Thursday, January 08, 2009

Renowned Dietitian Leslie Beck Calorically Confused?

What is it about calories that makes health professionals not want to talk about them?

Some say that teaching people about calories will lead to increased incidences of eating disorders - yet there's never been any evidence published to suggest that would be true.

And really it's more about how you talk and teach about calories.

At my offices we teach people to be non-judgmental about calories. They're not by definition, "bad", it's just that we have to pick and choose when they're worth it.

It's a money type analogy - before you buy anything it's probably a good idea not only to look at the price tag, but also to know how much you've got in your bank account and how much you make a month. We all buy things we don't need, but we of course don't buy every last thing we want - some things just aren't worth their price tags and frankly some foods just aren't worth their calories.

The other thing we teach about calories is that rather than worrying about maximums, worry about minimums - eating too few of them at any given meal or snack and you're asking to get hungry and as anyone who's ever gone to the supermarket hungry knows, hunger influences our choices.

Of course there's much more to successfully losing weight than simply keeping track of calories. Elements such as the timing of meals and snacks, macronutrient distributions, protein consumption, learning how to cook, finding time, planning and meal preparation, shopping skills, media awareness and so on.

Which brings me to Leslie Beck. She's a very prominent Toronto based dietitian and I often quite like what she's got to say. Yesterday though wasn't one of those times.

Yesterday she wrote an article for the Globe and Mail that told readers that the key to weight loss was simply portion control and explicitly discouraged them from looking at calories.

Why is her assertion ridiculous and upsetting?

Well it's upsetting because she knows better. It's upsetting because there's this non-complicated factor of which she's well aware called energy density. What energy density refers to is the fact that gram per gram some foods have more calories than others. What that means is that even eating small portions of highly energy dense foods can lead to the consumption of large numbers of calories. By not including this concept in her article and by simply telling people to eat less, she's doing a disservice both to the public and to the privilege she enjoys of being able to reach huge numbers of people.

It's a ridiculous assertion because basically Leslie is telling her readers that in order to lose weight you simply have to eat less. While ultimately that's true it's about as useful a piece of advice as someone telling you that to get rich all you need to do is, "buy low and sell high" in the stock market. In Leslie's case the analogy would be to an actual stockbroker giving you that sage advice.

If it were that easy Leslie, everybody'd be skinny.

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