While these individuals may still be in the minority, for many other people calorie counts may just take some of the enjoyment out of going to a restaurant (which is even more of a shame after the tough pandemic years). We are already a society obsessed with health, food and body image. But these new rules also further demonise calories, eating and obesity.
What is a calorie?
Calories are nothing to be ashamed about they are just a unit of measurement. A calorie is defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by 1C. Thus, a calorie described how much energy or heat arises from the combustion of the nutritional components of our diet.
We need calories in order to provide us with the energy required to live; every single biological process in the body requires energy and this has to come from the food we eat, which gets broken down to yield energy.
Despite the current discourse, most people dont need to count their intake of calories. Our body has its own control system that helps to regulate our energy levels. We are all born with this ability; humans are biologically biased to achieve energy balance which means when you exercise regularly, you generally consume more food and energy to meet your requirements, and vice versa.
The issue is that societal pressures and the rise of social media, exercise tech and food tracking apps means that many of us have become more dependent on external cues.
The low calorie problem
Being aware of what is in food is important. But we constantly hear about the negative impact and consequences of overconsuming calories, and its important to remember that these side effects only come from consistently eating more calories than our bodies may need over a chronic period of time.
One evening out eating a pizza with friends is not going to leave a stamp on your physical health. Even if you over-consume for a few days or a few weeks, such as when on holiday, and then go back to your normal intake, your body will do a very good job at returning to that much-loved set point of balance.
Being shamed into opting for the lower calorie version of foods isnt actually healthy its most likely setting your body up for failure. Being in a caloric deficit, where you put in fewer calories than your body needs, can actually be harmful. If the body is continually unable to reach energy balance, it will go into compensatory behaviours.
This is why, for those who chose to, losing weight is often hard the body wants to maintain its status quo but it also means that it starts to slowly shut down biological processes in order to preserve energy. While this will be different for everyone, it could present in a depressed immune system, digestive issues due to slow motility in the gut, changes to menstruation, higher rates of depression and bone health issues.
A 2018 Danish paper found that those who have a BMI between 24 and 27 traditionally classed as overweight actually have lower mortality rates than people who have a lower BMI. Nobody talks about these things because its so ingrained in us that being smaller makes us healthier; that the move more, eat less mantra is how we should all live.
Calorie labelling has been available for many years but despite this, has had no significant impact or outcome on rates of obesity or served as a means of education and adding more calorie information to menus also wont change anything.
The failure of current interventions to achieve any meaningful, long-term results in combating obesity, which is what the government claims to want, could reflect a failure to appreciate the physiologic processes underlying energy balance.
Prioritising mental health
We know that obesity is multifactorial. It has underlying links with genetics, behaviour and socio-economic status, as well as mental health. Just putting numbers next to food isnt enough we need to talk about behaviours and emotions too.
Dysfunctional behaviours around food are just the symptom, the medium by which an individual chooses to deny difficult and uncomfortable feelings. New approaches that consider how the energy balance system works should replace the existing focus on widespread food restriction and weight loss neither of which are a sign of health.
It is important to remember that health is an attitude and also includes our emotional health. Sometimes having a piece of cake and coffee while chatting to a friend actually brings you more peace and wellbeing than pursuing a green smoothie that has been depicted as healthy. Perhaps further education for food manufacturers on better methods of food preparation would be a more appropriate starting point than shaming people for eating. One thing is for sure knowing the calories in the occasional burger, gyoza or spaghetti you eat out isnt useful information for most of us.
As told to Chloe Gray.
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