What Not To Count

I’m continuing with my thoughts on Time magazine’s June 7, 2004 special issue “Overcoming Obesity” and reflecting on the progress that has been made and not been made on the topic.

The lead article asks: “So why is this [obesity] happening? The obvious, almost trivial answer is that we eat too much high-calorie food and don’t burn it off with enough exercise.” The articles in this issue do mention other connections to obesity such as genetics, the biochemistry of hunger/fat metabolism, fast/junk food, food psychology, and a metabolic disorder—“what they are finding is an exquisitely fine-tuned system of chemical and neurological checks and balances that regulate what we eat and how much our bodies store fat.”

Even with these additional connections being made to obesity, “calorie” and “eat less, exercise more” appear in the issue’s various articles:

  • “How about eat less, move more, and eat your fruits and vegetables.”
  • “If you’re dealing with obesity, people have to eat less.”
  • On a woman’s weight loss: “. . . what she did was buy a couple of books that listed  the nutritional value and calorie content of the food she ate.”
  • “After reaching their goal, most long-term losers followed a single general strategy toward nutrition: limiting the calories and to a lesser extent the amount of fat in their diet.”

For a moment, let’s return to high school science—what is a calorie? According to Webster it’s “the amount of heat required at the pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree Celsius.” Our calorie obsession is based on turning us into a calculation.

Why the calorie focus? We are creatures of habit. For more than half a century, we’ve been repetitively told and have heard calories, calories, calories. Think about the TV/magazine ads highlighting this aspect of foods. Exactly how many 100-calories food/snacks exist today? This approach makes all calories seem equal. But does your body treat 100 calories of potato chips the same way it treats a 100-calorie apple? I don’t think so.

In The Schwarzbein Principle, Diana Schwarzbein, M.D. reminds us that a one-hundred calorie snack doesn’t equal one hundred calories worth of available energy: “If the snack is composed of carbohydrates, your body has to use the hundred calories for immediate energy or store that energy as fat. But if the snack is made up of protein and fats, your body can use these foods first for building materials (cells, enzymes, hormones and so on), leaving fewer calories to be used as energy or stored as fat.”

Schwarzbein also provides nine points on why you can’t lose body fat by restricting calories. One of these points: “If you continue with the low-calorie diet, your body is forced to take material from bones and muscle to keep your brain and kidneys going.” Not something I would be comfortable with doing. Think of damage we’ve caused to ourselves by our obsession with low-calorie dieting.

With the above point in mind, Gary Taubes, in Good Calories, Bad Calories, reminds us of the contradiction of “eat less, exercise more:” “Though more strenuous exercise would burn more calories, it would lead to a significant increase in appetite. This is the implication of the phrase ‘working up an appetite.’”

The time has more than come to drop the antiquated, decades-old “eat less, exercise more” mentality and turn our attention to other potential causes such as genetics, the biochemistry of hunger/fat metabolism, fast/junk food, food psychology, and a metabolic disorder.

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