I counted. And counted. And counted. Until my mental mathematic skills were better than they had ever been. Until the numbers got smaller and smaller. Then I counted some more.
In 2010 54% of the US adult population referred to themselves as being ‘on a diet’ (an increase of 30% from 10 years earlier), and 44% of these use calorie counting as a method. Counting the intake of energy into our bodies has been proven to be an effective and theoretically easy way to lose or gain weight. We live in a world which makes tracking even more accessible. A fifth of the British population use calorie tracking smart-phone applications and there are hundreds of these apps to ‘help’ us watch the energy (not) going in and weight dropping off. Each has its own way of presenting the rigorous tracking in a more positive light- the ‘weight loss coach’ the ‘fitness pal’, the ‘healthy living tracker’- and very few (though there are exceptions) present themselves for what they are: ways to keep a food diary with lots of numbers you probably don’t fully understand and one number you do: your calories.
What is a calorie? According to Google Dictionary, one kcal is the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories and often used to measure the energy value of foods. A calorie (short for kilocalorie) is a unit of energy, nothing more and nothing less. It is not a malicious device to force weight onto your hips or something to burn off to ‘allow’ you to eat more. Additionally, each of our bodies extracts calories in different ways. Digestion is so complex that a calorie counter will never be fully accurate. The energy gained from a food depends on its species, our preparation, bacteria in our gut and how much energy we use to digest different foods. To quote Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet, "the issue is that the number of calories on food packages is really the number of calories that are available in the food, not what your body uses."
The average person in the UK is recommended to eat around 2000 kcal per day, with more recommended for active lifestyles. Yet, research has shown the average UK citizen to consume around 3440 kcal a day. According to MyFitnessPal, one 25g packet of Hula Hoop crisps contains 127 calories. A large banana amounts to about 121 calories. 25g of dark chocolate is around 141 kcal. Half a small avocado is an equally similar amount at around 120 kcal. This is around 6% of your RDA of energy.
Above I have counted nutrients. It’s complicated and long. Each food has its benefits. Even if nutritionally Hula Hoops are lacking in most areas other than taste, the salt, carbohydrates and fats they contain make them the perfect hangover snack as these are the things our bodies crave to expiate the alcohol from our bodies- ergo they are a necessity sometimes. A simple nerdy look at the finer details of some of our favourite foods can reassure their positive contributions to our bodies.
However, counting nutrients (whether on top of or instead of calories) still focuses our attentions on the numbers entering our bodies.
As most of you will know, my largest digital footprint is encompassed in the Instagram blog @count.nutrients.not.calories which has had the same name since its creation in June 2014. At the time of creating my account, my mind was warped with a focus on counting and not counting my intake and exercise. I was in a period of hope, I had enjoyed an untracked breakfast, a sweet fruity release from the tight ropes and entanglement I spent years either side of that meal trapped within. Even in this moment of euphoria at the taste of freedom, I chose counting. To think back to the origins of what has had such a positive influence on other people’s lives as well as my own makes me feel both proud to have journey from such a dark place and sorrowful that the dark place formed such an integral part of my history.
Were I to name the account now, I am not sure what it would be. Perhaps a catchier way of saying ‘you don’t have to count calories to be happy’, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it. I believe now, the message of count.nutrients.not.calories is not to rigorously track the numbers on the packets, but to mentally note the good things in everything you eat and in your experiences. We cannot spend our lives saying no to a Polo because it has 7 calories, or writing down on our phones or in little notebooks every time we eat an apple.
A study commissioned by Fiona Hope of SodaStream revealed that the average adult counts calories for 338 days of their life (men around 308 days, and women 355) – thus about 121 hours per year reading, researching, talking or thinking about calories. These are scary figures. We can’t spend our lives with our minds wrapped around accounting and preoccupied by our bodies’ chemical reactions. There are so many things in this world worth doing and seeing which our societal obsession for counting calories will prevent. Birthday parties, nights out, work lunches, family meals, holidays, travelling the world or on business trips- it is more than worth it to be living our lives without the niggling thoughts in the back of our brains.
A favourite saying of mine seems the only appropriate way to end this article, ‘no matter how many green smoothies you drink or vegetables you eat, if you still regret the cake you ate two weeks ago, that’s not healthy.’
I’m Bea. Like the insect, the letter, the verb. Any jokes have already been made.