Count calories? Maybe it’s better if we don’t.

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Franca B. Alphin, MPH, RDN, LDN, CSSD, CEDRD
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It’s ironic that at a time when new legislation will demand that restaurants (having more than 20 locations), and vending machines (anyone owning more than 20) will have to disclose calorie and nutrition information, we are also learning that counting calories might be counterproductive to addressing the obesity epidemic in this country.

It’s not rocket science to figure out that calorie counting might not be working – it’s been done for years and look where it got us. Believe me, I realize that our obesity epidemic is not just about calorie counting: obesity is actually very complex, we always just want to over simplify it by bringing it back to calories in and calories out.  We now know that the source of calories consumed have different effects metabolically in our bodies.    

There are times where calorie counting may be beneficial; such as to offer perspective on energy intake, when someone has no idea of how much they are eating. Our food label information, for instance, is currently based on a 2000 calorie diet and for many this means very little. Perhaps counting calories for a day might assist in increasing awareness of how our intake compares.  However, that is more or less where it ends. Counting calories, or counting nutrient values for that matter, diminishes the food we eat to a numeric value.  Inherently that removes the pleasure, joy and satisfaction we derive from eating only to have it replaced with worry, guilt and an overall unsatisfying dining experience.  If you look at countries that are not struggling with weight issues, or hadn’t until recently, it’s not because they’ve been counting calories all these years.  Perhaps it is because they eat food and not nutrients, they appreciate the flavor, color, texture and origins of the food that they are eating and enjoy the company of the people they are eating with. It’s really not about calories, balance , and it’s just taking us a little longer to realize that.

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