Calories 101

Dr. Colleen Reichmann weighs in on a complex topic.

High-calorie: avocado, peanut butter, dark chocolate. Low-calorie: Fruit Roll-Ups, Froot Loops, Life Savers Gummies. In a calorie-obsessed dimension, nutrition, health and weight loss quickly become convoluted, with potentially detrimental effects.

Dr. Colleen Reichmann, a clinical psychologist who has experience working with people who suffer from eating disorders and body image issues, has a clarifying take on calories. We asked her all about it, from calorie counting and weight loss to whether there are really foods one should always avoid.

What are calories?

Calories are our body’s source of energy. Unfortunately they have been demonized by diet culture; this is why we see so much advertising for “low calorie” or “no-calorie” foods. But we need calories to live! Our survival depends on them.

How are calories correlated with weight loss?

The calorie in, calorie out rhetoric that you may have heard of in terms of weight loss is untrue and misleading. Our bodies are complicated, and they each respond to intake and exercise differently. What’s really important is that calorie counting is an ineffective tool for weight loss, because every tool is ineffective for weight loss. 95% of all weight loss efforts fail, with about 2/3 of individuals gaining back more weight than they lost. Losing weight is not your purpose on this earth.

What are some foods with surprising calorie counts?

The estimated caloric count of foods is not necessarily important. Begin to use the term “energy” instead of the term calorie. That way, when you see a calorie count of say, 400, on the back of an item, you will think of it as “400 units of energy.” (Which it is!) This creates a cognitive shift away from calories being detrimental, and towards calories being life-saving. Change your thoughts, change your behaviors, change the way you view the world.

Is calorie counting a problem?

Calorie counting is unhelpful and unnecessary. We calorie count because diet culture has demonized calories. But in reality, we need calories. This is why I am concerned about the restaurants posting calorie counts on the menus. Research shows us that people tend to defer to the lowest calorie option as the “healthiest choice,” but this is not necessarily true. Rigidly sticking to lower calorie foods will likely lead to nutritional deficits. We need energy dense food to thrive! A better idea? Ditch the calorie counting and tune into what your body is asking for – this is called intuitive eating.

Are there really any foods one should never eat?

Nope. Barring any genuine medical concerns, all foods can fit into a healthy diet. Even processed foods, high-calorie foods, gluten, and sugar.

What does a healthy diet look like?

In my eyes, a “healthy diet” for anyone (including growing teenagers)  looks like the person listening to their body-honoring cravings, eating when they are hungry, stopping when they are full. Eating for more than fuel-eating: for enjoyment. Not demonizing any specific foods, and not putting any foods on a pedestal either. Understanding that food is neither our downfall nor our savior.

What are some things people don’t know about calories?

I think that the main thing people do not know is that calories are good! They help us survive. The best path to making peace with your relationship with food? Work to take away the negative associations that we have with calories. Calories are simply units of energy.

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Cover photo captured by Amy Shamblen.

6 thoughts on “Calories 101

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading Online this Week: Find Your Fall Vibe, the Truth About Calories & Other Stories

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