Calorie catastrophe!!

1108 words: estimated reading time 5 mins 30s

Who’s Bad?
One of my closest colleagues would periodically confess to having been bad. She wasn’t reporting on her poor behaviour; she was simply owning up to having eaten a Snickers bar (or something similar). Each time I’d argue that she was actually neither good nor bad and that she’d simply had a snack that she craved and momentarily enjoyed. The badness was tied up with her attitude – not the act of eating a chocolate snack!
In the past few weeks, it seems that I’ve had no end of people and sources telling me what’s good for me and what’s not good for me. Some of those have been well-meaning, some really care, some are clearly clueless and merely spout the latest thing that they’ve seen, read or heard, and some are just know-it-alls trying to establish their superiority (Boo!!). To all of them though, regardless of your motivations; please just shut up! You don’t know and you don’t understand what is good for me. Your health updates and attempts to improve my health literacy are not in any way helpful or welcome. I’m immune to your advice and perspectives, but I can’t guarantee the same for the next person that you talk to. They may not know any better, they may not be as smart as I (think I) am; they probably won’t have my resilience or stubbornness!

When did calories become this proxy measure of health?
Let’s be clear I’m talking in this case about exercise and nutrition. The fact that I want to point out – indeed the main message of this blog – is that neither food nor exercise should be about the calories. Sure, we can choose to make them about calories, but they don’t have to be or need to be. There is far more to food and physical activity than the calories that they contain, or the calories that they consume. I’m saddened to think that people see their food and their physical activity this way. Food is about flavours, textures, and mouthfeel. Food lets us taste other cultures, food is a treat, food is for sharing (the social aspects of friends and family), food is traditions and traditional, food creates memories. Food is satisfying and rewarding. It can be visually stimulating, it can energise you, it can cheer you up. Food is great but other than doing all of these things for me, I don’t really care what’s in it, how many calories or how it’s supposed to make me healthier. To reduce what I eat to the calories, or the nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that it contains, is to rob it of its magic. I’ve got way more things that I can obsess over than the elements of every meal or snack I take.

I can apply my same set of values to my physical activity. It’s never about the calories. It’s the feeling, the connection with nature, feeling my body engage, sweat and strain, it’s the social experience of exercising with others, the thrill of competition, achievements, progress, the satisfaction of having exercised. I’m not going to score my exercise on the basis of calories expended any more than I’m going to rate my meal on the calories provided.

Brainwashing 101
Societal influences that brainwash us to be neurotics about food and exercise, and to view them through a single myopic lens, annoys the hell out of me. That ‘calorie bandwagon’ links directly to a couple of other dichotomies a) good and bad and b) healthy and unhealthy. Food and exercise are not only about calories, but can apparently also be judged as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Once again the 10th man is calling BS on that way of thinking. That mindset promotes the belief that the good of one will offset the bad of the other. “I’ve been bad this week (I haven’t been to the gym), but it’s OK I’ve got it covered” (I had a kale and quinoa salad and skipped dessert) – or vice versa. ‘You cannot be serious!’ (McEnroe, J, Wimbledon 1981). We have to be smarter than this folks.

Back to the source…
One of my beefs with the exercise is medicine (see blog on EIM) crowd is that they have taken something that to me, seemed so pure and good, and medicalised our physical activity (and our food), making them into something that we ‘ought to be’ doing as responsible citizens seeking healthy and fulfilling lives. That thinking is reinforced by the many and various media outlets that choose to sensationalise the best (power) foods, best exercises, best dietary plans. I get that too much of just about anything is not generally going to be that wise for me. I’d even go so far as to concede that more than a little of some things is probably not overly smart. But most things in moderation are OK – really they are! I can’t help but wonder how terribly exhausting and debilitating it must be to keep this constant score sheet running in your head – trying to figure out the micro portions of what’s permitted and what’s forbidden. Thank god for fit bits – at least they are keeping tally of exercise credits.

Reality check time
Can we please claw ourselves off that merry go round? It’s OK to let go of that calorie ledger. I’m not optimistic that we are going to be able to get ourselves out of this hole, but I think that as exercise professionals we can agree on some counterstrike measures to help educate and improve the exercise (and food) literacy of society. Every time we hear someone claim that they’ve been good or bad, or valuing food or exercise only for the caloric value – we need to stop them and question them as to what they mean? Maybe we can correct their wayward thinking. Let them know that it’s alright to think ‘yum’ after every meal or snack, and that it’s OK to realise that that exercise was fun; I really enjoyed it. We can introduce them to different forms of activity, in different settings and with different goals. We can point them to all of the other benefits of food and physical activity – remind them how those things are inevitably the aspects of food and exercise that actually do make them happy and satisfied. Can’t we just live more in the moment folks?
It seems to me that the calorie thing, and the good/bad, health/unhealthy mindset is not making many people healthier. In fact, it seems to be making a lot of people unhappier. But maybe that’s just me acting out as the angry calorie grouch.

Yours In denial, Phil