I used to pore over glossy magazines like Self, Glamour, and Women’s Health weekly. I won’t deny that I still enjoy these magazines, but they no longer hold such sway over me. In general women’s love/hate relationship with food and image starts when they hit puberty, though perhaps earlier for some. Increasingly now, men are conscripted into this self loathing as well. Around the time weight becomes a focus of living, calories become as important as World Peace. No, more important to some.
Calories, of which 3500 make a pound, have existed forever in the same way that America did before Columbus discovered it. However, they started being published ubiquitously on nutrition labels in 1985, or the year I was born. This means, they’ve been around my whole life. They have thus evolved from a scientific term into a household concept of monumental importance in the last 26 years.
This is the impression given in a supermarket aisle anyway where, beside your cart of food, are magazines discussing calories and how to “cut” “lose” and “incinerate” them. How violent. Calories are like terrorists, always lurking, always ready to attack, and something on which we declare war. Like scientific concepts and terrorists then, quite a bit of money is spent to study them, and to decide how best to inform the public how they should be treated.
They are to be treated as a symbol of food. Yet, Robert Capon’s book, The Supper of the Lamb, puts into words something which should be readily apparent, but what is often overlooked. Calories are not food. Calories are a unit of heat (the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water to 1 °C.) When you talk about calories, when you count calories, you remove yourself from food and eating food. You remove yourself from what it is that brings you life.
Sometimes distancing ourselves from objects makes our lives simpler. This is the case of paper money, which stands in for our labor. Fight all you want for a bartering system, it’s nigh impossible in a world where we value intellectualism (at some level) and information services. Yet, is it necessary for us to remove ourselves from food? We’re already removed in our literal proximity from food production; do we need to remove ourselves in our consumption as well? To understand food as calories is akin to attempts at understanding religion as statistics.
Also, calories as presented on nutrition labels, restaurant menus, and in cookbooks are not simple math. (Moreover, they are often wildly inaccurate.) Few calories can be calculated exactly, either those in food, or being used in the body. In the tricky process of life, it’s difficult to determine how many calories a person truly needs, despite the USDA rhetoric of 2000 a day for women, and 2500 a day for men. And though the USDA recognizes that obesity is an epidemic, I hate that academic and scientific language produces a phrase like this: “Select an eating pattern that meets nutrient needs over time at an appropriate calorie level.” Is this an accurate sentence? Yes. But it’s divorced from what food really is; a source of strength and nourishment, community, hospitality, living matter.
Eating isn’t and shouldn’t be calculating up calories in order to determine if you’ve hit a target. That’s a crutch, a faulty math formula. I will admit it can be necessary to use if you’re recovering from poor eating habits, or food ignorance, but it is not a lifestyle.
Many people are recovering from these things, and consequently are learning what “real” food is. They are uncovering that restaurants and packaged food are trying to hide as much sugar, fat, and salt as they can in the most foods they can. (David Kessler writes about this in the End of Overeating). Turns out making the same foods at home taste far different, and are far differently made.
However, once these discoveries are made, and realistic portions discovered, out the window with the calorie counting! Here again is the variability of the body. Eating a number of calories is akin to filling a gasoline tank with a dollar amount of gas and declaring it “full.” No. The body is full when it is nourished, when you are not hungry. So, far from learning to count calories, people must learn to recognize the sensation of being full, and that of being hungry. Can these two things be influenced by emotion, setting, age, sex, exercise, and habit? Yes. And that is part of the learning process as well.
Food education and nutrition labels should strive to educate and empower people to create their own food rules and diets. They should hear Michael Pollan’s good advice that your (great) grandmother should recognize the ingredients in your food. That, by and large, you should recognize all ingredients on the label, even if you do happen to know what Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate is. (A part of Twinkies. Note this.) That you should eat mostly plants.
Furthermore, rather than follow specific diets, which inflexibly erase certain foods, people need to learn to self-regulate. To decide what it is they “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. I repeat myself, to create they’re own food rules. My food rules (which I’ll post at another time) are still present in my mind when I eat. That is, I consciously need to recite them to myself. One day I hope to do them second nature, to make them my own culture. Ultimately, rather than count calories, I would hope that the United States can create a culture more like the much admired French.
And, when people are tempted to diet, I would encourage them to make their own food rules, and stick with them, rather than pick and find a generic diet.