It’s complicated: our relationship with calories is built on lies

We don’t overeat because we don’t understand calories but because we’re looking for love in all the wrong places, says Daisy Buchanan 

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By Daisy Buchanan on

I have just downloaded an app called My Fitness Pal. I think this is the ninth time that I have searched for it in the app store, having used it, ignored it, felt bad about it, and hurled my phone across the room when it flashed up passive-aggressive “reminder” messages, while shrieking “You’re not my ‘pal’ at all!” In theory, if you use it properly and remember that it’s not autonomous and it isn’t judging you from within your phone, it’s a very effective tool. You record what you eat and drink, and it tells you whether that falls within an established calorific range, or if you’re overdoing it. It also sends you panicked messages when you’re not eating very much. Occasionally I feel smug and mutter “I’m doing perfectly well with black coffee and a salad, thank you.” Most of the time I frown at it and say “We both know that I’m deliberately not telling you about that burrito.”

This is the trouble with diet, food and weight loss. Rationally, it’s just maths. If you want to lose weight, all you have to do is eat less and move more – just as all you have to do to go overdrawn is spend more money than you have in your bank account. Of course, everyone has a metabolism that moves at a different speed, mobility issues can restrict the exercise that people are able to do, and there are all kinds of health conditions that make up part of the equation. But most of us know that high-calorie foods and a sedentary lifestyle will combine and conspire to keep us out of our jeans, and that if we choose a life of green leafy vegetables and long walks, we’ll be leaner for it. 

We've been hearing this message for decades now, and we see posters and TV ads promoting the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Yet, new research reveals that obesity levels are still at a record high, while national surveys record that we're claiming to consume fewer calories than ever. The Behavioural Insights Team, a part-privatised government agency, says that we're not honestly recording what we're really eating, especially snacks consumed away from home. Their reports indicate that the margin of error between what we’re eating and what we say we’re eating could be as high as 50 per cent. It seems that the messages we're being given aren't reaching us, even though information about diet and exercise seems to be at the heart of all the public health messages we receive. What's going on?

New research reveals that obesity levels are still at a record high, while national surveys record that we're claiming to consume fewer calories than ever

When we talk about food, weight and eating, we rarely address the fact that it isn’t a purely practical issue. Jamie Oliver has dominated headlines about obesity by making it his mission to focus on education, from campaigning for healthy school dinners to making sure we all know exactly what’s in our food. I think that Oliver is largely a force for good, and he has put a spotlight on the importance of thinking about what we’re putting into our bodies, but I wish he’d talk more about why we overeat. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who orders a Big Mac while thinking “Why, this is the most nutritious and effective fuel I can feed myself!” When I buy them and eat them, it’s usually because I’m slightly depressed or incredibly drunk, or both.

Food is fetishised, and it’s become a class issue. We make jokes about how our dinners define us, smugly saying “See my quinoa! I’m such a middle-class cliche, har har!” The magnificent food writer Jack Monroe was pilloried by a rightwing newspaper columnist for blogging about a kale pesto recipe. Monroe writes about food, poverty and the struggle to feed a family with barely any money at all. The kale recipe worked out at 15p a portion, but the columnist claimed Monroe was a hypocrite, because pesto is “posh” and not for poor people. 

This is precisely why we have an obesity epidemic. We are what we eat, and food is another way to define those who are struggling and keep them down. We judge parents because of what they feed their children. We judge food bloggers for having ideas above their station, or for being too remote and suggesting we all eat bee pollen. We judge each other for ordering chips, or ordering salad. And it’s making us exhausted, confused, overwrought, full of self loathing and searching for a quick, accessible fix that might take the edge off the bad, sad emotions. For me, that’s often a big glass of Viognier, a bag of Kettle Chips, or a fudge brownie. I know the food is “bad”, yet I want to eat it, which makes me “bad” too, which makes me so sad that I want more. I don’t need public health adverts telling me that sugar causes 19 different kinds of cancer. I need information about how to work through the emotional hold that my diet has on me.

When I was suffering from anorexia in my teens, I heard people referring to the condition as the ultimate Western disease. A society has to be comparatively wealthy for food to be so available that we can use it as a drug, binging, purging and estranging ourselves from it. Having food issues might be a sign of general affluence, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore them. The new data might suggest that we need more help counting calories, but we’ve become so food-focused that I think most of us are all too aware of exactly what we’re consuming. We need to change the dialogue. Instead of wondering how we’re getting the facts wrong, let’s take a good look at why so many of us are eating our feelings. 


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