Did you know that the Calorie originated as a unit of heat?
I guess it makes sense then that we talk about "burning" 200 calories on the elliptical.
The crazy case of the calorie
A long time ago in a land far, far away a guy burned some food as fuel to warm some water and called it a Calorie (the measured heat signature of burning specific foods to increase the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius). That sounds strange, for sure, but that's a fairly accurate summary.
Have you ever considered while chewing your dinner that once that chewed up cheeseburger reaches your stomach it gets lit on fire and creates heat which fuels the furnace of your body? No? Well then you may have a greater grasp of nutrition than you previously thought because (spoiler alert!) your body doesn't light food on fire. But it does create energy -- which is literally what metabolism is -- the energy created by breaking down and re-grouping the molecules of our food to be used by the body.
Have you ever considered your body a container of water in need of heating? I mean, I guess we could since we are largely made of water but...not exactly an accurate comparison is it? Not when you take into account different genetics, body types, and backgrounds, etc.
I, for one, think of myself as far more complex than a water balloon.
Historically, calorimetry (the food-burning and heat measuring science) was then used as a metric to quantify nutritional requirement related to energy expenditure for livestock (i.e. the cheapest way to feed animals but still get work out of them).
Have you ever thought of how to feed yourself the cheapest food and stay alive? Isn't this the current culture of the American fast-food experiment? I'm as frugal as anyone (probably more than most, to be honest), but you can count me out of a diet of Ramen and dollar menus. I'd wager you don't think of yourself as livestock or appreciate that food manufacturers use similar "nutritional science" on us. "Let's put this Franken-food on a whole wheat bun and call it healthy, mmkay."
And don't even get me started on food and drug marketing... that'll create a heat signature, for sure.
So why then do we define ourselves by the imperfect science of calorie counting?
The Metrics of our Worth
Listen, I'm not here to debate "calories in/ calories out" because that's legit. Except...
Except I believe it is more a case of inputs versus outputs. And the quality of our inputs and outputs. And the awareness of how those inputs and outputs make us feel -- metabolically, emotionally, mentally, and even in some cases, spiritually.
Reducing "healthy" lifestyles into caloric metrics means that we adopt incomplete science as the gospel. Not every person's body uses calories the same or burns calories the same! Did you know that?!
Take two moms as an example: One is nursing a baby while the other is playing chauffeur to middle school-aged kids -- completely different caloric needs! Without even taking into account body type, preferences (vegans vs. carnivores), activity level, etc. So how is it that we've established that Americans should consume a diet in the neighborhood of 2000 calories? We're not livestock. And we certainly don't walk around with calorimeters and calculators.
The margin of error on nutrition labels for calories can be upwards of 20%.
Why then do we count so carefully when the science isn't exact?
And again, we aren't perfectly weighed and measured water balloons. We are complex, preferential, and unique beings. And we have begun to use the calorie as a metric which determines our worth! We give in to the fear of not doing it "right."
If you eat too many or too few then you're bad/wrong/unhealthy.
If you eat just enough but the wrong ones then you're bad/wrong/unhealthy.
But if you've accidentally tripped and fallen on a system that works for you then you are elevated to "fit" status and everyone wants to do exactly as you've done. And you tell them you did x and chances are x won't work for them like it worked for you because 1) you don't really know what did it for you or why it worked and 2) they have a different physiological makeup.
Some are uncomfortable without a metric. Some feel adrift without solid data to direct their paths. I'm a Type A, I get it. Tell me The Rules and I'll follow them. But tell me it's fluid and you lose me. It's been a journey of freedom and acceptance and trial and error. So what do we tell one another to get them on the path to healthy if we have no metric?
The Method and Meaning of Sane Nutrition
I won't sugarcoat it: the answer is easy to say but hard to do. It requires those seemingly superfluous senses of connection. We have to recognize that feeling unwell or feeling crappy is enough to put effort into seeking change. We have to acknowledge that our bodies are trying to communicate a message worth hearing.
What is your body saying? Allow me to translate, ahem:
Eat REAL food!
Drink REAL beverages!
Grow in intrapersonal awareness (know thyself)!
Discover the movement your body loves!
I say it all the time -- there is no destination. You don't arrive at healthy. Healthy isn't a title that you earn. Healthy is a behavior. Every day is filled with choices that either serve or enslave you. If you choose the ones that serve you the majority of the time... congratulations, you're healthy! And the side effects of that behavior over time will be represented in lower body fat percentages, increased energy and enjoyment of life, greater self-confidence, lower blood pressure, stabilized blood sugars, reduced risk of disease and untimely death, etc.
Why keep spinning our wheels trying on what has worked for others when we could just use the best practices from all methods: eat better quality food, eat it in lesser portions, and exercise.
To begin to shift our perspective from one of taking score and always losing with calories to one in which we recognize that each meal is an opportunity to treat our bodies better permits greater freedom. Let go of the rules and improve your behaviors. I promise that after you adjust your mindset and accept that the calorie rules don't apply to you and you stop playing that game you'll be free to live a more fulfilling life.
And that's our goal, isn't it? Not to be slaves to adding and subtracting our every move but enjoying the moves we make?
I believe so.
Here is an in-depth article about the history (and mystery) of the calorie: https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/136/12/2957/4663943
And one for those who want something a little less boring: