This past week, Michelle Obama made an announcement about a proposed change in nutrition labels on packaged food. If this change survives the might of food industry lobbyists, it would be the first time the labels have shifted in 20 years. New labels would reflect more realistic serving sizes (who, really has ever gotten 4 servings out of a pint of ice cream?) as well as put the calorie count up front and center and clarify the source of various sugars.
I heard this news as I cleaned up the breakfast dishes after shooing the kids out to school. NPR hummed along, and I turned it up when the topic turned to food labeling. Michelle Obama started making jokes about tiny and confusing nutrition labels, how they just give you all sorts of confusing information, “when all you really wanted to know was should I be eating this or not”.
I’m right there with her. I’m all for accurate labeling, and I think that people knowing what’s in their food is always a good thing. (Personally, I tend to read the ingredients section of the label, and I ignore the nutritional information. But a label is a label.) But then Allison Aubrey, the reporter, started to get into the ways the proposed labels would shift.
The goal has been to simplify and draw attention to the information that’s most important. Take for instance, calories, a mockup of the new label shows calorie counts will be printed in big, bold lettering right at the top. Your eye jumps straight to it. And why so much emphasis on calories? Well, the FDA says at a time when so Americans need to slim down, counting calories is one of the most effective strategies.
Marion Nestle came in to agree.
The reason why calories are important is it’s a quick shorthand on whether you want to eat the product or not. Body weight is about calories in and calories out, mostly. And if you know that a product that you’re eating has a lot of calories in it, you might want to think twice.
Okay, let’s talk about this.
I tend to agree with both Michelle Obama and Marion Nestle on most things, and like I said, I think that clear labeling is a good thing. But there’s something in this whole discussion that feels misdirected. It feels like a distraction to me. I’m not a nutritionist, but my informal, hippy dippy, intuitive eating experience of working around people and food leads me to sit inside that sentence of Marion Nestle’s: “Body weight is about calories in and calories out, mostly.”
Mostly. How big is that mostly? How much space is left for the other things besides calories that contribute to body weight? And what do we gain by putting so much stress on the calorie?
I’ve never been overweight. In various times of my life, I’ve gotten close. I am in no way comparing my experience to others who have gained or lost weight- this is just me and my body. I know that obesity is a health issue, and I’m not negating that in any way. But I’d like to talk about one experience that throws some of this logic into question for me.
When I was 19, I spent a year living in my home town (where I also live now.) I had dropped out of NYU, moved to California, traveled by myself in Europe, and come home, uninspired, pretty defeated, and totally unsure of my next step. I rented a beautiful high- ceilinged studio apartment on the third floor of a building on Main Street. It felt like the city, and everything in the space was mine and perfectly contained. I worked two jobs (baking and making lattes in the morning, serving sushi at night), and my life was pretty simple. I had a few pretty bad relationships (par for the course when you’re 19 and living in a small town), I read a lot of books, and I learned how to make excellent banana bread. It was a right of passage sort of year.
I was also miserable. I felt undirected, and I didn’t know who I wanted to be. And every month, I got bigger. My pants got tighter, and my skin got red and bumpy. It’s the only time in my life I counted calories. I ate very little. I went to the gym every day. I worked with a personal trainer. I tried desperately to lose the 25 pounds I had gathered around myself in the past year. But the less I ate, the more I exercised, the more weight I gained. At the end of the year, I bought a car and drove across the country to New Mexico. I started at a new school. I fell in love with the desert and started eating cheese again. And the weight went away. My skin cleared up. And although I’ve certainly had struggles with my body since then, it was pretty much the last time I counted calories or looked at a scale.
There are all sorts of explanations as to why I would have gained weight that year. But my only conclusion is that the whole thing is a lot less scientific that calories in, calories out. That was just what my body did that year. Maybe I needed some armor. Maybe I just felt heavy, and my body followed suit. For me, the more I counted and thought and focused on calories, the less I enjoyed my body and my life. And the less I enjoyed my life, the more weight I gained. But since then, I think, more and more, that our bodies often find the shape they need to be at a certain time. For the vast majority of us who might not be exactly the ideal shape we’ve been told we should be, I think the best thing we can do is eat the food that makes us feel good, and keep moving our bodies in ways that enrich our lives. And although new labels might change how the information is organized, they don’t touch what’s actually in the product. All that unpronounceable crap is still in there, and junk food is still the food that most busy families can afford. That’s the problem, and that’s where we need to put our energy.
I know that joy and happiness and eating intuitively can’t be the basis for government programs. I know that obesity is a health issue we need to tackle now. I also know that we all seek answers and clear direction as to how we can be fit and fabulous and superhuman–just take a look at the Amazon top 100 cookbooks at any given moment. So if it’s not a focus on calories, what would really make a difference?
I think about this question every day, and all I have is this:
I have yet to see anything more powerful than a kid in the kitchen, and although programs are popping up all over the country to get then there, there is still no clear mechanism for bringing real food into public schools. A huge number of kids are coming home from school to homes filled with junk food- not because that’s a choice their parents make, but because those processed foods cost far less than the ingredients to make them. I think we need to find ways to help people find access to and inspiration about good food.
Optimistic, I know, but this is what I do for a living. I have to think it helps, even a little.
It’s going to be a big fight over the new labels. It’s going to cost money and time, and the FDA is already getting ready for pushback from the food industry. Like I said, I’m all for accurate labeling. But is this the fight we need to have right now? When it comes to our health and the health of our children, do we need to fight harder to get calories more into the spotlight?
So yes, I’m in a bit of a fight with myself over this one. Even my very limited experience in politics taught me the importance of baby steps, and of not getting overwhelmed by the larger issues. But for this first of the month, I’d love to hear from you on this if you have ideas. How important are nutritional labels to you? What role do calories play in your own relationship to food? And (if you want to tackle this one), what do you think about the state of food and nutritional policy in the country right now?
Too many thoughts for a mere comment! 🙂 I agree that it isn’t as simple as in vs out. I have heard that too much exercise can alter your metabolism. But that is another topic. As for labels. It is great to require labels to be clear and accurate. Will it still be true that calorie information only has to be accurate within a certain percent? I think may main thought is that now there is so much information out there on nutrition, and for most people it is very accessible (internet, library, even the news). Requiring bigger text on a label (I am oversimplifying here) won’t help someone who is eating poorly, nor is it the responsibility of the companies to educate us on nutrition. That won’t solve the problem. BUT….accurate labels will assist those who are already conscious of the nutritional choices they are making. I know a trainer who relied on labels and trusted “fat free” and such…and then she started her trainer training program and found label-reading to be much more informative AFTER she had gained a decent foundation of nutritional knowledge to begin with. This is getting too long….
I can relate to thinking a lot of the same things you’ve discussed here, and agree that ultimately having a good relationship with food and your body must involve transcending calorie-counting. However, I also think that I am privileged in a lot of ways- with a body type not prone to obesity, with family and friends educated and aware about food issues, and access to good food. I have a partner, so I’m not the only one cooking in the household, so we have more time to plan meals. My mindfulness of this privilege leads me to think that we have to start somewhere, and with some folks, a basic awareness of calories may be a ok place to start. A friend was telling me about her niece who is struggling with weight gain, but drinks bottled juices and teas with added sugar because these seem “healthy” to her compared to soda. For folks in this boat, general awareness of calories could also hopefully lead to more awareness about the pervasiveness of sugar, and what options seem healthy but are not. (That said, I also think a high calorie count alone does not mean something is unhealthy, but like I said, we have to start somewhere).
Julia, Yes, and yes. So many of these issues just lead back to the fact that some of us have the time/ money, education/ background to make informed decisions, and some do not. That’s the bigger issue, and ultimately the more important issue, and if only there was a way we were even chipping away at it!
But I wanted to focus on your comment about your friend’s niece, and about the way that calories can help her navigate. I have to say that going through this comments in this conversation has been so helpful as someone who doesn’t focus on calories- it’s really good for me to hear why they’re a helpful piece of information for people. So, if I’m to put myself in the shoes of your friend’s niece, and I’m trying to figure out what drink I should have with my lunch, I look at three different options:
Coke (12 oz.): 140 cal./ 39 grams sugar, Snapple Kiwi Strawberry (like you say, often thought of as a healthier option) (12 oz) 142 cal./ 33 grams sugar. Mott’s Orange Juice (12 oz) 180 cal/ 42 grams sugar
So what is this telling me? That they’re all pretty much the same, and I should probably just have water? I think that’s probably good information in itself, right? But I’d love to figure out what this is really showing me when I look at the label. And maybe, looking at this comparison, that’s where the different kinds of sugars on the new proposed label is a big step forward?
OK, I’m not a US American, but obesity problems are pretty much the same in Germany as they are in the US. I think that counting calories is the the most effective method to alienate you from food. Because you start to think in numbers when you think of food. I never think about calories, I think in various sorts of fats, various sorts of carbs, various sorts of veg, salad and fruit. I never talk about that to my kids but I talk about colour, texture and and taste to my kids. I try to teach them to stop eating when they are full and not seeing eating as remedy for feeling lonely, bored or sad (although I admit a good cookie can be a mood improver). I think a lot of western society’s problems with obesity could be ameliorated if we would educate people about eating in front of the TV, after dinner. We don’t need to count calories to know that eating when you’re already full isn’t good for you. So, labels: important to show ingredients. Calories: totally ineffective as an educational tool.
Mindfulness and food- now there’s another topic to tackle entirely. We’re not the first people in history to eat past our fill line (that definitely happened before tv)– so what is it that makes us lose our ability to stop eating when we’re full?
Margit Van Schaick says
Alana, I applaud you for this brave, honest post. You summarized the true challenge when you said:”All that unpronounceable crap is still in there, and junk food is still the food that most busy families can afford.”. We need to face this head-on, and not hide behind the fear that people will label us elitist. Industrial food is not good for us. So. What is the alternative. I suppose if you are rich enough and have a Whole Foods or similar store near you, you can solve much of this quandary by spending money. I imagine that there are many of us who don’t have that kind of money and/or don’t have access to good, non-industrial food. Here, in southern Vermont, I have to go across the state to the Brattleboro area to actually be able to do a “big shop” of good, healthy food. Access and expense are just the beginning of the problem. We also need to learn how to prepare good, healthy meals. How to use time efficiently, by planning and cooking ahead, say on the week-end, and freezing a portion. Gardening can also be another huge help in our goal of eating good, healthy food. We could consider using a blog such as yours to develop a resource bank of ideas, strategies, recipes, a COMMUNITY where we can share and learn, deal with the reality of our situation, and join together to create healthy changes in our personal lives, and dare we hope, our country as a whole. The start is what you did: call it what it is! Start the conversation, and don’t give up.
Thank you, Margit. I appreciate your optimism here. And like I said in my post, I think getting food into kids’ lives is a huge opportunity. We have a whole public school system, and there’s a budget to feed the kids there. Changing the way we think about THAT food system could be the thing that really makes the difference.
So many great thoughts! Thanks for sharing and articulating all of this Alana. The topic of what is best to put into our bodies is something I, also, think about a lot and sometimes pay a lot of attention to. Sometimes it is just too confusing because there is so much contradictory information. My husband has recently been focusing on loosing a lot of the excess weight that he has and has been reading a variety of books on food and health which in some ways has only added to the confusion. My conclusion, for now, is that we need to keep cooking. I keep trying to elaborate on this here but every sentence I type sounds too simplistic and cliche but I do think that real food with short lists of recognizable ingredients that we make ourselves will make a bigger difference than any label. I am sure that the process of cooking and thinking of food as more than calories and nutrients promotes overall health, well-being, and nourishment in ways that science can’t even explain. I wish I had a good solution for reaching more people and especially those who most need real nourishment. I hope I can be part of the solution in a bigger way than just spending time in the kitchen but in the mean time I will keep cooking and sharing food.
Anna, I think you’re on the right track. And although the bigger picture can feel too big, we do have an ability to start right where we are, in our own kitchens. I have to think that makes a difference.
I’ve been skinny for every one of the 28 years of my life. This may change but it’s my current status. I rarely exercise, especially not in the winter-time. I eat whatever I want (a fair amount of vegetables but also lots of cheese and dessert). I do not think that calories-in is the full determination of our weight. I think that it’s largely influenced by our genetics (especially when I look at my thin family). Some of us are always going to be fat and some of us always skinny regardless of how much we move or eat. For some people diet and exercise will have much more of an effect on their bodies.
As far as policy and politics go, I wish we could talk much more about nutritious food and healthy movement without talking about obesity. My lack of exercise is bad for me regardless of my weight. And I believe that nutritional labels should be tailored to the actual food. There’s not much use in a label that tells me there’s 0% vitamin C in a carton of milk if it could be telling me that there’s 20% of my Vitamin B12.
Here’s a resource that some people might find useful: http://www.haescommunity.org/
Thanks for this, Julia. There just isn’t one shape of a healthy body, and it’s so important to remember this. Great resource too- thank you.
I think that “calories in, calories out” is a good starting point, but not a good long-range plan. Everyone knows that portion control is a problem, especially when it comes to processed food and restaurant meals. But I think that processed food and restaurant meals are perhaps the real problem. That stuff has messed up our taste buds and our natural perception of what a full stomach feels like. I spent 3 years in my teens counting calories and eventually ended up obsessed and shockingly thin and trying to find my way back to normal from an eating disordered nightmare. For that reason, I don’t count calories anymore. I cook simple meals and enjoy treats too. The bad side of calorie obsession is feeling like certain foods are inherently evil … like you have to sneak them or hide them. Eventually, you cave and eat a whole bag of something and feel horrible about yourself. The way I eat now, I maintain a healthy weight and don’t feel a compulsive need to overindulge out of deprivation. Calorie counts are a good place to start because they train us to see true portion size. But they shouldn’t continually control our lives.
Thank you for this, Beka. I want to ask a questions specifically about the last part of your comment, that calorie numbers help us see “true portion size.” That seems to be an important piece! But aren’t those portion measurements fairly arbitrary? I feel like I eat pretty reasonable portions, but I will never get 8 servings of pasta out of a 1 lb. box. I guess that’s one of the goals of the new label–to have portion size more accurately represented.
Susan Damschen says
Labels, labels, labels. We can’t get away from them can we? Whether it’s the label on our packaged food, our clothing, or the “label” of our life choices, we are surrounded by labels. Sometimes they are self imposed and sometimes not. On the topic of food labels, I agree with Anna above. “Just keep cooking”. Fresh, whole ingredients doesn’t need a label. I’ve been curious for a while now why as a society we are told our children need to advance in math and science. We’re told they need to be on the cutting edge of technology. Yet without their health, none of that matters. I would love to see robust and in debth Home Ec classes brought back to the education system. I know the home is the best place to nurture good choices and health, but the industrialized food industry has really distanced many families from the basics of food knowledge. It’s time to turn the tide back to the basics and gain real knowledge about what we are putting into our body, not just what a company is required to put on a label.
Susan, I agree that we need to get home ec back into the schools, but I think it needs a new face. Let’s get the kids making lunch for each other! I’ve seen again and again that kids bring this education and enthusiasm back home- it’s a clear way to get to their parents.
Susan Damschen says
Oh my gosh I totally agree Alana. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have children come home and say ” I can make the salad mom. I made the salads for my classmates today” It’s known that when kids have a hand in the kitchen, they are more likely to eat the food served.
jen l says
As a pediatric nutritionist, I see the problem as much more than calories in, calories out. I tend to it focus less on the calorie content of foods, encouraging parents to swap whole foods in for processed in their daily lives. I focus on food as nourishing us and a healthy relationship with our food.
I think separating out the added sugars is a good step, but I don’t agree that making the calories font bigger is going to solve anything. I’ve got lots to say on this topic but I’ll leave it there for ow!
I’m glad to hear from someone in your field, Jen. How do you work with parents to bring the whole foods in? I find that it’s the practical questions: money, time, skills, that get people stuck. It would be great to hear about any experiences you might have had with helping people make transitions.
OK, this is going to be long, but the whole calorie “debate” is a pet issue of mine.
First of all: yes, it IS as simple as calories in – calories out. Called the caloric deficit, it is the one & only thing (despite countless studies looking to identify obesity “culprits” such as sugar, carbs, fat, etc.) that has been shown in well-conducted, peer-reviewed studies to impact body weight (outside of thyroid or other endocrine disruption, which is quite rare).
So, in some ways, weight loss is simple math: 1 lb of body weight = 3500 calories. You need to burn 3500 calories more than you take in in order to lose 1 lb. Therefore, if you were to either 1) decrease your standard diet by 350 calories a day, or 2) increase your calorie burn through exercise by 350 calories a day, in 10 days, you will have lost 1 lb of body weight.
Now, before I get all sorts of comments of the, “But I did X, Y, and Z and I never lost an ounce!!!” variety, let me state clearly: calories IN are easy to determine, for the most part. Manufacturer food labels or online databases have calorie counts for almost everything under the sun. Calories OUT are a different beast entirely, and this is where genetics, age, general fitness level and yes, even diet, can come into play.
Your resting metabolic rate, the number of calories that your body requires simply to function while at rest, varies according to your age, your fitness level, your amount of muscle mass, and your genetics. In addition, the number of calories it takes to accomplish certain tasks, from vacuuming the living room to running a 10K, will change over time depending on your fitness level and your body weight; i.e. it takes more caloric expenditure to move a 160-lb you over 10K than it does to move 140-lb you. So, while body weight loss does boil down to a simple in vs out equation, that “out” variable is a moving target. Add to that the fact that an extremely low-calorie diet (“starvation” diet) can negatively impact weight loss goals by lowering resting metabolic rate to the bare minimum and you can have a confusing situation, and many anecdotes like yours above that appear to indicate that calories are meaningless. I assure you: they are not.
Here’s the thing: calories are important information for people who want to lose weight. It’s well established in medical circles that the only commercial weight management plan that actually works (people lose weight and maintain that weight loss for at least 5 years) is Weight Watchers; and WW’s points program is basically just another way to count calories. Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight; hence calorie information *should* be front and center, easy to find, easy to understand, and representative of the portions that people actually consume.
Lastly, while total caloric intake is an important concept to understand for those trying to maintain a healthy body weight, in this arena I believe it is far less useful than paying attention to your body’s cues (i.e. hunger), understanding when & why you are prone to overeating (stress, emotional distress, etc.) and generally fostering a healthy relationship with food. In addition, total caloric content tells you nothing about the nutritional value of your diet: eat 1000 calories of Snicker’s bars a day, and you’ll lose weight (assuming you’ve been eating >1000/day). You won’t be *healthy* – but you’ll lose weight. There is far too much equating of weight loss with health (and diets that promote weight loss as “healthy”), IMO, and that is something I would dearly love to change. But demonizing the calorie, which is a valuable tool in your arsenal if you want to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, is not the way to go about it.
Christina @ My Homespun Home says
Thank you for this. While I would love everyone to be healthy and happy, and all the food we consume is made from scratch with our own hands from the gardens in our yards, it’s just not the world we live in at this time. A goal to strive for, of course, but not the current reality.
In the past 5-6 years, I’ve made more and more food from scratch. And I’ve gained about 15 pounds. While I’m not technically overweight, I don’t feel “in shape” and I simply felt better when I weighed less. Yes, part of this can be attributed to age and metabolism (thanks, turning 30), and change in the amount I move (though I gained the most the fastest last year when I was exercising 3-4 nights a week, and no, it wasn’t just gaining muscle).
At this point, I need to take a serious look at the amount of food I’m taking in, and that needs to involve counting calories. Portion sizes in this country are so completely out of whack that even when I cook for myself I want a full plate of food and that’s just not reasonable. The challenge is, of course, it’s really hard to gauge calories when you do cook from scratch a lot–how do you measure a dollop of this, a pinch of that, and how many portions did this make?
So I think vilifying counting calories (which is not what Alana is doing, but I do hear it from other corners of the “whole foods” movement) or changing labels to reflect them more prominently along with more realistic serving sizes is really misguided. And yes, a 100-calorie snack pack of processed cookies is not as good for you as a 100-calories of apple, but that’s where the education part comes in.
Kaela, thank you so much for laying it out like this. I am in no way trying to demonize the calorie- just try to understand its significance as we wade through all the information. And what I really take from your comment is the complexity involved in using calories as a tool for weight loss and health. I think calories are often used without an awareness of that complexity.
I know that *you* are not demonizing the calorie, so I’m sorry if my comment came across that way. I just see so much of it: any discussion of food, diet, body weight, obesity, health, etc., triggers all sorts of emotional responses, which is completely understandable – food is a heady topic. But it’s detrimental when we (“we” meaning society in general) start to equate a simple data point like the calorie with fat-shaming and guilt.
The calorie is nothing more than a unit measure of energy, no different than the wattage on a light bulb. We wouldn’t consider 20W light bulbs “good” and 100W bulbs “bad” would we? And the same way that wattage labels are useful for determining what light bulb you need for your particular task, calories are useful for determining how much energy is in a particular amount of food.
To return to the Weight Watchers analogy, basically what they did was to re-brand the calorie: repackaged it in units of 40 or 50 calories each (and factored in some scaling for fat & fiber) and called them “points” without ever once mentioning the dreaded C-word. It’s sort of brilliant, really.
I loved reading this post, especially since I just came from the grocery store where every magazine in the checkout lane yelled at me about calorie counting and being skinny and the new miracle diet that will make it so I never have to diet again. Blargh!
I very rarely, if ever, look at the calorie count on labels. Instead, I usually read the ingredients and see how the protein to sugar amounts measure up. Counting calories, to me, just seems like a terribly stressful thing that removes all the pleasure from cooking and eating. The more I learn about cooking and see how different foods affect my body and mood, the more I am convinced that eating healthy fats and lots of fruits and vegetables is the way to go.
Christa Reynolds says
I just wanna see ingredients! I am GF and paleo/primal if there are grains
Or corn syrup… Count me out! I want to not only be able to pronounce
The ingredients but possibly know their source! (I know I know asking alot!)
But, after being sick for so many years nothing is a joke. Nothing is worth
“Trying out”. Period. End of story. Let your gut be your guide, feed it well and move it often. Make time for fun, love and making great shi… Stuff to eat 😉
Heidi Haverkamp says
Great post. I believe we have a nationwide unhealthy obsession with body size. I think it’s borderline abusive. Should we learn to pay better attention to calories? (or the long list of other “musts” for weight loss that experts have chosen over the years) Or should we learn to pay better attention to our bodies – what they crave, want, need. Thanks for this, Alana.
Absolutely, Heidi. But the big question is how do we teach people to listen to their bodies? I don’t have an answer for this except for the tools I try to give my own kids. But it seems to be a huge task.
I rarely look at the calorie content of foods – I’m more interested in the ingredients list, and how many there are and if I can pronounce all of them! “Calories-in < calories-out" is the basic formula for weight loss, yes, but not for nutrition, and I think that the obesity issue is more of a nutrition problem. Teaching people to choose low calorie foods is not going to serve them as well as teaching them to choose nutritious foods, having them understand protein and carbs and fats and vitamins and minerals, etc, and that these things are actually good for you! My feeling on calorie counting is that it puts food in a negative light, like something that is bad and should be avoided/restricted, when in fact food is fuel and we require it for survival. We just need to be taught/reminded what the good sources of fuel are!
Great topic. I just wanted to add one thing – I think it’s really interesting that here we are a group of food conscious people talking about the importance of labeling food – and no one has mentioned a hugely important issue that is also on the table right now in our country that would effect us waaaaaay more than whether or not calories are accurately included on food labels in big letters … Genetically Modified Organisms – Labeling Foods with GMOs. Sure wish Ms. Obama would have included that in her push to revamp food labeling. Here we are talking about labeling and food and health and good choices and economics and we almost Completely forgot that most devious and deceptive of food topics sitting right there at our tables.
No label is ever going to replace an education in nutrition for a consumer holding a product in their hand – but a label that clearly states whether there are GMOs in that product they are holding – is the simplest and most effective way to help everyone (those who understand nutrition and those who do not) make a choice. If food isn’t labeled for GMOs, then even the wealthiest and most nutritionally conscious among us cannot accurately make good choices for ourselves or our families.
Just wanted to throw that out there to remind us how important it is to keep the calorie debate in perspective.
Christa Reynolds says
I am with you girl! If I wanted GMO’s in my body I would ask for them- said no one ever! If I had known all the damage I was doing to myself a few years ago (unintentionally) However, damage is damage. Power in knowledge.
Yes, Erika- thank you for bringing this up. Once we start talking about labeling… well, we really open up the box, right? But it’s important to keep the GMO conversation present when we’re talking about being informed eaters. And honestly, whenever I try to get deeper into research about GMO’s and how the labeling fight is going, I get lost. I need to know more- and especially over the course of these comments (here and on FB) I’m seeing that we need to discuss this issue too.
All calories are not equal. I’m currently counting calories while eating foods as “whole” as possible. It has helped me lose 34 pounds (with 16 still to go for my goal). I’m using the calorie counting as a tool, not a “diet” per say. Also, if one doesn’t count calories or understand how many calories are needed/should be limited to per day than a number is not going to make sense or give any sort of guidance, no matter how big or small the number is printed on the label.
“Not all calories are equal” -AMEN! That is the concern I have with calorie counting – people assume that something labeled “low calorie” is good for them, when it’s really full of “Frankenfood” (as Dr. Mark Hyman http://drhyman.com/ calls it)
As to the education in our schools – THAT opens a whole ‘nother can of worms, as a group of concerned parents discovered at my son’s school – Parents are VERY touchy about someone else telling their child what they should or shouldn’t eat (as one parent pointed out, the chocolate milk that her child drinks at lunch may be the only “sweet” the child gets that day – so who are you to say it’s “bad”)
I’ve found that the best I can do is to read the ingredients…if I know what they are then I feel comfortable buying that item. And YES, I want to know about GMOs in my food.
Beth @ Rhubarb and Venison says
Like you, I only flip to the label for the ingredients listing. I never, ever count calories, but then again, I’ve never needed to. At 32, my weight stays steady, plus or minus 3 or 4 pounds depending on season (holidays = gain! summer = more exercise!), and I attribute that to three things: 1) genetics, 2) regular exercise, and 3) an 80/20 rule when it comes to processed food, meaning a little bit now and then is ok, but overall stick to whole foods (and cook from the Homemade Pantry cookbook!). Great post, Alana.
And I have no calorie counts on my recipes! Glad that’s ok with you 🙂
“I think we need to find ways to help people find access to and inspiration about good food.” Amen, sister. I’m skeptical about calories, but not as they pertain to weight gain/loss – rather as they pertain to FOOD – since if we’re reading a label, we’re eating something in a package – and if/when that is the case, then I do believe we should be focused on the ingredients rather than the calories. Most of us can’t avoid some packaged food (bread, oats, almond butter and jam are all on my weekly shopping list despite our “no processed foods” stance at our house – other things too, like kimchi and lemon curd and cheeses, noodles and soy sauce, etc) – if we look at ingredients rather than calories we are much more likely to get real food, right? I think I’m with you that maybe this isn’t where we need to put our energies right now. I do generally appreciate Michelle Obama and Marion Nestle and their perspectives, so I’m inclined to be on their side – but maybe not precisely, on this one. … I love reading everyone’s comments. Thanks for such a thoughtful post Alana.
Thank you, Hannah. We have a definite mixed food pantry, too, and because I’m often shopping quickly, I find I just look for a few quick indicators on the label. HFCS is one of the only things that I keep out entirely, but then if the list of ingredients is REALLY long, I put it back on the grocery shelf without looking too hard on it. And as for Michelle Obama, and Marion Nestle, my sense is that they’re probably both working on the idea (as one commenter here put it) that people just need one thing to look at-that the average person can’t handle much more. It’s a start, for sure. But sometimes I wonder if we should give people more credit.
too many thoughts are swirling around in my head right now. I very much agree with everything you said. My first thought when I heard focus on calories was oh no. Don’t we have enough problems with body image and being comfortable in our bodies now without adding more fuel and guilt to it? I had so hoped that Marion would disagree but she didn’t. And no it is not just about calories in and calories out. There are actually more and more studies demonstrating that. Eating does involved emotions not just in terms of how it impacts how those calories are incorporated (i.e. stress hormones on digestion) but the comfort we obtain from the food (which is not all bad in my book). In terms of obesity I really think it would help if people ate more real food. And yes that means no GMO’s and without residual chemicals and antibiotics. So please let them get the labels cleaned up in terms of the ingredients and what those words all mean or don’t mean. Let’s focus on educating people – adults and kids – on what real and fresh food taste like and how to prepare it well. Those things to me are the bases on which to build healthy bodies and lives.
Yes Jacquie- we’re back to the power of cooking! Definitely preaching to the choir here, but I do feel that that’s the solution.
If calories determine what is healthy, than a cup of sugar free jello is far healthier than an avocado, or even an apple.
Christina @ My Homespun Home says
But I don’t think anyone is saying only healthy foods have few calories, and only bad foods have a lot of calories, and I don’t think that’s the purpose of putting more visible calorie counts on products.
I agree, Christina. I think the purpose is much more about portion size. And of course, that’s related to health in some way, but it’s not saying anything about the nutritional value of the food.
Broccoli doesn’t have a label.
(Waaaaaay too many thoughts to capture in a blue box, because oh, this subject is so near and dear to my heart. So let’s leave it here: the food that I love, the food we “ought” to eat, the really great goods that will get us out of this rut? Precious little of it comes with any print at all, irrespective of font size. *Sigh* is my first response. Rosie the Riveter, my second. Man, how to marshal forces and get the food from the small real farms to the people??)
Keep it coming, Alana.
Oh, Molly- you got right to the heart of it. As a recovering politician, I still feel like there has to be a fix in the system! It’s got to be fixable. And somehow, even if it happens slowly, the real food can get to the people.
I think this fixation on calories (which seems to be predominantly in North America) causes us to have a simplistic relationship to food. We don’t just eat food for calories; we eat it for nourishment, for pleasure, in the company of good friends over a glass of wine, we combine foods for colour, texture, taste, etc. I do realize that not everyone has access to fresh, healthy food and that is shameful in our society where there is such an abundance of food. I volunteer at a food bank and I see what kind of food is given to those in need. This is “filler” food like hot dogs, white bread and Kraft dinner. We cannot expect people to function, feel healthy, or think clearly on such a diet. As an aside, there are lots of changes happening at the food bank, including cooking workshops, handing out crock pots and more fresh fruit and vegetables. But I do think that there’s a focus in North America on quantity over quality. Instead of eating a square or 2 of dark chocolate, people will eat whole bags of cookies or chips. This is not food that leaves you feeling satisfied or provides any nutrition. We need to eat real, good quality food in reasonable quantities with the occasional treat thrown in.
Sarah- it’s true- I’ve seen some good changes happing in in food banks and other government programs. I feel like this is absolutely a place where real change can occur. When my babies were little, I relied on the WIC program really heavily. It was all milk, cheese, peanut butter, etc. Now, there’s a WIC farmers’ market here where people on the program can get veggies for free! Small steps, but REALLY good ones.
I have recently started tracking daily calories again with an app on my phone. It is a tool that helps me make better choices. While I love the idea of listening to my body, it lies to me! Too many years of processed/added crap and over-sized portions has made the “feed me sugar and deep-fried anything” voice the loudest in my head. Recording everything that I put in my mouth, actually measuring and weighing portions, helps me not lie to myself. Because even when you’re eating real and healthy foods, too much is still too much.
It’s true, Candy- I think that calorie counting can add a real mindfulness to eating that’s really effective for people. I think, for some, it’s a way to be conscious about how they eat.
The post and comments are great! I think one of the most important things on new labels would be to identify “added sugars.”
I agree, Stephanie. I think the new sugars listing will help people figure out what exactly is in there- and that’s a good step.
Mostly, I wish the money/effort being put into labels on packages was instead directed toward getting people to eat food that doesn’t come in packages.
And, I LOVE the idea of getting kids to prepare each other’s lunches – BRILLIANT!
We do live in the real world, however, and even my family (one that strives to eat as much whole foods as we can), buys snacks, bread, condiments, and other things, in packages. And, I’m glad the labels are there. But, mostly I read the labels for ingredients. When I buy a snack for my 5-year-old, I don’t care about the calories. I care that there’s not a ton of sugar and food coloring. He needs calories, but they need to be quality calories.
On the other hand, many people who are not skinny, active 5-year-olds, would benefit greatly from eating fewer calories. But, is changing the way they are labeled on packages the answer? I tend to think not. If someone is using the information on labels to count their daily intake, they are able to do the math to figure out how many calories are in multiple servings — regardless of the size of the serving, or the size of the font the calorie count is written in.
And, my thoughts go on, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Apologies to those of who have seen this already on facebook…I posted this comment over there too. There is definitely some good conversation here as well about the food labeling issue!
I think we have to look at the food labeling issue as a part of a bigger public health issue, namely obesity. As an ER nurse and student nurse practitioner, I wish folks could kind of picture themselves in the following scenario: the numbers 5 (as in 5 ft something) and 3 (as in 300 something lbs) are worn out on the computer in triage. Your patient fits the bill, seems marginally literate, is emotionally and physically overwhelmed by problems of poverty, has cultural and physical barriers to the kind of cooking you or I are accustomed to and has a host of obesity related problems. I can tell you that folks can’t estimate a cup of something or eyeball a serving of meat for you. You need to pick ONE helpful thing to focus on (they’ll forget more than that!). ONE. what do you tell them? I know its such a world away from other health concerns like GMOs, organic vs non-organic…and your other commenter is right…its very hard to surpass your daily calorie intake on a diet of: kale smoothie for breakfast, veggie soup for lunch and sushi for dinner but such a diet is in the minority, not the majority.
I’ll add that my general position, as a nurse, is that counting calories isn’t a bad place to start on a path to better health but its only one step in a long journey.
Great! I couldn’t agree more! As the mother of a teenage girl, I say bravo! I’m sharing this with everyone i can. Thank you so much!
so much better to eat food that is full of nutrients and healthy fats (and thus, calories) than sugar laden garbage. one type satiates, the other does not. people fill themselves up with junk and then we wonder why the world is getting fatter! my family eats probably 95% real, whole food. in addition to consuming lots of fruits and veggies, we are whole milk drinkers, bacon eaters, sour cream users. we love eggs and cheese and olive oil and coconut and all things that are healthy in moderation. these foods make you feel full, nourished. your body self regulates when you feel that way and are getting the nutrients you need!