The Calorie Counting Conundrum

What is Diet Life? |

By Dana Henderson |

Calorie counting has become the backbone of diet culture. As consumers, we are constantly bombarded with “low cal” labels on food packaging, applications to tally total calories ingested, and exercise equipment using calories as units of exertion. Since it is a well-known fact that a calorie deficit can lead to weight loss, this dieting trend is not surprising. Yet while the mantra “calories in vs. calories out” continues to circulate, the true value of food is being lost. As calorie-counting takes precedent, nutrition is being downsized to a numbers game.

The first issue with calorie cutting is the frequent inaccuracy of calorie assessments. Although many popular apps assign cookie-cutter calorie limits based purely on height and weight, accurate readings are much more complex. When calorie expenditures are calculated in labs, oxygen intake is measured to determine how much energy body processes are taking up alone before activity levels are even factored in. Whether it is a computer-generated number or a fad diet plan, the recommended calories are typically vastly lower than what scientific analysis would predict. As a result, while calorie cutting was originally intended to remove only excess calories from a person’s diet, most dieters set unrealistically low goals.

Of course, a huge calorie deficit will initially allow those following these plans the ultimate goal of weight loss. Yet dieters neglect to consider what else is being lost when calories are cut. Yes, if a woman of average weight cut her calorie intake to 1,200 calories worth of Special K bars a day, she would lose weight. However, she would also probably lose the shine in her hair, the whiteness of her teeth, and many other body characteristics due to a vitamin deficiency. We constantly ignore the fact that calories, and thus food, are units of energy. The body in some way uses every calorie consumed, whether it be for fueling unconscious body processes or physical activity. These calories also supply us with the vitamins and minerals necessary to keep our bodies strong and healthy. When they are cut, it is quite possible we are weeding out more good than bad, damaging our bodies in the process.

Calorie counting can be detrimental to mental health as well. Setting limitations on food has been shown to make dieters feel deprived, resulting in episodes of bingeing. Bingeing episodes make individuals feel out of control and guilty, thus many choose to restrict their calories further in response. Frequent bingeing and restricting habits can damage the metabolism immensely, actually promoting weight gain. It is here in which we see an endless cycle in which women are so anxious about how their numbers will add up they rid themselves of their hard work.

This is not to say that calorie counting cannot be useful tool. In fact, if used correctly it can be very effective in weight and health management. Yet instead of focusing on number of calories, I believe we should focus on the types of calories consumed. When looking at a food, we should ask ourselves, “Besides calories, what else does this provide?” Rather than rating foods as either “good or bad” based on number of calories, try sifting through the vitamin and mineral information. Does the food provide antioxidants, fiber, or omega-3’s? Fortunately, many food tracker apps provide the answers to these questions.

It is also important to keep in mind that eating for mental health once in awhile is okay too. Eating a food because it provides you happiness can be just as beneficial as eating a food that provides you with health. Mealtime can be a wealth of social interaction for some, and spending time with loved ones worrying about calories consumed is never worth it.

Pushing the science of nutrition away from calorie counting is a matter of shifting perception. Rather than thinking of a meal as calories lost, it should be considered nutrients gained. A mango should be looked at as vitamins and fiber, not 120 calories to be paid on an elliptical. The motto is quality over quantity; a 400-calorie smoothie filled with antioxidants outcompetes a 100-calorie Oreo snack pack almost every time. Once foods are viewed as opportunities for health rather than numbers needing to regulated and justified, that healthy body weight will come on its own.

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