Calories, calories and more calories. We have an obsession with counting calories. Look at any food label and right there at the top, usually bigger than anything else, are the calories. And in recent years restaurant menus also include the calorie count in many parts of the world.

It’s as if food is only good for one thing; calories. If calories were the only thing needed from food, we could get away with eating sugar all day. It’s a great cheap source packed with calories. But food is much more than that. It contains essential nutrients and vitamins we need to live. If you lived on sugar alone, you’d succumb to any number of nutritional deficiencies well before getting diabetes or heart disease.

The calorie is a unit of energy. One calorie is the amount of energy needed to heat up one mL of water by one degree Celsius. However, calories on food labels are actually kilocalories. One food calorie (kilocalorie) is the energy needed to heat up one litre of water one degree.

food is more than just counting calories

We Need Calories to Live

Despite everything that tells us to lower and watch our calories, we need the energy from calories to live. Calories aren’t something like cigarettes where the ideal amount is zero. How many calories an adult needs can vary based on body size, metabolism and activity levels, but many of us will require between 1500 to 2000 just to keep our body running.

If you deprive your body of the energy it needs, it will start taking energy from your reserves. This comes from body fat and glycogen (carbohydrates) stored throughout your body. Once these stores are depleted, your body will start breaking down muscle for energy. Over time, this will lead to symptoms of starvation such as fatigue and abnormal heart rhythms that can lead to sudden.

If calories are so important, how did we get so obsessed with wanting to avoid them? It most likely began in the 1950’s when people were told to cut down the fat in their diet. While protein and carbohydrates have five calories per gram, fat contains nine calories per gram. As rates of obesity around the world climbed, fat and calories became an even bigger target.

It’s true that how much body fat you have on your body comes from the amount of calories you take in, through food, and the amount you burn through metabolism and daily activity. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s from fat, protein or carbohydrate. If you eat more calories than your body needs, your body will store the extra energy as fat. Your body does this because fat is an ideal energy depot due to its low density (meaning it weighs little) and high energy return. Plus our bodies prefer to run off of fat.

food labelling supports our obsession with counting calories

Physical Activity Calorie Equivalents (PACE)

Now researchers in the United Kingdom are advocating foods be labelled with physical activity calorie equivalents, called PACE for short. These labels indicate how much activity  is needed for someone to burn off the calories in that food. For example, a chocolate bar with 230 calories would have a label indicating it would take an average person 45 minutes to burn off.

The researchers found people were more likely to consume less calories if food and drinks had PACE labels on them. It’s based on the premise that people will look at the energy cost of food and decide whether it’s worth it or not. This is the same idea behind restaurants having to include calorie content on their menus. If you see a hamburger contains 500 calories you may opt to not have it and eat something with less calories.

But with PACE, it goes further to add in the amount of activity needed to burn the calories in that food. Not only does this suggest that food is all about calories, but also that exercise is too. And as I’ve written before, exercise has so many more benefits to your health and well-being beyond burning calories.

food shouldn't be about counting calories

Food is More than Just Counting Calories

All this focus on calories diminishes the value of food and healthy eating habits. And while the PACE researchers indicate fresh foods will be excluded, some people may wonder how many calories are in that broccoli or pork chop. And how much exercise they would need to do to burn it off. If it’s too much, maybe they’ll consider not eating it.

For others, it may give the impression that any food is okay to eat as long as you exercise it off. But we know that our body doesn’t metabolize all calories the same way. Eating a meal high in sugar results in an immediate rise in blood sugar followed by a release of insulin. The insulin clears out the sugar often leaving you feeling hungry. While a meal which includes healthy fats and protein is likely to make you feel full for longer and eat less throughout the day.

Critics of the PACE system, and focus on calories in general, worry it could lead to people getting eating disorders. While most people are not predisposed to eating disorders, obsessing over calories can definitely affect one’s relationship with food. And instead of being some we need to be healthy, food becomes something to be concerned with.

Counting calories also oversimplifies the causes of obesity and how people manage how much they eat. It assumes we have some knowledge of how many calories we need each day, and how many calories we’ve already had that day. However, the human body is pretty good at self-regulating food intake.

What messes your body’s appetite regulation is having too much refined sugars and processed foods. And whether it’s a plant-based, Mediterranean-type or meat-based diet, all of them stay away from calorie counting and focus on healthy foods in their natural state.

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