Count nutrition, not calories

In spite of University committee proposal, low calorie options don’t always lead to healthy choices.

Julian Switala

A 6-year-old girl goes to IHOP with her mother. The kidâÄôs menu displays the caloric content for each item. Although she wants the cheese omelet with a cup of fruit, a dish containing 400 calories, she notices a small stack of pancakes is only 300 calories. “I was going to get a cheese omelet, but now I guess I shouldnâÄôt,” she says.

This account is troubling not only because a 6-year-old is counting calories, but also because this method led her to choose the less healthy option on the menu.

The UniversityâÄôs Student Health Advisory Committee recently requested that University Dining Services post calorie information on the menu boards in all of its on-campus locations. Yet this well-intentioned proposal perpetuates the dangerous myth that merely counting calories is an effective dietary rule of thumb.

Of course, knowing the caloric content of the food is definitely a helpful factor in preventing overeating, under eating and eating oversized portions, but thatâÄôs it.

Knowing what you should eat can involve a complicated decision-making process. Elson M. Haas, M.D. writes that athletes require different diets based on their levels of activity and their sport. For instance, roughly 50 percent of a runnerâÄôs diet should consist of complex carbohydrates, which are found in fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, bread and beans. Even football players on the same team require different diets depending on their position.

Despite these differences among athletes, everyone needs to eat a well-balanced diet consisting of carbohydrates, protein and fat. It should be clear that even if I counted every single calorie of my diet, but only downed cheesecake, donuts and soda, I wouldnâÄôt be eating healthy.

Each of these macronutrients is an important part of a diet. Although fats are typically avoided like the plague by dieters, good fats such as those found in avocados, nuts and natural oils from olives, sunflowers and soybeans are essential for proper cell function, brain functioning and other everyday bodily processes.

Unfortunately, this nutritional information isnâÄôt displayed within the caloric content of a meal and is nearly impossible to deduce from only knowing the caloric content.

Taking your time when eating and listening to your body count as much toward achieving a healthy diet as eating a variety of sources of grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins does.

A 2008 study conducted by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab attempted to find out why French people are generally skinnier than Americans, despite all the chocolate, wine, cheese and pastry the French eat. The study found that “the heavier a person is âÄî French or American âÄî the more they rely on external cues to tell them to stop eating and the less they rely on whether they felt full.” In other words, French people usually stop eating when they are full, not when their plate is clean or when the TV show is over.

The obsession with counting calories is growing in our society and causes people to overlook the most important factor of a healthy diet: the nutritional content of meals. Although calorie counting can be useful, it tricks us into believing that we are eating well and causes us to ignore the full picture of health.


Julian Switala welcomes comments at
[email protected].