Let's take a look at calories...For health's sake!

Ah calories.

I am not one to place blame on one thing, however this one word elicits a number of responses when discussed- and it’s usually the negative/fearful sorts.

“How many calories in that?” “How many calories did you burn during that work out.” “Check out my fitbit- I have burn 1000 calories today.”

It is because of these sorts of conversations that I really avoid discussing this word like the plague. In short-I blame the over use of the word ‘calorie’ for a lot of the thing which are wrong in our perception of health and wellness.

I know one shouldn’t blame words…Largely because they are words and never asked to be over-used and misunderstood- so maybe my contempt is misplaced. As such, I have been thinking about how I might write on the term and put it back in it’s place- page 352 of the dictionary, below calcium and above Celsius (please don’t check that).

So to put the record straight, a calorie is a measure of heat and is the amount of heat required to raise 1 cubic cm by 1 degree. Yes. That’s it. How good is knowledge at putting things in perspective. Calories are not the devil, do not make you fat and are not a very good measure of how good a food is for you nor the only reason you should exercise.

 In a food sense, it refers to the amount of energy that is liberated when a specific food is combusted in the body which can be used as energy to run our many processes. In an exercise sense, calories can measure the energy expense of a specific activity.

But the problem is that we use this word as the yard stick for food and exercise all too often, forgetting that both of these things are much much more that that!

From an exercise/movement perspective, using calories burnt can be a useful metric. However when we start fixating on this unit we shut ourselves off to the many much more exciting and motivating benefits of regular exercise.

Exercise, and in an even more simple notion, movement, is something that has been oversimplified to the point that people trying to lose weight are just there to burn calories. I don’t know about anyone else, but if you stuck me in a room and told me to burn 200 things I cannot see and won’t notice the absence of, my motivation to do so would only last so long. Or I might start taking a match to stuff…. However if you told me that in 30 minutes you could move like you were born to, boost your mood, concentration and have this weird sense of accomplishment at the end-for free- then I dare say I would be champing at the bit to sign up!

I realised the other day that I have been playing sport for over 23 years now. Holy Bajeezus! But I can honestly say that is a habit which has grown into a love. Call me crazy but every day (well almost every day) when I exercise, there is a love hate thing going on which swings from excitement to dread to cursing and disbelief and back to that F-yeah feeling at the end of a work out. Did I think of how many calories I just burnt…not often (except on the odd occasion when trying to justify a waylaid sweet treat later that day- but that’s half the problem).

I started because I just started. iIt was the normal thing to do! To run around. To get bumped and tussled. To make big air swings and hope no one saw. To come up in hives from generally just rolling around in the grass. It started and it felt good so I kept on doing it. Certainly I had a natural propensity for sport and was offered a lot of oppertunitites because of that. But I wasn’t good at everything I tried and didn’t like everything either. I mean, kids can be so cruel, and nothing will put you off going back to ballet like being taunted for, albeit mysteriously, having dog poo on your ballet tu-tu (true story, don’t ask me how it got there). But with the mix of habit, that racing heart feeling, the challenge and the friends I made along the way, sport has helped me in endless ways and likely in ways I will never see.

And then there is the food think. And the only thing I can really come back with is that food is greater than the sum of its parts. To take the reductionist approach to judging food based purely on calorie content, is to vastly under estimate it’s healthy imbuing qualities and, well, enjoyment factor. I say it often- we don’t just eat for energy! We eat for celebration, to sow love, to connect and to thrill our senses. In a modern understanding of the benefit of food, we also eat to energise and to help prevent/slow the progression of disease and aging. But Our tunnel vision focus on calories has had us fecklessly pulling out food components and replacing them with low cal equivalents and hoping we keep buying these Franken-foods in a bid to lose weight.

We know all about the amounts of calories burnt during an exercise session and how long it takes us to burn off that monstrosity of a milkshake, however, what happens when we move the focus from calories in, calories out.

Well, we get a more holistic view. We would be moving and exercising because it is the natural thing to do and feels good and eating because it is good for our health and to share with others. Overall, we would perhaps start making decisions based on the feel good factor of both exercise and diet and not because of a simple thermodynamic equation. And before those inclined pipe in with the ‘sitting down and eating oreo’s wrapped in cookie dough baked in puff pastry feels good….’ argument, tell me you haven’t had an inkling that there might be a better way.

So maybe I don’t blame calories. Perhaps I am just suffering from a misplaced sense of disgruntlement off the back of half a decade of misdirected health messages. Either way, let’s take a look at our use of the good old ‘calorie’ and perhaps downgrade it’s importance to a useful measure rather than the king of health measure. 

Harriet WalkerComment