map.  A package may say a serving has 100 calories, but the package contains 3 servings.  Meaning the package has 300 calories.  Did you read that part of the label?  Or did you assume one package = one serving?  When you’re talking about something like crackers or chips, the serving size is usually described as the number of crackers or chips.  Do you count them as you eat and stop at one serving?  Do you measure the salad dressing you pour on your salad or the cereal you pour into your (large) bowl?  In some ways, chain restaurants may now be your best friend when it comes to calorie counts.  Most of them have rigidly controlled portion sizes, so your hamburger might really have the 350 calories the menu says.
  3. Calories in home-made food are almost impossible to track with any accuracy.  Unless you are eating completely plain foods like 5 oz of ground beef or 1/2 cup of black beans or 1 cup of orange juice, your counts are going to be inaccurate.  What about your favorite lasagne recipe?  Did you analyze it?  What portion did you take?  How about the gravy you made for a roast chicken, or your latest variation on chili, or pancakes or …. anything made from a recipe?
  4. Exercise machines and activity trackers add to the confusion.  They tell you you’ve burned so many calories doing some activity, but again, based on what information about you and your effort level?  All those calorie numbers are best-guesses.  You might have burned more or less.  But if you base your diet on those numbers, you might be disappointed that you aren’t losing weight as quickly as you expected.  Even worse, some people use those numbers as an excuse to eat back exercise calories as a reward for exercising.

The Big Picture

We’re bombarded with calorie information.  You’re supposed to choose or reject a food based on calories.  You’re supposed to obsess about calories and spend your day adding them up and worrying about whether some cookie or piece of bread or apple had more or less.  You assume, because this is a numbers game, that the numbers are accurate and that things should add up.  The end result is that people lose the ability to eat according to Mother Nature’s plan — hunger.  Years ago, a person might eat a modest breakfast, go about his or her business, experience hunger 4 or so hours later and eat a modest lunch, and so forth.  This was back in the dark ages when there wasn’t an obesity epidemic and dieting was uncommon.  Conclusion: our cultural calorie fixation isn’t helping and may actually be counter productive.  Then end result is nonsense products like Gatorade Zero and calorie-free “energy” shots.

So I won’t be advising people to count calories, even for weight loss.  Weight loss requires you cut back on your food intake.  You can easily just cut back roughly 1/4 on your portion sizes and achieve that goal without dealing with numbers that aren’t even meaningful.  Or cut out sweets or junky snack foods, if those are a big part of your life.  It’s a much easier plan and you end up eating more nutritious food, not just fewer calories.

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