Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Calorie Counting: A Hard Sell

The results of a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council were presented at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual conference. The highlights and findings were discussed in an article in the Voice of Agriculture, in which we learn "42 percent of survey respondents feel that the food and health information they receive from various sources is contradictory. Slightly more than 30 percent said it was inconsistent."

Rachel Cheatham, Director of Science and Health Communications for the IFIC says "This really is the issue, [t]here is an overload of information. How do we package this information so that people understand it and know what to do with it?”

The survey results found that "very few people understand or apply the concept of energy balance, in which calories consumed and calories used are treated as an equation that results in weight maintenance, or depending on the individual’s goals, weight loss or gain. Almost half of the survey respondents said they don’t balance the calories they take in with the calories they use, while 16 percent said they do increase their exercise to compensate for eating more than usual."

I have to say I'm not surprised - it's simply not natural for us to be so calorie obessed, to the point where we are ever aware of the calories were eating each day - so it's no wonder that most people don't make it a point to "balance" calories in and calories out each day!

The article however makes this an issue of selling the concept to consumers rather than questioning its validity; "calorie counting is a hard sell."

For some reason we are stuck in this thinking that the problem isn't the concept, but the execution. If it were only that easy. If it were only a matter that people don't get it and more education would lead to better compliance. If it were only a matter of calories in and calories out, and just following a recipe to eat x-servings of this and y-servings of that each day to remain within prescribed calorie intake.

I've said it many times before - the flaw is in the recommendations, not in those trying to follow them! It's more than just calories, and rather than try to sell consumers on an unnatural way of eating each day, perhaps time is better spent understanding how modification of the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) can lead to spontaneous reduction of calorie intake without counting calories.

Until the powers that be begin to address the role of nutrients and micronutrients on hunger and satiety, on nutritional status, and on health and well-being, little is going to change.

Afterall, the thinking goes that it remains the fault of the individual to not follow the recommendations rather than the recommendations failing to live up to expectations and provide the necessary nutrients and satiety to be followed long-term successfully.

I've said before, "The failure of the dietary recommendations are no small matter, various agencies go to great pains to explain away the long-term failure and wind up making the issue one of personal failure rather than admit the flaw is in the recommendations."

If you'd like to read more on the issue of our flawed recommendations, two previous articles provide greater depth on the subject:


  1. Our friend Gary Taubes would call this an "oversimplification of the science."

  2. Anonymous12:11 PM

    If you eat reduced carb, appetite takes care of itself and so does calories.

  3. Assuming that it had valid science behind it, calorie counting still wouldn't work out side a laboratory. There is too much inaccuracy in the measurements of the calories in foods and even more uncertainty in the the calories expended in exercise and in normal activities.

  4. I gotta disagree here. Counting calories always worked for me when I was young and had a healthy metabolism. At middle age, a low carb diet was the only one that would let me lose weight, but after the initial weight loss I STILL had to count calories along with carbs to get to goal and that meant getting out the food scale and software.

    I have watched a lot of people try to diet, and invariably the problem I see is that they won't take the time to study the foods they eat. They eat a LOT more than they think they are eating, because they have no clue about portion size or even the value of the foods.

    Carb counting has the same problems as calorie counting, because people can easily eat twice the number of carbs they think they are eating, because they don't understand portion sizes, or because of lying labels (which are increasingly common!)

    I know zillions of people who say, "I tried a low carb diet but it didn't work." It always turns out their low carb diet ISN'T low carb because they have no clue how many grams of carbs are in the portions of food they eat.

    Successful dieting NO MATTER WHICH DIET YOU CHOOSE requires study, folks unless you are a brand new diet virgin exploiting "beginner's luck". After that, though, there's no way around it.

  5. "rather than try to sell consumers on an unnatural way of eating each day, perhaps time is better spent understanding how modification of the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) can lead to spontaneous reduction of calorie intake without counting calories."

    I would argue that counting macronutrient ratios is just as "unnatural" as counting calories. The real problem is the overabundance of the types of unnatural foods that have too much sugar/refined carbs and/or calories. Since we live in that environment, the solution to the problem unfortunately may need to be as "unnatural" as the problem itself.

    Most people simply won't be willing to follow a recommendation of only eating whole, natural foods.

  6. Any type of restriction is a hard sell. There is a guy in my office who is T2, and is going on insulin because he refuses to stop eating bread, pasta and cereal. He knows what it does to his sugar, but he would rather shoot up than change his habits. I asked why, he just said this is how he likes to eat, and wasn't going to change as long as there were meds. What ya gonna do?

  7. Have to agree with Billy when he says "Most people simply won't be willing to follow a recommendation of only eating whole, natural foods".

    I've seen too many people who are willing to go low carb, but do so by buying low carb products and convenience foods and it just doesn't work. While they can get the idea and just about face the prospect (which seems a glum one to them at the outset) of low carb, the idea of actually cooking meals from raw ingredients is so alien to them and abhorrent to them as to be unthinkable.

    Some of them do ok in the short term, but never in the longer term.

    Changing people's habits to the point where convenience foods are not eaten much any more would require a seismic shift which is way, way beyond getting them to accept any message about carbs or calories.

    Low carb junk food is still junk food.

  8. Anonymous12:49 PM

    I think you're all onto something!

    I guess my position is somewhere between Jenny's and Billy's - counting (in my case, carbs) is a useful exercise to undertake ... for a while. But after a while it's a drag. It's unnatural. And I don't think it's necessary to do it every day, especially on low carb. After a while, you do get the hang of it, and you know what you can eat and what you can't. Having said that, it's not a bad idea to spend a week counting every few months or so, to keep your skills sharp. But every day? Not feasible.

    K. Dill - I wonder if your coworker will feel that way the first time he wakes up on the bathroom floor after a reactive hypoglycemia episode that causes him to black out. Does he know about Richard Bernstein's book?

  9. Interesting points!

    And I guess I asked myself the same question Rachel Cheatham asks--only I came up with an answer! (Her question was: "How do we package this information so that people understand it and know what to do with it?”)

    I can't take full credit, because there was a little lucky stumbling involved, but using myself as a guinea pig, I experimented until I invented a diet on which I--for the FIRST TIME in my ENTIRE LIFE--and I'm no spring chicken--lost 70 pounds immediately and have kept it off ever since. I went from XXL to a size 2 in 6 months--unimaginable when I started the experiment.

    It's a calorie thing, but because I agree with you so much--that calorie counting is a pain--mine is set up in a way that absolutely ANYONE can do. In fact, HUNDREDS of people are emailing me and telling me they are SHOCKED after sceptically trying it and having the same result--huge weight loss, no hunger, and without have to get a PhD in nutrition to be able to follow it.

    In fact, it's so simple that the entire diet is stated in 6 words: "Eat 100 calories every 90 minutes."

    In other words, eat 12 meals a day of ANYTHING and I mean ANYTHING, as long as you eat just 100 calories' worth at a time. Big Macs or high proteins or low protein or vegan or chocolate--doesn't matter. The weight loss is dramatic and is the same no matter what you eat.

    Hence, I call it The Six Word Diet, and to save everyone the trouble of figuring out how much of what you can eat to get 100 calories, I just created this big alphabetical index of every food and how much of it you can eat for 100 calories.

    That's it! And so many people asked for it, that I made it into a little folded booklet and am made it available to whoever wants it, at just about my cost.

    I agree with you, and I feel for people who NEED to lose and don't have time to learn 80 thousand things first.

    If it's hard to believe that something this simple could cut thru so many decades of crap, check out my forum. Your jaw will drop when you see what is happening with this thing!

    Go to www.sixworddiet.com/forum.

    Or try it for 3 days yourself. You'll believe.

    Thanks for looking at my answer to the wonderful questions you posed! I enjoy your writing very much!

    Beth Drennan, Author
    Six Word Diet