The Great Calorie Debate
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?