What a nutritionist wants everyone to know about calories

The government’s controversialnew legislation on introducing calories on menus has started a conversation around the triggering nature of counting calories. But the conversation around counting calorie intake and holistic health is way more nuanced, says sports nutritionist Renee McGregor. 

Last week, the government announced that it would force all cafes, restaurants and takeaways in England to publish the amount of calories in meals on their menus. This was a controversial move for many reasons. For many of the 1.25 million individuals in the UK known to be suffering from an eating disorder presently, it caused heightened anxiety around eating out. 

While these individuals may still be in the minority, for many other people calorie counts may just take some of the enjoyment out of going to a restaurant (which is even more of a shame after the year we’ve had). After all, we are a society obsessed with health, food and image. But these new rules also further demonise calories, eating and obesity.

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Calorie shaming

Calories are nothing to be ashamed about. Actually they are just a unit of measurement. A calorie is defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by 1°C. Thus, a calorie is a unit of energy or heat that arises from the combustion of the nutritional components of our diet. 

We need calories in order to provide us with the energy required to live; every single biological process in the body requires energy and this has to come from the food we eat, which gets broken down to yield energy.

Despite the current discourse, most people don’t need to count their intake of calories. Our body has its own control system that helps to regulate our energy levels. We are all born with this ability; humans are biologically biased to achieve energy balance which means when you exercise regularly, you generally consume more food and energy to meet your requirements, and vice versa. The issue is that societal pressures and the rise of social media, exercise tech and food tracking apps means that many of us have become more dependent on external cues. 

Calories on menus: shaming people into the lowest calorie option isn’t ‘healthy’.

The ‘low calorie’ problem

Being aware of what is in food is important. But we constantly hear about the negative impact and consequences of overconsuming calories, and it’s important to remember that these side effects only come from consistently eating more calories than our bodies may need over a chronic period of time. One evening out eating a pizza with friends is not going to leave a stamp on your physical health. Even if you over consume for a few days or a few weeks, such as when on holiday, and then go back to your normal intake, your body will do a very good job at returning to that much loved set point of balance. 

Being shamed into opting for the lower calorie version of foods isn’t actually healthy – it’s most likely setting your body up for failure. Being in a caloric deficit, where you put in fewer calories than your body needs, can actually be harmful. If the body is continually unable to reach energy balance, it will go into compensatory behaviours. 

This is why, for those who chose to, losing weight is often hard – the body wants to maintain its status quo – but it also means that it starts to slowly shut down biological processes in order to preserve energy. While this will be different for everyone, it could present in a depressed immune system, digestive issues due to slow motility in the gut, changes to menstruation, higher rates of depression and bone health issues. 

One evening out eating a pizza with friends is not going to leave a stamp on your physical health

A 2018 Danish paper found that if you have a BMI between 24 and 27 – traditionally classed as ‘overweight’ – you actually have lower mortality rates than people who have a lower BMI. Nobody talks about these things because it’s so ingrained in us that being smaller makes us healthier; that the ‘move more, eat less’ mantra is how we should all live.

Calorie labelling has been available for many years but despite this, has had no significant impact or outcome on rates of obesity or served as a means of education. The failure of current interventions to achieve any meaningful, long-term results in combating obesity, which is what the government claims to want, could reflect a failure to appreciate the physiologic processes underlying energy balance. 

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Prioritising mental health

We know that obesity is multifactorial. It has underlying links with genetics, behaviour and socio-economic status, as well as mental health. Just putting numbers next to food isn’t enough – we need to talk about behaviours and emotions too. Dysfunctional behaviours around food are just the symptom, the medium by which an individual chooses to deny difficult and uncomfortable feelings. New approaches that consider how the energy balance system works should replace the existing focus on widespread food restriction and weight loss – neither of which are a sign of health.

It is important to remember that health is an attitude and also includes our emotional health. Sometimes having a piece of cake and coffee while chatting to a friend actually brings you more peace and wellbeing than pursuing a green smoothie that has been depicted as “healthy”. Perhaps further education for food manufacturers on better methods of food preparation would be a more appropriate starting point than shaming people for eating.

As told to Chloe Gray. 

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