Why I Don’t Believe In Calories

Rob's Epic Quest for Health and Sanity

I just walked out of a stress management class where the lesson was on calories. This entirely well-meaning section of the course has been describing the “good” and “bad” types of calories, and emphasizing the importance of putting the right kinds of food into your body. It seems harmless, right? In fact, according to our general cultural view, it seems like the right course of action.

But I didn’t walk out due to shame or laziness or anything of the sort. I walked out because these types of lessons are part of a destructive cultural mythology.

What? Really? Calories? What’s so wrong with calories?

I wanted to take the time to explain just that.

What Is a Calorie?

A calorie is a unit of measurement that tells us how much energy food provides. In fact, it’s the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. That’s verifiably true. When looking at topics such as weight loss, calories are the most readily apparent mechanism by which we can understand how a person loses or gains weight. If you expend more calories than you take in, you will lose weight. If you take in more calories than you use, you will gain weight.

Simple. Accurate. And wildly incomplete.

The cultural mythology surrounding calories has become nearly religious, providing prescriptive morality in our food choices.

When I say that I don’t believe in calories, I don’t mean that I think calories aren’t a measurable phenomenon. What I mean is that I don’t believe in the mythology that surrounds calories. The cultural mythology that has become nearly religious, providing prescriptive morality in our food choices. (See The Religion of Thinness for more on that topic.)

I flatly reject this cultural mythology’s tenets. I don’t believe calorie content is the best method for evaluating food, I don’t believe focusing on calories makes us more healthy or wise, I don’t believe food can be moral (“good food”) or immoral (“bad food”) or change a person’s worth, and I definitely don’t believe that calorie counting can effectively govern a person’s weight.

A calorie is one small part of a large, complex system. The best way to improve that system is to take a holistic approach that focuses on getting in touch with the body—not a system that imposes a “right” or “wrong” answer based on external information such as calorie, or even other nutritional, content.

Mechanisms vs Reasons

In western culture, we have a tendency to identify the mechanisms by which a phenomenon occurs and try to intervene by addressing those mechanisms. This is the simplest path, but is by no means the best one. The reality is that mechanisms of a phenomenon are not the same as the reason behind that phenomenon.

Let’s take another example to demonstrate this. Did you know that the mechanisms behind the spiritual experience have been identified? The vagus nerve system “lights up” during the sort of meaningful or interconnecting experiences that people describe as spiritually profound. A number of hormones and chemicals are also associated with this event.

The views of mechanistic materialism—that all things boil down to their mechanistic components—will tell you that the spiritual experience is “just” these physical responses. Yet the mechanisms do nothing to explain the reasons why those sensations were triggered in the first place. Why would the practice in question trigger these uplifting feelings? Why does a spiritual experience happen in one instance but not another? Why do humans experience spirituality at all?

You can often find western science describing the chemical interactions as the “root” of the emotional experience. Far from being the root, though, these mechanisms serve as the stalk—that readily visible portion visible above the surface. When we move beyond “what” and into “why,” the questions become far more complicated and difficult to quantify; we are looking at the true, below-the-surface roots of the issues. The ultimate answers to making a difference will almost always reside in this “why.”

Why Calorie Tracking Doesn’t Work

When I say “making a difference,” I’m including questions of physical health. While health and weight are entirely different for me, I’ll talk about this in terms of weight because that’s a common goal of those who promote the study and tracking of calories.

Calorie tracking, “careful eating,” and simply “willing ourselves” to behave differently is doomed to failure. A comprehensive list of studies on this topic would be difficult to compile in this space, so I invite you to check out Intuitive Eating (especially the chapters on the diet mentality and honoring your hunger) for more information. Let me give some highlights of studies on that topic, though.

Informing people about calories, their function, their origins, and which ones are (allegedly) good or bad doesn’t make a difference in behavior. In one study of elementary students, the control group was left uninformed of nutrition information while the test group was given a series of lessons on nutrition (healthy vs unhealthy foods, macronutrients, calories, and so forth). The study was looking for differences in health behaviors and weight. At the end of the study, no significant differences were found between the two groups. In other words, telling people about nutrition did nothing.

Calorie tracking doesn’t work to lose weight. It’s a regular part of dieting protocols, and according to the mechanistic theories calorie tracking should be sufficient to get people to lose weight—and at first, many diets do just that. People are able to will themselves to change their intake and output. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Countless studies have demonstrated that, over the long run, only five to ten percent of dieters keep the weight off. Worse, in about two-thirds of cases, dieters gain back more weight than they lost—and are further punished with a slower metabolism.

Willpower runs out, and your body rebels. Whenever you rely on constant willpower to govern your behavior, you’re doomed to fail. One amusing example is a story found in The Happiness Advantage which describes a man who proudly and insistently turned down a piece of cake—and couldn’t stop thinking about the cake all that night. In the middle of that night, he finally broke down, went to the fridge, and ate the entire cake.

Calorie tracking moves the question of food to the linguistic centers. That this requires constant willpower is just one issue. The calorie-based model of consumption prescribes how one should eat, and almost inevitably creates a list of “good” and “bad” foods. When foods are seen as virtuous, we often fail to question them, even if we’re not really hungry for them. When foods are seen as sinful, overindulgence is actually more likely. (The phenomena of forbidden foods leading to overeating has been studied extensively; Intuitive Eating has especially good information on that front.)

Content focus creates tunnel vision. As we think of certain types of foods as virtuous, we stop sensing how the food influences the body. Maybe the food is nutritious but simply not what the body needs. Maybe the food is an over-processed item that has no fat or low calories, but also fails to provide the nourishment the body needs. As long as we’re thinking at food and controlling the body rather than feeling our cravings and allying with the body, we are likely to suffer nutritionally when we focus on calories.

So, what’s the alternative?

Eat What You Want to Eat

I know this seems incredibly weird for those in the American mindset. Our puritanical roots teach us that our desires are wrong, sinful, and destructive. Surely if we merely ate what we wanted to eat, we’d wind up being lazy overeaters who never ate a nutritious morsel.

Well, that too has been studied at great length. It turns out that allowing all foods—carbs, calories, and fats included—tends to lead to a small, short-term increase in consumption for those foods. Then that increase wears off, and over the long term, we’re actually less likely to eat those forbidden foods—and are substantially less likely to binge on them.

The body knows what it needs. When you are lacking in fats, proteins, carbohydrates, nutrients, you name it, your body is aware of that. The problem isn’t with your body. The problem is that you’ve lost touch with your body—with all these lessons about “calories” serving as one of the reasons why, in our culture, we tend to command our bodies rather than paying attention to them.

There really does seem to be a cultural factor here. In France and Japan, pleasure is a major part of food, and both countries are far healthier than the U.S., on the whole. In France especially, the American mindset would likely describe their perspective as dangerous: They care little for food’s nutrient content, and they indulge in fatty foods, cheeses, and a bounty of other foods that we think of as “bad.”

Yet France has a substantially lower rate of obesity and roughly a third as many instances of heart disease. Focusing on pleasure and feeling connected with the body has led to better health. This is often described in the literature as the “French Paradox”—but is it really so paradoxical that paying attention to and caring for the body would lead to better health?

You Can’t Untangle Calories from Calorie Culture

Now, I don’t mean we should eat whatever, whenever, however. If we ate without paying attention to the food, if we ate without paying attention to our desires, if we ate without awareness or intention or without really checking in to see what we wanted to eat—then we’d get in trouble. But this isn’t a question of our desires. It’s a question of our disconnection.

I’m not even trying to say that learning about calories is all bad. When viewed on its own, there’s a lot to be said for getting information about calories as the human energy source, the importance of macronutrients, and the potential benefits of including food with lots of nutritional value. If I want to improve my focus, I can turn to studies on what foods may help me with this task. If I want to feel energized, it’s useful to know that complex carbohydrates and natural sugars (such as those found in fruits) can help get me charged up without a crash—so long as I’m not viewing it as a command or restriction.

The problem is that, in our culture, these all become prescriptive, “should” commands that feed into a reductionist view of food. Things are good or bad, right or wrong, and you should feel prideful or ashamed of the food choices you make. You should make choices by willing yourself to do what’s good for you—even if you don’t like it. The repeated lessons prioritizing nutrition perpetuates a system where people are disconnected from their own appetite and are trying to enforce nutrition rather than getting in touch with it. Teaching us about calories arms us to fight a war, and our culture teaches us that the war must be waged against our own bodies.

 

That’s all for today, folks. I’ll be making an update post soon letting you know my plan for Rob’s Epic Quest over the coming months, but this topic was on my mind today, so I figured I’d share!

Take care good care of yourself.

~Rob

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