healthy food leon nutritionist

A Response to Leon: The Cost of Calories

nutrition Jan 15, 2021

The Cost of Calories — A Response to Leon. 

Leon presented a panel of speakers to discuss the cost of calories and counting calories is not only bad for our body’s, but also detrimental to our social structure and the planet. I was asked to write a follow up piece for Leon to represent the point of view of the ‘frontline’, an MNU Certified Evidence Based nutritionist dealing with real clients in real situations. 

Calories are a unit of measurement that represents the energy required to heat one gram of water by one degree. In the 21st century, calories are a universal measurement to help us understand what makes up the food we choose to eat. There are two sides to the calorie coin which represent pros and cons to using this commonly accepted system, the main ones of which I want to delve into in this blog.

Ultimately, there is, in my experience as an evidence-based nutrition practitioner, an over reliance on calories and a lack of understanding behind the effect on the body of the foods we choose to eat. In everyday heath, calories are not the focus priority, but fostering an expanded understanding of what makes up our food and the effect it has on the body, is a crucial step towards healthier choices and ultimately a healthier population.

When do calories help? An understanding of calories allows for a numerical representation of the quantity and mass of food, with this we can calculate approximate caloric values to aim for in order to result in weight loss. Weight loss and/or fat loss requires a calorie deficit: a lower amount of energy taken in, than burnt throughout the day. 

Being in a calorie deficit can help in multiple ways aside from mathematical equations. By beginning an intervention for weight loss through a supported calorie deficit, you can psychologically ‘buy in’ to the program and therefore start to search for the desired results, adapt your healthy habits and develop a healthier attitude to food and a health seeking mindset.

It is important to note here, that a calorie deficit alone is a suboptimal approach to weight loss, and this can be seen in certain liquid-based diets found on today’s market. Sure, there are some benefits of the implementation of a calorie deficit, but if your food is substituted with liquid based replacements, you are likely to develop an unhealthy attitude to your food when you start eating again. 

The lack of education of what makes up food (and not a liquid based replacement) and the subsequent lack of education of what effect that food has on your body, leads to an unsustainable approach to weight loss. So yes, weight loss IS as simple as calories in vs calories out, but the truth is, calories in vs calories out is NOT that simple.

The oversimplification of calories and the perceived necessity to eat a number and not see it as food can also result in obsessive tendencies. Then necessity to eat to an exact number of calories, say 1864kcals, as part of a calculated deficit can be time consuming, obsessive and stressful, impacting the overall picture of health and potentially sabotaging the benefits of the deficit. It is important to note that calories give us an estimation of energy intake, a ball-park figure. In addition, it is also important to remember that shop labels are not always exact, in the UK alone, there is an allowance of 20% error in calorie readings.

An understanding of calories can help us achieve goals that are outside of the everyday health baseline. Weight loss requires an understanding of a calorie deficit, athletes require an understanding of calories and macronutrients in order to maintain optimal performance, with body builders being and extreme example of this. But the practical application of these interventions is what leads to sustainable adherence and results. Calories are not just what makes up our food, we have macro and micro-nutrients. In its basic form, food is made up of amino acids (protein), triglycerides (fat), monosaccharides (carbohydrate), vitamins and minerals. Each of these has an effect on our body’s overall health and wellbeing. Protein, fat and carbohydrates are macro nutrients, vitamins and minerals are micronutrients. The development of nutritional research and science allows us to use these terms to understand what makes up the food we have in front of us, we can use this to make healthy choices when this is partnered with an understanding of what effect on the body that food has.

An inherent misunderstanding of the application of calories, food labels and new ‘burn off a chocolate bar’ fitness trends, results in poor attitudes to food. A misunderstanding of calories can lead people to justify what are known to be poor health choices in their diet, simply because the calories fit. This imbalanced equation does not control for poor choices when it comes to diet and also does not control for the diversity of overall food intake. We are in a magical point in time that we can get food available, year-round, from the four corners of the globe, yet the justification of calories means we tend not to explore this variety, but instead resort back to the mean of poor choices. 

Afterall, with calories solely in mind, you can eat your entire intake of food from fried fast foods, but the effect on the body would be catastrophic. This is the imbalance of knowledge commonly circulating in today’s society and represents a high cost of calories when focussing on overall health.

Environmentally, the availability of year-round foods from across the globe does carry with it a significant coast of mileage and processing. In the same way that focussing on calories without the education of the subsequent effect can lead to negative health outcomes; the consumption of foreign food without the education of the subsequent effect from source, processing and travel, negatively impacts the environment. As with calories, education at school age is an important aspect of the ‘answer’ here. Education instilled before the allure and influence of marketing will aid in developing a critical thinking mindset, thus aiding in healthier choices and a more conscious mind for the environment.

Our obsession with calories has resulted in marketing campaigns that suggest the minutes of exercise required to burn off certain food, usually confectionary or ‘junk foods’. This is acting as green flag for unhealthy choices, giving us the go ahead to eat that specific food, as long as the control measure of exercise is in place. This is the definition of an unhealthy and obsessive attitude to food.

Eating food is not simply a transactional experience, where the ingestion of calories requires an expenditure of calories to maintain balance. The variety of food we eat has symbiotic relationship with the healthy function of our bodies. Food can impact our mood, the health of our digestive system, our brain function, skin health, muscle health, organ health, and can make us live longer, the list goes on. Calories do not have this effect, food does.

Anthropologically, we are designed to eat seasonal variety year-round depending on where we live, and our body thrives on the variety of foods available to us. However, the ‘21st century body’ is more accustomed to two new major players: fast food, and global variety. This incurs a cost of calories much greater than that of the effect on the human body. This cost of calories is on a global scale and effects the future of the human species. The rise of fast foods and vast globalisation of food has had, and is still having, a hugely detrimental effect on the environment that cannot be ignored. 

With our healthy choice of avocados, comes a hefty mileage and travel cost, not the mention the unstable socio-economic factors impacting the source countries. In addition, with the rise of fast, cheap, convenient and well marketed foods, comes the significantly damaging impact of large-scale intensive agriculture of both animals and plants. The second order effects here impact the entire planet from the soil to the atmosphere and future of humanity. This is not an example of an extremist view, this is, as Al Gore famously stated, the ‘inconvenient truth’ facing us all.

To that end, it is possible to relate our choices based on calories back to the catastrophic effects currently impacting the planet. Yet economical necessity, convenience and the ‘new norm’ of society justifies this. Healthy eating, it seems, needs an overhaul.

I am a nutritionist, I am not an environmental scientist, I am not a scientific researcher, nor am I qualified to speak in depth about our ancestral eating and anthropology. But working from a position of the nutritional front line, these factors that we have delved into here are real, there reflect fundamental issues in our choices of food, the availability of junk food at exceptionally low prices and the allure of those choices over healthier ones. Healthy eating, the processing of vegetables and a positive attitude towards a largely plant centric diet is all too often shunned due to perceived effort, stigma, incurred cost and the overbearing allure of other options.

Where do we start? Obesity, disordered eating, heart disease, diabetes, gut issues, mortality, heart attacks, inflammation… the list is far too long. These are the health issues that plague our 21st century society and the vast majority are rooted in our dietary choices.

Detaching from the obsession with calories is likely to be a positive start for general health, but this has to be tempered very carefully with an understanding of what effect food has on the body. This is the other side of the equation. As such there are certain health issues such as obesity (and in fact the majority of those listed above) that are addressed with a calorie deficit, with management of weight loss and a guided process so that people do not feel that they have to go it alone. The underlying most successful aspect of certain dietary interventions is not actually the intervention itself, but rather the community aspect, allowing people to feel belonging, acceptance, motivation and guidance.

The dissolution of calories altogether is likely to result in a worsening state, in my opinion. An understanding of what makes up our food, which current scientific understanding breaks down to fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water; combined with the understanding of what effect that food has on our body and overall health, is likely to have a significantly positive effect on the future of our national health. As it stands at the moment, we are lost with the first half of the equation, searching aimlessly for the answer.

In conclusion, there are multiple approaches to the improvement of national health, healthy eating and diet induced diseases. One actionable method that can be implemented immediately is the questioning process of, “why is this particular food so cheap?”, “where does it come from?” and “why does it have to be wrapped in plastic?”. Our current nutritional norm is an incomplete equation, it is centred on the obsession with calories without understanding the implications of that food on the body. The new norm should be in ensuring people are aware of the true cost of calories for themselves and the environment.

What do you think? share this post, tag me and let me know your thoughts.