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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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The Great Calorie Debate

February 21, 2011 32 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

plate I was assured that I really love my field when my heart starting racing when I heard about the book, What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets. Please don’t be fooled by the use of the word “diet”; this book is not a diet book. Instead, it offers an intimate and fascinating look the way in which people across the globe consume food. With beautiful photography and compelling stories, it takes readers into the minds and lives – and stomachs – of people from every region and walk of life.

I hesitated, however, to share this book with others because the authors chose to organize the eighty stories by the amount of calories consumed, from least to most. As you can read in the preface, the decision was a thoughtful one and offers an interesting glimpse into social and economic differences and so much more.

But still, I thought, the calories are printed boldly at the beginning of each and every story… Isn’t that bad? Doesn’t that make me feel icky?

I started reflecting on my own reactions to the idea of the “calorie.” And then, like anyone who paid the equivalent of a suburban home for an empirically-based education, I did some research.

If we are able, for a moment, to strip away the layers of shame, fear, and paranoia that surround the idea of the calorie, we learn that calories are not even in food. Rather, the calorie (or, more accurately, kcal or Calorie) is simply a unit of measurement that indicates how much heat it takes to raise one kilogram of water one degree Celsius (okay, no morality apparent thus far…).

When we’re talking about food, the amount of calories indicates the potential energy that item can offer – how much energy would be produced if we decided to burn our food (we’re talking ashes, not just blackened toast here).

Somewhere along the line – the early 20th century to be exact – the calorie became a means of analyzing, comparing, and judging food. You may be surprised to learn, however, that the roots of calorie tracking were for a very different purpose that many use it today. The idea was that by knowing how many calorie-dense a food was, the poor would be able to better decisions about how to spend their limited resources. For example, someone with only a few dollars to spend feeding their family would want to purchase more calorie-rich potatoes rather than leafy vegetables.

But then in 1919 Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published the first bestselling diet book, Diet and Health, with a Key to the Calories. The book introduced the idea of counting calories to reduce weight and even more significantly, promoted the idea of weight control as a sign of moral superiority. Thus, eating more calories signaled poor self-discipline and moral weakness.

And then Slim-Fast, Jenny Craig, and Robert Atkins took the helm…

And now we live in a world in which the calorie is not a measurement of heat or energy, but of willpower and integrity. We are told implicitly and explicitly that calories equal poison and we should limit them at every opportunity. A quick stroll through the grocery store turns up low-cal versions of nearly everything, from mashed potatoes to oatmeal to dressing to cookies. What happened to eating food in it’s natural form, including all of the energy it was intended to offer? (and all of the taste it was intended to have?)

So is tracking your calories a bad thing?

That’s a tricky question. Emily at the Daily Garnish would suggest that counting calories was helpful for her in understanding why she was making the food choices she was. My own response would be that tracking calories isn’t inherently bad, because at its core it’s a benign assessment of the amount of energy in a food. And if an individual is capable of looking at it in that way, it can be a useful tool. Many local governments seem to think it’s a great idea to post calories at restaurants to help people make healthier choices.

However, I can likely count on one hand the number of people that I have met for whom calorie counting is completely benign.

The problem is that the calorie has become laced with all kinds of moralistic and intrapersonal associations that it has no longer become purely a tool for living healthy. It has become a measure of self-worth in our society, and for people with eating disorders, often a dangerous trigger and slippery slope into destructive behaviors.

The bottom line is that whether you believe in counting calories or not, there is a way to live a healthy, happy life without doing so – and I believe it’s a whole lot more fun in the end.

Do you count calories? What has your experience been?

NTS-Medium

{Image Credit :: Wilson Fotografie}
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31 Comments

  1. Michele @ Healthy Cultivations
    3 years ago

    I’m in the middle of losing weight (a significant amount of it), and my weight loss has slowed down since I stopped counting calories. One might think this is a negative things, but it’s not. Now, I’m more focused on eating healthy foods in reasonable portions every time I eat. I struggle with it, but it’s better than when I was counting calories. I counted calories and lost 120 pounds very quickly… because I was obsessed with the numbers. Every day, I’d try to eat even 10 fewer calories than the day before. When 1600 started working, 1500 was better. Soon, 1200 was better, but then 1100 seemed ideal. But then 999 was a better number because it was three digits instead of four. I also was weak and dizzy sometimes and had trouble focusing and concentrating. Now, I’m losing slower, but I’m healthier and happier. That’s what this is all about anyway. I like to say it’s not about losing weight; instead, it’s about gaining health and inner peace.
    Michele @ Healthy Cultivations recently posted..Project 52- 8… A Dream Comes True

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  2. Joy Tanksley
    3 years ago

    I love looking at the way my husband eats – he has never struggled with his weight, has no body image issues, and zero shame or weirdness about food. He just eats. He never lost the natural ability to eat intuitively that we are all born with as a child. While he doesn’t count calories – wouldn’t dream of it – he does sometimes check the calories on a food item because he has a general sense of how much his body needs to be satisfied. If he’s packing a lunch for himself in the morning, for example, he may scan the label on the can of soup he’s packing and decide to throw in an extra handful of crackers or a granola bar. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that he’s never checking the labels to make sure he doesn’t pack too much – it’s always to make sure he has ENOUGH. He knows that if he packs too much, his body will solve the problem by telling him he’s satisfied and he can just toss the extra food. I think this is a really key distinction about how knowledge of calories can fit into a diet-free mentality.

    Reply

    • maria
      3 years ago

      Joy, I’m the same way about calories as your husband. I pack my own breakfast for work, and I always check to make sure my yogurt/oatmeal/whatever has enough calories. I know my brain will just NOT make it till 12 pm lunch time if I all I had to eat was a 70 calorie no-fat yogurt! I need fuel for my body to function.

      Reply

  3. Eileen
    3 years ago

    I look at calories (and food) as fuel–I need to fuel my body with enough calories to do everything I want to do! I guess it’s kind of like firewood–you need to take as much as you’re going to use, but you don’t need to lug around too much extra!

    Reply

  4. Jayna @ Healthy Living Bites
    3 years ago

    Another great post! This is actually a topic on my radar to talk about because it has become an issue for me lately. . .

    When I started my blog, and thus started reading the extreme amount of healthy living blogs out there one of the core foundations of my weight loss was shaken- COUNTING CALORIES IS SEEN AS “BAD”. I began to feel like maybe my own picture of the new, healthier me wasn’t so healthy. I read countless blog posts talking about intuitive eating and how trying to eat low calorie foods is “bad”. Coupled with an inability to exercise because of my back I decided I’d give this intuitive eating a try. I knew I couldn’t lose weight when I couldn’t exercise and didn’t want to set myself up for failure so I started paying attention to my bodies signals to eat when I was hungry and focus on the nutrients my body was asking for.

    What happened is that I’ve gained weight, a significant amount. I have felt heavy and sluggish. I have felt more shame over food and the amount being eaten then I ever had before. Now I realize this goes against EVERYTHING that intuitive eating stands for and promises. I realize that I was engaging in emotional eating and not completely listening to my bodies signals. I am not saying that NOT counting calories doesn’t work, I know it has for many people (though in my head how you can lose weight while doing this boggles me. . . that is a topic for a post on my blog though LOL).

    For me counting calories is safer. I know I am reaching my goals. I can enjoy my food more because I know how much I’m eating and how much is in it. I know I can eat it and enjoy it and STILL reach my weight loss goals. I understand how counting calories is a major trigger for someone with a history of disordered eating, BUT I tend to think that the majority of our population in the US could benefit from learning to count calories. I base that on the prevalence of morbid obesity vs the prevalence of disordered eating- both are diseases with a high mortality rate and both are very serious. Morbid obesity is more prevalent though (6% of the population is morbidly obese, 34% obese vs around 3% disordered eating). Side note- I realize the statistics may be skewed because of those with eating disorders that don’t seek treatment.

    I hope this makes sense.

    Hi Ashley! I’ve missed commenting :)
    Jayna @ Healthy Living Bites recently posted..Mommy Guilt

    Reply

    • Joy Tanksley
      3 years ago

      Hey Jayna! I can’t resist pointing out that you’re obesity statastics actually make a very good case for NOT counting calories. I worked in the weight loss industry for several years and never once met an overweight or obese person who didn’t know how to count calories. Really, you’d have to live under a rock to not be aware of this dieting tool. I think there’s a major misunderstanding that overweight folks are just ignorant about calories and nutrition and only need more education to slim down.

      I have come to believe that it’s the rigid use of control and shame tactics with our eating that have moved us away from our body’s natural ability to regulate our food intake. In my job, I saw literally hundreds of folks lose weight the “right” way, by eating less, tracking their food intake, and adding exercise, only to regain the weight and often end up with disordered eating behaviors and worse body image problems than when they started. Obviously, something is wrong here, and telling overweight/obese folks they need to learn to count calories when they already know how isn’t helpful. Of course, I hold no judgement for what’s working for you personally and making you feel great, but I just wanted to speak up on your point that, ” the majority of our population in the US could benefit from learning to count calories.”

      Reply

      • Jayna @ Healthy Living Bites
        3 years ago

        Thank you for your insight Joy! I am referring more so not to not knowing how to count calories and such, but just not paying attention to it. Before I started my journey I couldn’t have told you how many calories were in a tablespoon of olive oil, what a tablespoon of oil looked like, OR even that a tablespoon of oil is an appropriate portion when cooking say a pound of chicken in the skillet. I see my friends try to estimate how many calories are in a chocolate chip cookies and GROSSLY underestimate it. I don’t really care beyond their physical health if they are overweight or not- they are my friends and I love them. However, they are trying to lose weight and getting things like a soft pretzel when we are out, not realizing that they’d do better calorie wise (and nutrition wise) to just eat a slice of pizza. In my opinion most people ARE ignorant of calories- ignorant of good vs pointless calories, ignorant of how many calories are in the foods they eat, ignorant of how many calories they need to feel satisfied (or how many less they need compared to how many and what type they are currently eating). I just can’t believe THAT many people would still choose the quadruple cheeseburger at Burger King if they had it staring them in the face that it is around 1500 calories (I’m not talking about the fact that Burger King has virtually 0 nutritional value).

        I agree that we have moved away from our body’s natural ability to regulate our food intake, but I also believe that it is human nature to do so. We seek pleasure and eating is pleasure. It makes sense that without some sort of awareness (counting calories or listening to our bodies) we will over indulge in a readily available form of pleasure. Most people today won’t even connect the dots that they feel tired and sluggish because they ate too much food that are just empty calories.

        As always, love to be able to “disagree” with you and hear your views as well. . . I don’t know about you but these sorts of discussions help me to grow and think about my own views and behaviors.
        Jayna @ Healthy Living Bites recently posted..Mommy Guilt

        Reply

        • Kat
          3 years ago

          I fully believe though that you can have pleasure without calorie counting.. and be alright as an individual.

          If you have things in moderation (including those things eaten for enjoyment) you won’t crave them. Craving is mainly a result of deprivation… That’s one of the reasons why I love Ashley’s post regarding eating chocolate everyday… because you CAN do that. It’s all about a healthy balance…

          For instances where you partake in more of those things than usual (a night out with someone, a wedding, etc) – our bodies are more resilient than to be affected by one night or one day of not eating intuitively…
          Kat recently posted..no one gets a Nobel Prize for being a 00

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          • Joy Tanksley
            3 years ago

            I love being able to agree to disagree, too, Jayna!

            I’m with Kat on the pleasure thing. I’ve actually found that the MORE I seek true pleasure in food, the less I need and want the items I once viewed as “bad.” When I was counting Points, there was never enough chocolate (or cheeseburgers) in the world to satisfy me. I couldn’t have any sorts of sweets around my house without eating them in excess. Now, I have ice cream in my freezer and chocolate in my pantry, and I sometimes forget it’s there! I’ve learned I don’t even care that much for ice cream unless it’s homemade or really high quality. Food has lost it’s power over me – I rarely have cravings and obsessing/bingeing are distant memories.

            Yes, awareness is important but awareness is not the same thing as obsession or rigid focus. Awareness is gentle, curious, and compassionate.

            Reply

            • Jayna @ Healthy Living Bites
              3 years ago

              I had a different experience on the pleasure thing. For the last six months I forced myself to let go of calories and viewing foods as “bad” or “forbidden” (though with counting calories nothing is actually off limits- it is just limited based on the goals of the day). I found myself saying yes to the extra piece of cake at the birthday party or the extra slice of pizza at Friday night dinners with the in laws. With doing that I found I craved those sweets and grease even MORE. Counting calories does not feel restrictive at all, but holds me accountable for making good food choices. . . and after a week my cravings for sweets and grease have subsided substantially. I still have my hershey’s kiss before bed, but now it is one instead of six, and I am very happy with that one.

              I may be the outlier in all of this, but then again I may not. I guess my point is just that counting calories isn’t bad, just like anything it’s all in the thinking that goes behind it. I do think education for the general population is in order though- eating healthier (whether you define that as counting calories or eating intuitively) is not as hard as everyone makes it out to be, but it is a drastic departure from the typical american lifestyle.
              Jayna @ Healthy Living Bites recently posted..An Update on my Rear End

  5. Kat
    3 years ago

    It’s weird for me, because I never once had the typical eating disorder relationship with “calories” and “bad foods” — for me it was (and sometimes still is…) about worth. Feeling deserving of it I never truly perceived that distorted image in the mirror and never counted calories. I wouldn’t eat when I felt like I wasn’t worth it… It became a large problem when feelings of unworthiness took over.

    I always thought it funny as a child and even teenager when my mother would count calories as she seemed to not care about the quality of the food itself and would try to cram in only her favorite food items, leaving herself constantly without energy and rather sad (which is rather interesting as a calorie IS a unit of energy).

    When I went to see a dietitian she cemented for me how silly that was. She didn’t operate on calories, but on portion size and more of what I like to call the “whole person” concept.. meaning you need to eat well-rounded to be able to be a well-rounded person. As much as I love pumpkin (understatement of the year), you cannot possibly subsist on it alone and live a life up to your potential as you’re depriving yourself of other nutrients that nourish and help thrive.

    Counting calories takes enjoyment out of the activity by creating a sense of restriction. Your body isn’t “health by numbers” – it doesn’t operate on them and tell you you’re full because you’ve reached a certain number of calories, rather instead it tells you it’s in need of energy by allowing you (later on for those with an e.d. past) feel hunger.
    Kat recently posted..no one gets a Nobel Prize for being a 00

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  6. Christie {Nourishing Circle}
    3 years ago

    Wow, great discussion going on here, Ashley. I don’t count calories – it simply does not work for me mentally or emotionally. Putting any sort of number association with food and I sends me to places I don’t want to be. As we have discussed privately before, I am starting to understand, though, that counting calories or points does work for a small (I would say VERY small) percentage of people. And more than anything else, I believe that we each have to do what works for us.

    I do believe, though, that for most people, counting calories (or anything for that matter) is a very triggering experience. It leads to a cycle of binging and then restricting that violently spins us around into so much shame and guilt. We lose that innate trust in our bodies and blame ourselves when we end up binging when really, it is in our complete nature to feast after a fast. That deprivation triggers tells our bodies that we are under stress and must stock up for the famine is about to ensue.

    And when it comes to eating intuitively, it takes time to unwind all of the mental damage from the feelings of deprivation that so many experience. It can be an overwhelming process, that sometimes even leads to weight gain, and I think the thought of that turns a lot of people off. But, I know, from first hand experience – that if you are listening to your body – truly listening and honoring it’s needs – that you will lose any excess weight that your body may be holding onto. With that, though, I would also mention that during this process, we also have to address and resolve the emotional reasons why we eat and also let go of any preconceived ideas about what our ideal weight is. We often think, especially after coming out of the diet mentality, that we need to be much smaller than most of us actually do.
    Christie {Nourishing Circle} recently posted..Pleasure In Pictures

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  7. Alex @ Healing Beauty
    3 years ago

    For me, counting calories was a huge part of my eating disorder, and it is something that I cannot do if I want to stay in recovery. Instead, I work by exchanges, and I have a certain amount of starch, fat, fruit, veg, protein, etc exchanges a day. This way I focus on eating healthy foods and I don’t worry about my calorie intake because I know if I meet my exchanges, I’m in a healthy range.

    Thank you for this post. It was eloquently written, as are all of your posts and it was very thought provoking and reassuring; reassuring in the sense that one can live a life free of calorie counting and still be healthy.
    Alex @ Healing Beauty recently posted..About Self-Love

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  8. Lori Lieberman
    3 years ago

    Great post, and great responses!
    I don’t know if I could adequately respond in this comment section, so this may inspire my own post on the subject! I have written much about this topic, this is just one example: http://dropitandeat.blogspot.com/search?q=toddlers,
    and in fact my thinking has evolved. The issue, like all, isn’t so black and white.
    Ok, gonna go write the post!
    Lori Lieberman recently posted..Maggie’s 152 lb Weight Loss—This Time- It’s Not Disordered

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  9. Dana Udall-Weiner
    3 years ago

    So interesting to know more about the calorie’s economic role in history. Like you,I can fathom that calories are a benign measurement, but have seen them play a staring role in self destruction, too.
    Dana Udall-Weiner recently posted..Can You Ever Be Ready for Motherhood

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  10. charlotte
    3 years ago

    One of the happiest days of my life was the day I gave up calorie counting for good! Sometimes I still do it in my head – it’s a reflex – but for the most part, I base my food decisions on what my body needs and what will give me pleasure to eat. It’s made a world of difference in happiness. The word “calorie” has been co-opted just like the word “diet” to mean something negative but I’m unable to think of it in benign terms and so I try not to think of it at all:)
    charlotte recently posted..PANIC! What a panic attack feels like from the inside

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  11. Nancy
    3 years ago

    An incredible post and the responders are so great. Thank you all. I’m so glad for the reminder that when I look at a potato, which is heavily abused by the nutrition and fitness world, I need be so grateful that this food at least exists on my plate, in my house, and is available for me to buy, especially given how valuable and wholesome it would be for somebody whose hungry and poor.

    As for calorie counting, I’ve recently shed quite a lot of weight through portion control, exercise, and switching to whole foods. I counted calories because I had no idea how much a serving of food was and I personally had difficulty with mindful awareness when it came to how many snacks I ate, even if they weren’t “junk foods,” per say. Calorie counting helped me set limits and learn to feel full with appropriate amounts of food at certain times. Once I felt I intuitively internalized those concepts, I stopped counting and my body is in great shape and I’m happy all around:)

    Reply

  12. Carrie @ Confessions of a Dietitian
    3 years ago

    I’m just blog hopping today and ended up here!

    This is an interesting topic. I think there is a divide between people with eating disorders and those who don’t. For those with EDs, I agree that counting is rarely benign. It is a method of control and attention and obsession that is usually unhealthy. For the general population, I think calorie counting/food journaling can be a very useful tool. I think after you count for maybe a week or two, you get an idea of what you are eating and how many calories are in food. I find a lot of people really underestimate their caloric intake, especially with restaurant food. So a week of counting can be very illuminating. I know when I feel my weight creeping up, I will start counting/journaling to get a better idea of how many calories I’m *really* eating. I’m always snacking, so it is a good for me to occasionally quantify it and just be more aware of what I’m putting in my body. So on that hand, I do feel calorie counting is a useful tool for people wanting to lose or maintain their weight.

    But, I do think that it can put an unhealthy focus on calories rather than nutrients. I could happily live on candy and stay under my caloric needs, but that isn’t really a good life choice! And I can see how for people who are prone to kind of worrying/controlling their intake and maybe on the edge of disordered eating that it could push him or her further towards those unhealthy behaviors.

    Interesting topic! I think, like almost all nutrition plans, it depends on the individual person. Isn’t that helpful? ; )

    Reply

  13. Maria Marz
    3 years ago

    I actually heard about the book on NPR. I thought it was a very interesting book, and I am looking forward to reading it.

    I do count calories, more than anything as a measure to make smarter choices when picking food out. I am trying to lose weight – weight I gained with my pregnancy, and now seems impossible to melt off.

    I try to eat small meals throughout the day, and exercise three times a week. And I am thankful for every bite I eat.
    Maria Marz recently posted..Food Budget- Calorie Counting

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  14. Gina
    3 years ago

    Aloha! Great to know where this all started :)
    The sad part is that while knowledge is power we have been duped into focusing on something outside ourselves vs our satiety for so long we have a nation of disconnected eaters.
    People know what the calorie counts of foods are but have no clue as to if they are hungry or perfectly satisfied!

    Reply

  15. Lori Lieberman
    3 years ago

    well said, Gina!
    Lori Lieberman recently posted..Maggie’s 152 lb Weight Loss—This Time- It’s Not Disordered

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  16. Lori Lieberman
    3 years ago

    Ashley-You inspired a full-post response! Thanks for the topic!
    Lori Lieberman recently posted..Calories Count But I Prefer Not To

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  17. Elizabeth Jarrard
    3 years ago

    I love this book! calories are amazing to me-especially the range that people eat!
    I do not count calories because based on my own personal habits/who i am-it really easily leads to obsession and down a slippery slope i do not want to touch! i try to be an intuitive eater and really listen to my body. thanks for another great post!

    Reply

  18. Nina
    3 years ago

    Great post Ashley I never knew the background to calories. I just knew that they were BAD. I was obsessed with them and I believe that calorie restriction and dieting really contributed to my eating disorder. I have been completely recovered from all eating disorders for 4 years now and I would probably relate it back to giving up the calorie counting and dieting mentality. A slippery slope for those with disordered eating signs.
    Nina recently posted..How to Utilize Your Subconscious for Eating Disorder Recovery

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  19. EA-The Spicy RD
    3 years ago

    Loved your post, and “What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets” is definitely on my reading list. I definitely do not count calories, but rather gage my health by how I feel, both physically and mentally, and by how my clothes fit. I do think, as Carrie suggested, that TEMPORARILY counting calorie/keeping a food journal can be a good tool for someone who is struggling with their weight {IF they do not have an eating disorder} to help figure out if taking in too many calories, since the tendency is to underestimate how much we eat. I did go through a period, in my teens and in college, when I was very aware of how many calories I was taking in. Conversely, my eating habits weren’t that great then-lots of “fat-free” foods and candy…These days, I really am an”intuitive Eater” and correspondingly, my diet is a lot healthier.

    Reply

  20. Bernice Fox
    3 years ago

    Awareness is gentle, curious, and compassionate. I like to say it’s not about losing weight; instead, it’s about gaining health and inner peace. Thank you for this post.
    Bernice Fox recently posted..Many Cures

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  21. Katie Dunlap
    3 years ago

    Obviously, something is wrong here, and telling overweight/obese folks they need to learn to count calories when they already know how isn’t helpful. With that, though, I would also mention that during this process, we also have to address and resolve the emotional reasons why we eat and also let go of any preconceived ideas about what our ideal weight is. I counted calories and lost 120 pounds very quickly… because I was obsessed with the numbers. That deprivation triggers tells our bodies that we are under stress and must stock up for the famine is about to ensue.
    Katie Dunlap recently posted..Swiffer Mops

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