Calorie counting is a popular ‘health’ tool, yet simplifying food to just numbers is problematic.
Walk into a supermarket and it won’t take long before you find a food with the calorie count blasted on the label – sometimes even more prominently than the brand name. Ice cream, yoghurt, sandwiches, popcorn, bread and even fruit pots all display their energy value loud and proud.
It’s a good marketing technique, given that four in 10 of us admit to “obsessing” over calorie counting, and one in five will check every item of food that goes in our basket for the caloric value. That’s according to a new study of over 2,000 adults by supplements brand Cytoplan.
Thanks to our obsession with calories, we appear to have lost sight of what else is really in food: nearly six in 10 people don’t think about the vitamin and mineral content of what we eat, despite over a quarter actively logging their calorie intake in an app.
This is problematic. Research from Frontiers in Nutrition in 2018 found that many people are deficient in nutrients, potentially due to our obsession with calories. Researcher Emma Derbyshire found that 50% of mid-life women had low selenium levels, 25% had inadequate iron levels, 34% were having less potassium than recommended and 17% had iodine intakes below the lower recommended nutrient intake. Magnesium and vitamin D intake were particularly low among women in their 20s – all nutrients needed to be energised, sleep well, support your immune system, improve your workout performance and improve your mood (aka, be truly healthy).
“Where the public are being encouraged to reduce their energy intakes, it is important to ensure that the micronutrient profile of diets is sustained,” Derbyshire wrote.
What do calories tell us about food?
“Calories don’t tell us anything about a food other than the energy it contains,” says registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, founder of Rhitrition and author of upcoming book The Science of Nutrition. “You will rarely find a good registered dietitian or nutritionist saying that calories can educate you about food, beyond the point of energy. Even then, energy is a rough estimation with a 30% margin of error.
“Numbers are not nutrients. They don’t tell you how much fibre is in a food, how many vitamins and minerals are inside that food, or even the macronutrient profile of carbs, fats and proteins in it. It’s really frustrating that people think that calories dictate health; they don’t tell us how healthy something is at all.”
For example, a low-fat chocolate bar could contain fewer calories than a fruit salad - but the fruit salad is going to contain more fibre, vitamins and minerals. “Low-calorie foods aren’t always the better option – it’s about quality, as well as quantity, of those calories,” adds Lambert.
A 2019 study from the American Society for Nutrition also exposed the problem with ignoring the quality of our food, with researchers finding that low fruit intake resulted in nearly 1.8 million cardiovascular deaths in 2010, while low vegetable intake resulted in 1 million deaths.
So, if calories don’t dictate health, why are they seen as such an important part of food? “I’d say government campaigns and media messaging are a large factor, particularly at the moment with the discourse around calories appearing on menus,” says Lambert. “Calories have also been viewed as a measure for weight control over many years now, with people assuming that calories in versus calories out is the answer. That’s quite oversimplified. Really, the obsession with calories is probably about control. It’s just one simple thing to measure to take control of.”
In her paper, Derbyshire noted a survey of over 1,000 tweets by young adults that found 67% related to body image, eating disorders, fitness, food or dieting. “This, in turn, could have wider ramifications impacting on dietary habits and micronutrient profiles of young women.”
How to make the best food choices
While there are guidelines for vitamin and mineral intake, remember that what you need to thrive is going to be different from another person. For example, some people need to be more conscious of iron intake, others thrive on higher-carb diets, and you may need a heavier focus on vitamin D depending on your lifestyle or the country you live in.
“Being educated about the whole food, rather than only the calories, is the first place to start,” says Lambert. She advises that, generally, we should all be limiting foods that are very high in salt, free sugars and saturated fats, and eating more fibre and pre- and probiotics.
“Look to choose foods that support your gut health and feed the bacteria in your gut. That helps with digestion and also our mood: 90% of our serotonin is produced in our gut. We need to reframe the narrative to be about what food includes, not just how little calories are in it.”
If you want to take a whole-plate approach, look for a balance of protein, carbs, fats and different coloured fruits and vegetables at every meal. Alternatively, Lambert recommends opting for a Mediterranean diet that’s “heavily researched to have a lot of healthy fats and all the vitamins, minerals and fibre that we need to live along right to a long ripe old age.”
None of this means you should simply swap calorie tracking for nutrient tracking. “I don’t think anyone needs to track their food 100% of the time. That can become a very robotic, trapped, soulless type of life for many people, and it can trigger a disordered relationship with food. I think being aware of what is in the food you are choosing most of the time, and sometimes just letting go of it is the best way to eat. A healthy diet is about the overall majority of food we eat, rather than looking at food on a piece by piece, or even day by day, basis,” Lambert says.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).