Sep 03 2008

Calorie Count: A Timely Blast from the Past

Published by at 6:15 am under Obesity epidemic

We have no idea what we are eating. Really.

I was recently sharing my weight loss struggles with a dear friend, explaining that I have to be so very careful when eating prepared foods, whether purchased from a grocery store (i.e. a frozen dinner) or enjoyed in a restaurant. The calorie count in prepared foods (when I could even find the numbers) can be deceptively high.

She was sympathetic and told me about a study in which dietitians and nutritionists consistently underestimated the calories in various meals. She noted that if professionals couldn’t gauge the calories they were eating, the general public could hardly be expected to do better.

Curious about this study, I searched for it. A New York Times article concerning the study and its implications was easily found, though I was shocked to see that the article was published in 1997.

Much in this article confirmed several sneaking suspicions that I have had about the way we as a culture understand nutrition, diet, obesity, and weight loss, namely:

1. We have no idea of what, or how much, we are eating.

2. We don’t know these things because for the most part, we are not preparing our own food nor are we serving our own food. This means that we are allowing others (often with a profit motive) to determine what and how much we eat.

3. Prepared and restaurant foods are designed (emphasis on “designed”) to to “sell”: People typically want to pay for food that is going to satisfy cravings and be a “good value” (i.e. served in large portions). Appropriate nutrition is not usually the goal in designing these foods/meals.

4. Telling people to “weigh and measure” their food, or to “eyeball” their portions is good advice, but it only works to a point. Unless one knows the recipe, there is no real way to determine the exact calorie count of what one is eating.

5. This also means, sadly, that many nutrition/diet studies are of questionable value, because they are often based on self-reporting. But if nutritionists/dietitians can’t determine the calorie count of what they are eating, what makes study directors think that the average study participant can?

Depressing? Maybe, but this information also gives me some hope. It gets me believing that education, in addition to behavior modification, may be the key to teaching many people what “normal” eating ought to be. It also means means that people will need to learn to cook and serve their own food as part of a “normal” lifestyle. But cooking is both fun and economical, so encouraging people to cook would be a very positive cultural shift.

In any case, I’ll be blogging more about my own weight loss efforts, and l look forward to hearing from readers about their own experiences!

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