Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Race To Zero.

This week (Feb. 21 - 27, 2010) is National Eating Disorder week and I thought I would share a concern I had since it goes with that theme.

A few years back, I was one of the first member's of Ohio State University's Campus Dining Services Advisory Council. The council weighed in on issues impacting the food and service there of for the 50,000+ students of OSU. Campus Dining Services had taken in $36 million in revenue for the previous year, so they fed a lot of students in their then 22 facilities. The new Union is set to open if it hasn't already and those numbers are sure to grow.

One item of business at the first meeting I attended was to discuss ways to educate the diners on so they could make responsible food choices. One idea was to post the calories per serving for every item prepared in house(prepackaged items already do this). It seemed very reasonable and I even added that they should also post the amounts of protein, fat, sodium, and carbs.

There was a nutrition student in the group, that had a concern.

'What about people with eating disorders?' She asked.

Her experience was that freshman women were already stressing over their figure and by seeing the calories per serving they'll be less inclined to eat certain foods. Anyone remember the Freshman 15? This seems like a good thing considering American's general over-consumption. She explained that they don't stop cutting calories and the people she worked with as a nutrition major were essentially eating like it was a golf match. Fewest calories wins. So instead of having a caloric goal in mind, for instance 100/200 calories less than they typically consume based on activity and body weight, they try to eat only very low calorie foods in an effort to stay as close to zero as possible. They suppliment their diets with things like mints, cigarettes, and bottled water.

I call this the Race To Zero.

Posting calories makes us feel better, like we're doing what we can in the battle of the bulge. I think that battle we wage makes us unhealthier and endangers those in our society who's minds trick them into seeing themselves as bigger than they really are.

The major problem with solutions that many people post are that they are very narrow minded and not based in science and reason. Yahoo! or: thewebsiteIlovetohate! constantly posts stories about the 'worst foods'. They've had stories about the worst restaurants, appetizers, burgers, breakfast foods, desserts, salads, and the latest is fries. What makes these foods the worst? Calories, according to the articles. Every food that is demonized is demonized on calories.

So now we are posting the calories of everything while simultaneously running stories that demonize foods for how many calories are in them. What are people supposed to take from that? Calories = bad. Less calories = good. Zero calories = perfect.

Folks... Zero calories = dead.

The problem with posting calories for one item is that it doesn't take into consideration everything else the person had or will have to eat that day. The only way this can work is if people understand how many calories they need and how many calories they already had.

A very crude measurement is to multiply your weight by 11(for women) or 12(for men). This gives you a crude measurement of how many calories are necessary to maintain that body weight. So ladies, wanna know what it takes to be 115lbs??
You cannot consume more than 1,265 calories a day without factoring in physical activity.
A 200lb man by comparison can consume 2,400 calories a day and not gain.

As I said, physical activity offsets these numbers. This is why Michael Phelps can consume many thousands of calories a day. He trains in a pool 8 hours a day and his metabolism is extremely high. So there are many factors that affect weight. Girls, if you are 5'10" and at least have an average musculature, then I'm sorry, but you have no business weighing 115lbs. Consuming only 1,200 calories a day can kill you.

The numbers I gave were the absolute bottom for maintaining organ function. Standing burns calories. Sitting burns calories. Sleep burns calories. Obviously, things like; walking, running, swimming, weight training, yoga, and pilates all result in your need for more calories. You have to count the calories spent on every activity and add them up to get a realistic idea of how many calories you need.

Henry Cardello has a book called Stuffed Nation where he offers the solution of incentivizing the food industry to cut the calories in the foods they make. I think it's a novel plan but I also think we have a risk of this biting us in the ass.

Let me paint a not so rosie picture...

This plan works really well. Calories are cut by a lot...maybe 30% or more. Everyone wants the incentives and the reduced calories makes their products more profitable. It quickly becomes an R&D's version of an arms race... a Race To Zero. Tragedy strikes! It could be war, drought, early frost, a new ice age, raised ocean levels driving the populations of the world inland and leaving less farmland, whatever situation you can conjure up.

The food supply is now scarce and we are forced to ration what we have so that everyone may have some food. The problem now is the opposite; people aren't getting enough calories and they're getting sick. People's immune systems start to fail. Common colds are debilitating. Manual labor is something we no longer have the energy for. People are weakened and less able to fight in battle. We are overrun by another country. Some assimilate, many more are massacred.

Ok, so that's a crazy Mad Max extreme, but it illustrates that it's the total diet that matters most and not the calories in Outback's Aussie Cheese Fries.

So let's educate people on a diet of moderation. Stop eating when you start to feel full (not after). Try to eat a variety of things(yes, that includes meat and seafood, hippies). Save the rich foods and desserts for special occasions and spend the rest of the time eating reasonably. Go outside, run around, play a sport, get exercise. If you find you have gained weight, monitor the calories in what you eat for a week and see where you are over indulging. That's it.

So we have two extremes; obesity and dangerously thin that are getting all the attention. I suggest our social policy as it related to food and health be well rounded and based in science and education. But whatever you do, please don't turn our nation's diet into a Race To Zero.


  1. I have been a Y0-Yo Dieter all my life. This is a great article on real living.
    Great to meet you on the AGchat / twitter! KEEP on bloggin my friend.

  2. Spot on...good stuff. I am getting frustrated with the "treat eveyone like they're obese" approach.

    FIRST, there is an obesity paradox and overweight individuals (according to our CDC/P, Flegal 2005) have a lower mortality risk than even "normal/healthy" weight individuals.

    Second, only 30% of the population is obese and only 10% have diabetes. Yet, 9% have eating disorders and the numbers are rising faster than the numbers for obesity, which have even plateaued in recent years for adults and children. So, why don't we try to each individual to be healthier, than try to get everyone to "eat less", which is the plan of some/many/all(?) with anorexia.

  3. Have you heard of or read Paul Campos' book The Obesity Myth? If so, what are your thoughts?

  4. Sorry this is soooo late...Yes, I have read it and use it my energy balance classes (a colleague uses "Big Fat Lies" in his class). I think one of the major issues is trying to merge public health/epidemiology with individual choices/behavior. A message targeted for one person/group may be misinterpreted by another, even if unintentional.


Put your comment here, kind sir/madame. Try to cite sources when stating facts and refrain from off topic comments or hateful/nasty rhetoric.