Isn't a calorie a calorie?
I've been a dietitian for many years and counseled numerous clients successfully about weight loss. The diets I have recommended to my clients include the nutrient dense foods consistent with optimal health. But I have also emphasized how important the calorie content of the food is. Peter Wilson’s article in the April/May 2019 journal, The Economist, entitled "Is the Calorie Dead?”, has made me rethink this emphasis. The author claims that "Counting calories has disrupted our ability to eat the right amount of food … and has steered us towards poor choices." He also praises Weight Watchers for switching to a point system that is biased toward healthier choices.
As I looked further into the calorie question, I found an article by Cynthia Graber, an award-winning science journalist. She was reporting on the work done at the FDA’s Human Nutrition Center. In very carefully monitored human experiments researchers have found that the calories humans get from various foods are not what is normally reported; for example, the calories the human body can extract from nuts, particularly raw nuts, are much lower than normally stated and the calories from many highly processed food are often higher.
The science of nutrition continues to evolve, but the way calories are counted is very outdated, producing many numbers that are merely gross estimates. So what can be done? Graber found that many of the scientists were coming up with intricate ways of calculating how individuals uniquely metabolize their food, but, of course, few people have access to this kind of careful monitoring. But what if each individual could learn to recognize when his or her body feels full so that the amount of nuts they eat will not depend on the calorie number? That number, we now know, is not wholly accurate anyway. It appears that what we can learn from the high-tech examination of calories is that we need to pay attention to what our body is telling us, rather than relying on external information. We need to realize that each one of us can learn to recognize how much we need to eat by mindful observation.
Unfortunately, our scientific examination of this issue prevents us from seeing food as the pleasure it should be and as the wonderful lubricant of social interaction. Cooking and eating good food with friends can help us reclaim our balance. Check out a menu on this website, invite some friends, enjoy the food and the company. By cooking food together, you'll appreciate the food thoroughly with less need to overeat. You'll be avoiding the expense and also the extra sodium, fat, and calories that are often part of restaurant fare. Learning to enjoy good food will help you avoid overeating without the need to concentrate on calories.
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Tricia Gregory, MA,RD/N
A dietitian who is a foodie and loves a great dinner party with wonderful food and terrific friends.