Calories (cal-o-rie, noun): Tiny creatures who live in one’s closet and sew one’s clothes a little bit tighter ever night.
Tiny creatures aside, the common use of the term “calorie” refers to a kilocalorie. Kilocalorie (we’ll just use the common terminology and call it calorie from now on) is a measure of the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree C (Campbell et al, 2009).
This unit of heat measurement, originally developed in the early 19th century by a French engineer, was harnessed as a simple and universal method to measure the energy content of food. Eventually, processed foods began carrying a label with the total energy content, as well as the gram measurements of fats, carbohydrates and protein (Hargrove, 2006).
With the help of FDA caloric suggestions, consumers ran into an alarming dietary deception. The use and obsession of food calories presents a greater danger than small creatures making our jeans tight… it corrupts the whole concept of healthy eating.
Calories Distort Focus to Quantity, not Quality
Common story: a shopper starts by scouring the snack isle, searching for a product to satiate their potato chip craving with the least amount of calories per ounce. After careful deliberation and calculation, he or she settles on a bag of air-popped popcorn laden with artificial butter flavor and toxic vegetable oils.
As the result of compelling media, marketing and labeling, many consumers focus more attention on quantity, not quality. Instead of shopping the nutritional label, shop the ingredient list. That deserves your time and attention.
Calories Falsely Simplify “Healthy Eating”
Healthy eating is complicated, no doubt about it. First you hear butter is bad, then it prevents cancer. First carbs kill you, then they make you lose weight. Even spinach is confusing… should one eat it raw or is that dangerous? Nutrition labels, however, deceptively simplify healthy eating. Few calories = good, high calories = bad. Simple. Yet dangerous.
That mindset leads to eating disorders, infertility, disease, and depression since it encourages the consumption of processed foods instead of nourishing foods. I believe that healthy eating is simple, but not simple in terms of calories. Make healthy easy by finding calorie-free food (yes, I’m going to explain that in a second).
Calories Prevent a Genuine Relationship with Food
Calorie-conciousness shifts emphasis from how you eat to how much you eat. Counting calories ultimately prevents a harmonious relationship with food. Instead of welcoming food as life-giving nourishment, calorie counting produces apprehension of food.
Most importantly, calorie-concsiousness drowns the body’s communication. I believe our bodies knows what, when and how to eat and–if we listen to that quiet voice–we can heal ourselves. It is hard to change habits and blindly trust our bodies, however. So if you need help, try visiting a naturopath or energy practitioner to get tested for food allergies and dis-ease in the digestive system.
In the same way, calorie-counting de-personalizes one’s relationship with food. A common practice is determine one’s ideal daily calories or even calories burned while exercising. Sadly, that creates a mechanical, stressful relationship with food.
It also doesn’t take into consideration one’s food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, inflammation, autoimmune/adrenal/hormonal/thyroid issues, or body type. And those things are *really* important to reaching one’s ideal weight.
Weight loss begins with whole, nourishing foods prepared at home. It means eating mindfully, chewing thoroughly, and releasing gratitude and joy for each bite you raise to your lips. Finally, when it comes to weight loss, forget the calories and remember this:
Calories Promote Stress, Not Satiety
As I mentioned above, paying attention to calories establishes a stress-based relationship with food. Stressing out while eating is a bad idea because it interrupts the entire digestive process.
The sympathetic nervous system triggers the flight-or-flight response in the body. Arousing this reaction shuts down the digestive system so the body can focus on the dangerous situation at hand. Of course, considering calories doesn’t induce a flight-or-flight response, but even less severe stress works in a similar manner to slow digestion (Suarez, 2010).
Additionally, an article from a 2010 volume of Psychosomatic Medicine explains how stress affects the vagus nerve, a key piece in the digestive process:
Because the vagus nerve innervates tissues involved in the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of nutrients, including the stomach, pancreas, and liver, vagal activation directly and profoundly influences metabolic responses to food… Both depression and stress have well-documented negative effects on vagal activation as indexed by heart rate variability (Kiecolt-Glasser, 2010).
Calories Don’t Deserve Your Attention
End of story.
If calories are out of the picture, what does healthy eating mean?
Healthy Eating Means Finding Calorie-Free Food
No, I’m certainly not suggesting one should subsist on toxic sugar substitutes or even bizarre zero-calorie noodles. Look for food that doesn’t come with a nutrition label. Real food–Mother Nature’s nourishing bounty–does not list calories.
Scouting calorie-free foods may mean shifting your grocery shopping trips from the supermarket to the farmer’s market, joining a CSA, finding a cow share program (for access to raw milk) and/or starting a garden. Pastured eggs, local produce, rendered lard/tallow, wild caught seafood, local honey, grassfed beef and butter, and unprocessed grains (if you do grains)… that is what I mean by calorie-free food!
Real, unprocessed food is nurturing, majestic, gratifying, and sublime. Forget the calories, have fun in the kitchen, and eat with joy!
Eat well and heal!™
photos: royalty-free from SXC. I added the text to the first and third ones.
Cambell, N; Reece, J; Taylor, M; Simon, E; Dickey, J. Biology Concepts and Connections. 6th ed. San Francisco: Pearson, 2009. 781 p.
Hargrove, James. History of the Calorie in Nutrition. Journal of Nutrition. 136.12 (December 2006): 2957-2961 . Accessed via The Journal of Nutrition. Web. 23 November 2012.
Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice. Stress, Food and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge. Psychosomatic Medicine 72.4 (May 2010): 365-369. Accessed via Proquest. Web. 23 November 2012.
Suarez K, et al. “Psychological Stress and Self-Reported Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (March 2010): Vol. 198, No. 3, pp. 226–29. Accessed via Harvard Health. Web. 23 November 2012.