Who’s Afraid of Virginia’s Calories?

This is a guest blog post by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, MD

I interact with a great many health professionals, and not infrequently, the conversation somehow gets around to calories.

I’m regularly surprised by many of their reactions.

In fact, more often than not it seems that health professionals shy away from directly discussing calories with their patients.  They’ll tell me they don’t because they’re worried they’re going to trigger eating disorders, that it’s too complicated, that there’s more to healthy eating than calories, and that people just don’t want to know about them.

Personally, I don’t agree and think at the end of the day, it’s all about how calories are taught.

I’d never suggest we teach calories as blindly as, “good” or “bad”, as that certainly could lend itself to developing some disordered eating.  I’d never suggest every one out there needs to count calories (though I do recommend it here in my offices), because for some, that’ll certainly be too onerous.  I’d never suggest that there aren’t other very important determinants of nutritional health as that would be patently false.

I also definitely wouldn’t suggest people aren’t interested.  On the contrary, once their eyes are opened to the world of calories, most people become fascinated.

They’re fascinated because calories are so damn non-intuitive.

Who’d have thought a Starbuck’s muffin could have more calories than a Big Mac, or that an entire pineapple would have fewer calories than that same muffin?

They’re also fascinated by caloric context, and there’s two types of context I think are helpful.  The first are the calories a person burns in a daytime, while the second is the minimum (note, not maximum) number of calories they ought to be aiming per meal and snack.  With those two pieces of caloric context, along with the calories of the foods they’re considering, along with a whole slew of other variables and factors, they now have enough caloric information upon which to base an informed decision.

Calories are the currency of weight.  Definitely there are a great many ways to reduce them – and counting calories may be one, but so too may be low-carb approaches, low-fat approaches and dozens, if not hundreds or thousands more. It doesn’t matter to me which suits you, knowing a bit about calories can help you hone your efforts.  Not knowing?  That’d be like trying to balance your books and never looking at price tags.  Even if you only shop in Walmart, no doubt you’ll still sometimes get burned.

So who’s afraid of Virginia’s calories?  Someone who doesn’t believe calories can be taught non-judgmentally, and I think that someone’s probably wrong.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, MD is the founder and Medical Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, dedicated to the (nonsurgical) treatment of overweight and obesity since 2004. His daily blog Weighty Matters, is ranked among the world’s top health blogs, and was voted the top Canadian Get Healthy blog of 2011 by Reader’s Digest’s Best Health magazine. Dr.  Freedhoff  is often called a “nutritional watchdog” for his advocacy efforts for improved public policies regarding nutrition and obesity. You can  follow Dr. Freedhoff on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • Dwmatty

    For anyone concerned about their weight and overall health, calories are an important element in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Where the calories come from is just as important as the number of them. For example, 500 calories is 500 calories regardless of what food they come from, but getting them from a single muffin just isn’t as healthy as them coming from fruit and veggies.

    Although I don’t count calories, I am conscious of the nature of the food I eat. I love eating nuts, but I also know that despite their health benefits they are rich in calories, so I monitor how much I consume them.

    • http://dalailina.wordpress.com Dalai Lina

      I have a feeling if one person ate 2000 calories in pasta and cookies and their twin ate 2000 calories in vegetables, salmon and fruit, they wouldn’t have the same weight gain. There is more going on than just calories, although calories are a great starting point!

      • FrugalArugula

        Well one would certainly go to bed hungry, that’s for sure!

      • Anonymous

        calorie has more than one definition, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calorie but they’re all physical measurements: heat energy required to raise X amt. water to Y temp at Z starting water temperature. Maybe you mean that more vitamins & minerals and protein would be contained in the 2000 calories of fish, fruit & veg than in the pasta?

        I think that, in general, if you ingest more calories than you burn, you gain weight. But if you eat well (evoo, fresh fruit, legumes, fish, green leafies) even if you’re overweight you’re likely to be healthier than someone whose diet is lower calorie but say 50% of the calories are from twinkies.

  • http://goodtastehealthyme.wordpress.com/ Ashley

    I completely agree. Calories are so important to understanding weight loss, nutrition, energy levels etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenleebow Ken Leebow


    Nice to see you on this site. Good post. Agreed, calories are key.

    When I discovered a healthy snack should be between 100 – 200 calories, it opened a new door for me. And, of course, I stopped eating Peanut M&Ms (460 calories and a lot of sugar). Sadly, these snacks have been super-sized — just saw a pack of peanut m&m ‘s at Bed, Bath, and Beyond Calories that weighed in at 770 calories.

    So, yes, a little education in calories would benefit all.

    Kindest regards,

    Ken Leebow

  • Jason

    It depends on what the diet consists of. I’d like to watch someone eat 500+ calories of celery in one meal.

  • JS

    Great article… I could not agree more. weight loss is all about creating negative energy (calorie) balance.

  • http://profiles.google.com/amysoelzeranderson Amy Anderson

    I disagree. People did just fine before calorie counting came along. Since then however, western diet eaters have gotten fatter and fatter and fatter. Rather than calories, people need to stick to unprocessed food on a everyday basis, with rare treats for special occasions. It doesn’t matter what the calorie count of a muffin is if you’re not eating muffins very often. Don’t eat [much] processed food, don’t eat foods that are sold in gas stations, convenience stores, or chain restaurants.

  • suzyblue

    I guess you just have to keep it in proportion- calories are a facet of weight loss, not everything. Healthy food like nuts and wholegrain carbohydrates can be high in calories but that doesnt mean I should reach for the lower calorie packet of sweets instead!