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By: Elizabeth Rahavi, RD Date: 12/10/10

A calorie is a calorie. That is what I learned as a dietitian, and the currently available science indicates that calories are key when it comes to weight management. For example, if we eat more calories than we burn, we will gain weight. The fundamentals of calories and weight management sound simple. Yet, for many people, calories can be complicated – particularly counting them. In an age where all sorts of food and nutrition information is readily available, I can easily see how the calorie message gets lost in the shuffle. This quote from the LA Times provides a nice summary of the science behind calories and weight loss:

“The first law of thermodynamics (FLoT) proves that caloric deficits are all that matter for weight loss. FLoT is an expression of the conservation of energy, stating that it can neither be created nor destroyed. A calorie is just a unit of energy. Note that FLoT is not a hypothesis or a theory, but a physical law, like gravity. It can't be disputed any more than the fact that if you jump out of an airplane without a parachute, gravity will not be your friend.” 

Parents Aren’t Ready To Jump on the Calorie Bandwagon
When it comes to calories, most people, including parents, lack a basic understanding of their impact on weight and may even be skeptical that calories are just the latest food and nutrition fad.  Further, new research shows that only 14% of parents say they are consistently paying attention to the calories their families consume; even fewer (9%) say it would be the easiest thing for their family to do on a regular basis. 

The research was conducted by the Dietary Guidelines Alliance, of which the International Food Information Council is a founding member along with the federal government and other food and health organizations.   

Why Are Calories So Hard to Comprehend?

Focus group findings from the research indicate that, overall, parents felt that they had more pressing issues like work schedules, exhausting work days, commuting, and shuffling children to activities that often make exercise and eating healthy a lesser priority. The immediate needs of the day make it hard for them to see the long-term health effects of their decisions. For many, it takes a significant event or realization before they realize that their health is in jeopardy. One parent expressed concern about her diet only after the doctor told her that she had high blood pressure. For another parent, it was when her son started growing out of his clothes because he was gaining too much weight too quickly.

Specific to counting calories, parents expressed a number of barriers or challenges:

·         Lacking basic understanding about calories and how they related to foods and beverages

·         Monitoring calories can be too time consuming to do on a regular basis

·         Calculating calories can be challenging when cooking from scratch or ordering food in a restaurant

·         Belief that the type of food that you eat is more important than counting calories

·         Skepticism that calories are just the next food and nutrition “fad” of the day, and therefore a reluctance to start counting calories 

Parents Rank Other Diet and Lifestyle Behaviors above Attention to Calories

Across five core behaviors that parents could be implementing to impact the healthfulness of their family’s diet, the study shows that parents are least likely to believe that paying attention to calories can make a difference. There is nearly universal agreement that serving nutrient-rich foods could impact the healthfulness of their family’s diet.  Specifically, when asked to rate five key behaviors in terms of how important they are to the healthfulness of their family’s diet, parents ranked the following as most important:

·         Serving their families foods and beverages that are nutrient rich (such as whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy, and fruits and vegetables) more often (82%)

·         Making an effort to balance amount of foods and beverages consumed with amount of physical activity (74%)

·         Paying attention to the amount of foods and beverages served and eaten (69%)

·         Managing higher-calorie food and beverage choices in a way that does not impact weight (67%)

·         Paying attention to calories consumed from foods and beverages (52%) 

Getting to a Place of Understanding

It will take time and education to help many people understand how calories can impact weight. When we communicate with parents about calories we need to understand how challenging it can be to find the time to count or keep track of calories, and start with encouraging the small changes that parents are willing to make today to get them to a healthier place tomorrow. This message related to calories education ranked highest among parents: 

“Know your number. Learning how many calories you should consume in a day is a critical first step in managing your weight.”  

This message is just a starting point to continue a conversation with parents and families about the importance of calories and managing weight.  

Do you count or keep track of calories? Do you have any tricks that can help others count calories in a quick and efficient way? Please share.  


2 comment(s) so far...

Re: Calories: A Food and Nutrition Fad? New Consumer Research Tells an Intriguing Story

Maybe calories are a good metric, but they're measured by burning food. Our bodies are not blast furnaces. How we draw energy from food is quite different from burning it. On the other hand, no other metric is readily available except possibly mass which I propose as another good approach to weight loss - just eat less.

By Terry, VP Nutrition Facts on   Monday, December 13, 2010

Re: Calories: A Food and Nutrition Fad? New Consumer Research Tells an Intriguing Story

Excellent article. As the author clearly states, calories are the key. Consuming fewer and burning more through consistent exercise. Most people can easily grasp the calorie in/calorie out thing, but putting a plan in action and maintaining a consistent focus on healthy behaviors and choices is another thing all together. My one small nugget of advice is self-monitoring. Set a calorie goal for eating and begin tracking meals, exercise and body weight. Self-monitoring is one of the most studied and proven techniques for changing behavior and maintaining a consistent focus on healthy habits.

By John Porten on   Thursday, February 03, 2011

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