Is the calorie dead?

It’s safe to say calories have hijacked our thinking about diets, nutrition and food. It took maybe half a century for that to happen. Now we operate on the belief that:

  1. Calories = nutrition
  2. The fewer calories in a food the healthier the food
  3. You have to count calories everyday
  4. If you cut back a certain number of calories you will lose a predictable amount of weight in a set time period

These entrenched beliefs now run our food supply, based on the ASSumption that everyone spends the day adding up the calories they eat.

  • Food packages all have sciency-looking Nutrition Facts panels that proclaim “calories per serving” right at the top. Which creates the incentive to monkey around with normal food to make the “calories per serving” number lower. Result: insultingly awful stuff like low fat/low sugar ice cream or “reduced fat” cheese and artificially sweetened soft drinks.
  • Restaurants are now obliged to post calorie counts for menu items. This is supposed to make people lose weight. Again the ASSumption being that restaurant patrons will (1) notice the numbers and (2) avoid menu items with big numbers and (3) not make up the difference later at home by eating a half gallon of ice cream.

The obsessive focus on calories started back in the early 20th Century. According to the entertaining essay “Death of the Calorie“, calorie counting took over the weight loss industry in the mid-20th Century and the rest is history. Calorie counting took on a life of its own.

Our trust in calorie counting comes from our tendency to trust anything that looks like science. Numbers create a sciency sheen, and calories are all about numbers. Therefore it must be true that if you simply cut out 3500 calories (the amount of caloric energy in one pound of fat) from your precisely known calorie requirement (sarcasm alert) over the course of a week, you’ll lose exactly one pound of fat. I doubt that that has ever happened to any dieter in the entire history of the human race.

Admittedly, my profession has been on the front lines of promoting calorie obsession from the get go. If you study nutrition, the energy value of food is a huge focus. Nutrition professionals can start to think everyone is as preoccupied with calories as they are, which results in nonsense like restaurant menu cluttered up with calorie numbers.

The essay points out some of the accuracy issues I’ve discussed in the past.

  • Calories listed on a food package are not accurate. They can be off by up to 20%. And that’s only if someone checks the accuracy by analyzing the food. The number on the label could be off by more, but if no one bothers to check, the company is unlikely to recognize the problem and fix it.
  • As for your own daily energy (calorie) requirement, you can calculate it with one of several popular predictive equations, but none of the results will be 100% accurate.
  • Plus your energy needs can vary day to day depending on what you eat, the weather, your activity level and so forth.
  • Speaking of activity level, there is a widespread tendency to overestimate the amount of energy burned by physical activity, such as a daily 30 minute walk.
  • And depending on what you eat and the mix of gut microbes, you may not even absorb all the calories you consume.
  • Simple calorie counts do not account for the different calorie sources: carbs, protein and fat (and alcohol). All are handled differently by your metabolism.

This list could go on. Hopefully you get the point: calorie counting is doomed to inaccuracy. It’s become an insidious menace and hasn’t helped reduce obesity. How can we get rid of it?

Some health professionals, including many of my RDN colleagues, are promoting what’s called “mindful eating”. It’s a concept that encourages you to eat healthful food in normal-sized portions, and listen to your hunger cues, rather than number cues. You don’t pick foods based on 100 calories of this and 50 calories of that and 150 calories of that and so forth.

Calorie counting ends up teaching people to ignore hunger and instead eat by numbers. You get the false sense that if you just stick to the correct number, you’ll be fine. But that’s not how metabolism works. It’s not how digestion works. It’s the antithesis of how hunger works. It’s ridiculous and unnatural.

Calorie counting needs to die. Here are my top 3 reasons:

  1. It’s been a failure as a weight loss strategy.
  2. It’s distorting how we think about food and eating. People think “health” is based on low calories.
  3. It gives food manufacturers license to keep producing junky low calorie foods that are marketed strictly based on calorie count, not on any other health attribute.

Just Say No to Calorie Counting

If weight loss is your goal, focus on a healthy eating and whole foods. You can do that without playing the numbers game:

  1. Avoid junky processed foods loaded with added sugar or fat. In fact, avoid all added sugar foods except in very small portions on special occasions.
  2. Fill up on vegetables and whole grains
  3. Have protein foods at all meals, but don’t make protein foods the focus of meals.
  4. If possible, eat more earlier in the day and have smaller evening meals
  5. Allow your digestive system to process your last meal before you eat again. You should feel slight hunger pangs ahead of your next meal.
  6. Don’t snack all day. That includes coffee or tea drinks that are loaded with sweeteners and whipped cream.
  7. Get a handle on eating that’s become habitual: eating in front of the TV or computer in the evening; a vending machine snack every afternoon; supersizing portions.
  8. Include daily physical activity, but don’t expect that activity to dramatically increase energy needs. Don’t reward yourself with food for walking 30 minutes.
  9. Low fat? Don’t get me started. You need fats, preferably healthy fats from olive oil, avocado oil/avocados, nuts, other vegetable oils, and smaller amounts from meat or dairy foods (if you eat those). Fat makes food taste good and makes it satisfying.
  10. Don’t overstimulate your taste buds with artificially sweetened junk food. Artificial sweeteners teach your taste buds and brain to expect big hits of sweetness. You lose the ability to taste and appreciate normal, natural sweetness, such as from an orange or apple or sweet pepper.

Despite our best efforts, calories are not going to disappear from food packages or diet plans anytime soon, if ever. The best we can do as individuals is to ignore the calorie noise, and transition to simple healthful, mindful eating.

The Death of the Calorie essay is a good read, although it’s even longer than this blog post. It weaves a personal story with historical and scientific facts about how we got to the current state of calorie obsession.

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