In between classes yesterday, I grabbed a granola bar to hold me over until my next meal. I usually try to avoid scrutinizing nutrition labels too closely, but this time something at the bottom caught my eye: a declaration that the daily values on the label were based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This wasn’t news to me; 2,000 calories has been declared the general guiding number for daily caloric consumption by the United States Food and Drug Administration and numerous media sources for years. I’ve also been advised to consume far less than 2,000 calories by several online calorie calculators and wellness blogs, as well as encountered innumerable articles offering tips for how to cut out what they deemed to be unnecessary calories. This generalization of energy needs and fixation on calculating calories has permeated my life, but it overlooks the complexities of the human body and encourages people to focus on numbers that are nearly impossible to calculate accurately.
The human body digests and absorbs calories from foods in different ways. The amount of calories that an individual absorbs from any given food depends on a host of variables: the type of food, how the food was cooked, whether the specific food has adapted to survive digestion over time, and the unique bacterial makeup of the consumer’s gut. A recent study by the US Department of Agriculture estimates that certain foods may require more energy to digest than others, resulting in fewer calories absorbed than what labels state. Another recent study found that eating raw potatoes resulted in different weight outcomes in mice than eating the same quantity of cooked potatoes, which suggests that energy absorption does vary depending on food’s temperature.
Moreover, the 2,000 calorie recommendation is an average that was settled upon due to its simplicity. In fact, 2,000 calories is the average intake recommended to sustain only children and relatively inactive postmenopausal women; most people actually need several hundred more calories to function adequately. This estimate doesn’t even take into account metabolism speed, which is believed to be largely genetically determined and variable from person to person.
While nutrition labels are required to have a disclaimer about the variability of caloric needs alongside the 2,000 calorie reference, this message doesn’t seem to have sunk in. Everywhere I go — especially during this resolution-crazed time of year — I seem to be surrounded by calories: people discussing how many calories they’ve eaten (or how many they think they should be eating), fitness centers boasting how many calories participants can burn by taking part in classes and food products proclaiming the amount of calories each serving contains in large print on the front of the package. There hasn’t been a day so far this semester where I haven’t heard calories being discussed in some way at the dining halls I regularly eat at.
Plus, the internet is awash with calculators designed to tell you how many calories your body burns a day, and searching “how many calories should I eat” yields thousands of articles and charts, including one from the FDA which offers ranges based on sex, general activity level and age. Calories are a major fixation in many restaurants, too, thanks to a recent regulation that requires chains to display calorie counts on menus. Some establishments — like Subway and Chick-Fil-A — take this a step further by labeling certain entrees with a green checkmark or deeming them fit choices based on how many calories they provide.
But calories only provide a small glimpse into a food’s nutritional makeup, as calorie calculations can’t take into account the consumer’s unique digestive process and energy needs. Calories are just numbers, and as such, they don’t take into account the nutritional benefits of foods — we can’t tell how much protein, fat or carbohydrates a food provides, how much of these nutrients our bodies need, and how energy will be used in the body simply by looking at calories. For these reasons, we shouldn’t look to calories as the determiners of a food’s value nor should we obsess over trying to figure out how many we are consuming and burning.
Not only that, but counting calories has been linked to significant stress and anxiety and, of course, disordered eating habits. Psychologist Breese Annable recently stated that obsessing over calories can disconnect you from your body’s natural hunger cues and cravings as well as cause food fixation and anxiety. While eating disorders are extremely complex and multifaceted, my own battle with anorexia nervosa started when I downloaded a “health” app and resolved to consume the dangerously low-calorie allowance it recommended to me.
It’s understandable to want to know what we’re putting in our bodies, but we aren’t machines or robots; our needs — and wants — change from day to day. While I don’t expect the FDA to change their generalized approach toward calories, there is still value to noticing that the current narrative around calories is oversimplified. Instead of focusing on numbers and trying to figure out our energy expenditure and intake, we should resolve to focus on tuning in to what our bodies are asking for — or, at least, recognizing the fact that calculations and nutrition labels can tell us far less about our own unique needs than our bodies can. Our bodies are designed to keep us alive, and they’re smarter than any label when it comes to figuring out what we need.
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A version of this article appears in the Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, print edition. Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]