BY; Kate Kirby, MS, RD, CSSD
Date: July 13, 2016
“Guilt Free,” read the sign on the wall at the low-calorie frozen yogurt bar at the mall. This claim caught me completely off-guard but also captured my attention. As a dietician in an eating disorders clinic, I am very familiar with the recklessness of such statements. In a culture where everything seems to be about eating less and exercising more, the notion that calories are guilt-worthy is common and broadly accepted. We have lost sight of the fact that calories are units of energy necessary to sustain life. Marketing tactics certainly don’t try to remind us of this basic fact! On the contrary, they lure us into thinking that calories are innately bad, and that we would all be happier (stronger, smarter, more successful) if we could manage to eat as few of these life-sustaining energy units as possible. They try to convince us that there is something wrong in doing what it takes to survive—namely, eating!
Research shows us that calorie restriction does not work for sustained health and happiness, or even for weight management. From a dietitian’s perspective, reducing calorie intake (generally a less “extreme” form of reducing energy intake), and calorie restriction (or extreme reduction of energy intake) are technically not the same. However, the American rendition of “dieting” almost always takes on the extreme form leading us to conflate reduction and restriction. This leads to: nutrient deficits, which lead to strong cravings and appetite dis-regulation, both of which lead to compensatory eating; altered metabolism, usually in the form of slower metabolism; and even effects on mental health by increasing irritability, depression, and anxiety.
Research continues to affirm that the old adage of “calories in vs. calories out” is far too simplistic. Quality, not quantity, is most relevant when it comes to weight regulation and health. We are bombarded by both research and popular advice that seem to flip-flop on an annual (even monthly!) basis. How are we to know which information is right?
The answer to this question is complex and can vary from person to person. One-size-fits-all dietary guidelines fail to account for the huge individual differences that we know exist. A healthy diet for an individual with a history of anorexia nervosa or with binge-eating disorder is going to differ drastically from that of an active NFL football player! But for both of them, sound nutritional advice does include feeling guilty about eating calories.
In light of keeping up with health information and taking care of our bodies, and ourselves we must develop accurate awareness of our own bodies and minds. Developing a solid understanding of what “good nutrition” actually looks like for you moves you toward a greater sense of intuition and body satisfaction. Not only that, but our dietary needs change with age and life circumstances, so we need to be flexible in nourishing our bodies appropriately. If you are unsure about the best way to nourish your body, consult a registered dietitian (or RD). Be frank with that person about any challenges you have had with eating in the past or currently. She or he can help you distinguish between marketing messages and evidence-based information. Plus, the next time someone tries to “guilt” you into choosing the low-cal or low-fat, or low “whatever” version of foods, ask yourself what the motivation behind that message is and whether it actually takes your health and wellbeing into account.
Cameron JD et al. Energy depletion by diet or aerobic exercise alone: impact of energy deficit modality on appetite parameters. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Apr; 103(4):1008-16.