Shut up, Shut up About Calories

Shut up, Shut up About Calories

cw: food, calories, health, mention of eating disorders.
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Sometime last year, I was chatting with a family member on the phone while I was cooking dinner. We chatted while I chopped veggies and cooked quinoa and roasted beets. What was I going to put on top of this fresh summer salad, my relative asked? “I think I’ll just mix a bunch of tchina with some lemon juice and olive oil,” I mused. My relative gave a click of their tongue. “Tchina is *very* high in calories,” they warned, “don’t use too much.” I looked down at the container in my hands and slowly put it back on the shelf.

 

I’ve heard the same thing from other family members or older friends when I’ve talked about avocadoes, my obsession with peanut butter, splurging on chalva, even greek yogurt. “Sure, it’s theoretically good for you,” I’m told, “but it’s so high in calories. Don’t have too much.”

 

This is not an appropriate statement to make to someone in almost any circumstance.

 

When you warn someone about the calorie content of something they’re eating or about to eat, you’re telling people who aren’t fat that they should be afraid of fatness and food, and you’re telling fat people that the way they exist is wrong and that they need to change for you.

Not everyone goes through life thinking about calories, and not everyone should. Sure, we can measure weight gain and loss by calculating caloric intake vs. calories burned, but when you warn someone about the caloric value of something they want to eat, you’re making an assumption that they’re thinking about their weight at this stage in their life. Same goes with fat and sugar content. These are things we think about because we, as a culture, are obsessed with weight. The health aspect of food choices can be fairly easily covered by the concept of a “balanced diet”, without needing to calorie count.

 

Yes, parents have a duty to teach their children about what “healthy” food looks like. A fact that a human should know is how calories become fat, and how exercise factors into that cycle. But by bringing it up again and again over someone’s life, you’re treating food like something to be scared of.

Unhealthy foods can cause someone to gain weight, and weight gain is linked to heart disease, fatty liver disease, back pain, and a number of other health problems. But there is zero way to know if a fat person has heart problems, liver problems, back problems, and there are plenty of fat people who are healthy and happy. Unless you are the doctor of someone who is fat, you should never say anything to them about their weight or about the foods they’re eating. Unless you are the doctor of someone who is NOT fat, you should never say anything to them about their weight or about the foods they’re eating.

 

Something else to remember is that we need calories to live! “That’s high in calories,” I’ve been warned. “Great!” I wish I’d responded. “I need calories to keep my body running! I appreciate the heads up that I should absolutely eat this in order to survive!”

Food isn’t evil. Calories aren’t evil. And by warning people away from those things, you’re making food into a monster that young people – especially women, queer people, and folks in other marginalized groups – are terrified of.

 

A quick google suggests that up to 3.5% of women and up to 2% of men have a diagnosed eating disorder at some point in their lives. I can’t even tell you how many more experience undiagnosed eating disorders – just by thinking over conversations with close friends over my life, I recall up to a third of my loved ones in my generation disclosing that they’re had periods of disordered eating. As a culture, we place enormous value judgements on fatness – to be fat is to be morally wrong. On top of that, our media shows that anyone not skeletal is fat. What do those things placed together do to people? It makes us feel that to be NOT in a constant state of dieting and weight loss/maintenance makes us bad people.

 

If you are the parent of a young person, or helping someone with reduced cognitive ability pick out foods, I suggest framing food choices in terms of how your body will feel. Talk about what a healthy body feels like. Talk about what kinds of pain come from an unbalanced diet*. But don’t talk about weight loss like it’s a moral imperative.

If you are talking to anyone who isn’t your young child or your ward, don’t talk about the kinds of foods they’re choosing to eat. If they’re an adult, they know, and they are empowered to make their own decisions**. Just buzz off, and let us eat our tchina in peace.

 

 

 


* talking about scurvy is awesome. Did you know that if you don’t get enough vitamin C and you get scurvy, your body stops producing collagen and all of your old scars open up and start bleeding? Bet’cha want an orange now, huh?

** This is, of course, different if someone asks you to give them a hand. This might look like someone asking their partner who cooks to cut out a food group they don’t want to be eating, or someone saying to their coworker, “don’t offer me any cake; I’ll say yes!” And people are ALLOWED to lose weight and to count calories. Just don’t ever make the assumption that someone is prioritizing calorie counting without them explicitly saying so.

3 thoughts on “Shut up, Shut up About Calories

  1. I agree with you on trying not to instill in people a troubled relationship with food, because that can indeed lead to eating disorders. But you miss the mark by quite a bit with this statement:

    “When you warn someone about the calorie content of something they’re eating or about to eat, you’re telling people who aren’t fat that they should be afraid of fatness and food, and you’re telling fat people that the way they exist is wrong and that they need to change for you.”

    When you tell your friends “I think you’ve had too many drinks to drive”, you are not trying to drunk-shame them. You are making a statement that the choice they are making will carry significant statistical risk of dying earlier.

    If you were not aware, the BMI is basically an index constructed around longevity – the “normal” zone is determined by looking at maximum life expectancy. If you are thinner, you die earlier. If you are heavier, you die earlier. That’s simply how the BMI is constructed.

    So telling people they should watch their weight is in some sense the same as telling them not to smoke, or not to drive drunk. I am fully aware that negative body-image and societal beauty standards etc are a serious issue, but so is dying early because of poor diet. In fact, behavioral factors such as food/exercise coices cause a large portion of deaths and disease, especially in western countries.

    So telling your readers to “shut up” about one of the lagest causes of death strikes me as
    a) severely anti-science
    b) severely irresponsible

    Maybe have a look here and reconsider:
    https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMra1203528

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    1. forgot to mention: in the link, you will find the data that more deaths are attributable to high bmi than to alcohol…

      Just to put some context behind my “telling people not to drive drunk” analogy…

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      1. Drinking and driving is an immediate short-term issue – it doesn’t matter whether this is how much you drink every night or if this is your one blowout of the year, it matters whether *you are drunk right now*. You can absolutely judge whether someone has drunk too much to drive *tonight* based on what you’ve observed of their behaviour *tonight*.The chances of dying from alcohol-related *accidents* while actually drunk is separate from increased mortality from *alcohol-related illness* in the long-term – and alcohol-related illnesses aren’t the result of a single binge, they’re the result of an ongoing pattern.

        Shaming people for eating high-calorie food is not comparable to telling people not to drink and drive. It’s comparable to telling people not to drink because alcohol contributes to liver damage.

        You cannot pass judgement on whether their being drunk tonight is part of a long-term dangerous pattern of heavy drinking or whether they just like a beer sometimes. And you cannot judge from someone eating a piece of cake what their diet is like overall (or what their actual calorie needs are overall! Some people *need* to eat more than you’d expect).

        There is no equivalence to drunk-driving. Unless you have allergies/diabetes/another serious medical condition, one instance of eating an unhealthy food item is not going to kill you – and if you’re an adult with that sort of medical condition, you probably know more about managing it than Random Judgey-McJudgeface. As an outside observer, *all you are seeing is that one instance*. Unless someone has asked you to keep tabs on their consumption, butt out.

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