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The Evil Plot to Persuade You that Calories Are All That Matter

Posted Aug 17 2012 6:10am

If you are reading this, you’re not normal.

The fact that you would be interested in reading a post like this places you squarely out of that part of the bell curve where most people reside. To them, the title of this post might resonate as paranoid or foolish – or not resonate at all. ‘Somebody has way too much time on their hands’ they might say to themselves, as if I was questioning the length of an inch.

While I think someday I could write a book about calories – particularly ‘food calories’ as invented by Wilbur Olin Atwater – right now I wanted to put forth a relatively simple proposition: while there is much debate about whether calories matter, in the larger picture this debate is meaningless.

While people interested in nutrition debate if and how calories count, regular, ordinary people who do not spend their time on such things count calories.

And regardless of the outcome of this debate, one aspect of calorie counting would probably not be denied by any side in the discussion: counting calories allows food manufacturers to sell food with no nutritive value.

In marketing, the art directors decide the size of the biggest fonts. The lawyers and regulators determine the size of the smallest font.

In the image above, look at the size of the ‘100 cal’ on the box. To take up that much real estate is a clear indication that the cookies in the box are not trying to make the sale because they are tasty, because the manufacturer is known for quality, and certainly not because the cookies are nutritious.

What moves these empty calories off the shelf is the boast of only 100 calories. Yes – there’s a nutrition label – on the side – and an ingredient label – both in the smallest type allowable by law. But if you’re over 40, better have your glasses with you – especially for that ingredient label.

Now – why, exactly, am I getting my shorts in a twist here about 100 measly calories? What’s the big deal?

Exactly.

This is exactly why food manufacturers love calories – they completely divorce what is actually in the food you put into your body from a measurement that a lot of people use – for better or worse – as a benchmark for what they should put into their body.

Yeah – they give you the complete nutrition info and ingredients – but only 60 percent of people actually read the nutrition labels  and fewer understand them .

Even fewer must read the ingredients.

And if you buy into the notion of using calories to watch your food intake, about the worst thing you can do to yourself (unless you’re a numbers freak and love to calculate stuff) is to cook your own food from scratch.

Let’s say you want to deep fry your own chips, for example. You buy high temperature oil and pour it into the deep fryer. Slice the potatoes, and fry them up, lay them on a paper towel to soak up the excess oil, then eat a dozen. How many calories was that?

Well, you can find out that a medium potato is about 160 calories, and a teaspoon of canola oil is about 120 calories. But you deep-fried them in an entire bottle – how many tablespoons are in the chips?

I suppose if you’d like to find that out you can pour the remaining oil into a measuring cup, and if you knew how much you started with, you can subtract that number of ounces from what left and find out you used 4 fluid ounces.

But then how much got soaked into the paper towel? It’s not a trivial calculation as oil is very calorically dense and even a small amount is a lot of calories. Well, you can weigh the potato beforehand, then afterward, calculate the difference in weight, then calculate the weight of the oil by converting the fluid ounces – a volumetric measurement – into weight, then determining the total…

Or just say ‘screw it – let’s just buy some chips in a 100-calorie snack bag.’

So you see, marketing designed to encourage counting calories is carefully designed to drive you toward processed food. If you eat unprocessed food, you’re more likely to eat way better in terms of quality and without a load of preservatives and pesticides – but you won’t be able to count calories all that well.

So maybe no matter who wins the debate on whether calories count is missing the point entirely? Maybe we should stop counting calories because it leads to poor food choices?

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