Sunday, October 26, 2014

Start counting your calories boys and girls!

Should they start weighing and measuring
everything they eat?
This scares me. Really it does. The US government, the FDA more specifically, has decided to encourage kids and their educators and families—i.e. everyone—to start tracking their calories, because, you know, doesn’t that solve the ‘obesity epidemic’? Well, no, it doesn’t—and it may cause more harm than good.

Their stated goal is to get kids and families to start reading labels and think more about what and how much they eat. Innocent enough, right? Well I don’t think so. Maybe I’m biased because I see far too many kids and adults, stuck in their heads with too much information; they spend time calorie counting, and limit their choices to single portions of foods because that’s what the label says is the ‘right’ amount. They allow the label to define their personal need, as if serving size was one-size-fits-all, when really it’s designed to provide information about nutritional value per serving, based on “usual” portions. They’ve lost their intuitive sense of how to regulate their intake.

What’s wrong with this campaign?

Let’s start with the messages in this campaign, and then you decide how helpful the guidance is. Here are a few highlights, shown indented.

The end of childhood.
Keep track of the calories you eat throughout the day. To find out what your “target” calories per day are, visit .

Should kids really be tracking their calories, as if simply knowing their magic number would make everything all right? Calorie calculators are far from accurate, and don’t take into account a fair assessment of muscle mass which increases calorie requirement. They fail to adjust for individual variation in caloric need, aside for activity level. Larger sized body? You’ll get prompted with a CDC message that you’re at a high BMI and can choose to move to a ‘healthier’ weight—with no assessment of risk factors, and without regard to whether this has historically been a healthy place for you (based on your growth curves, if you’re a child, or your weight history, if you’re an adult).

I tried it out, for the sake of this piece. Where are the fats, I wondered? The sweets? Where’s the healthy, balanced diet? Exchanges from all food groups are included except for the oils and fats (fats may be components of foods in each category, but there was no place for added fats like healthy oils)despite acknowledging separately that they provide essential nutrients. 

They do identify a calorie level for what’s called empty calories—which I was pleased to seebut they don't include it as part of my daily meal plan! Surely they need to be included—because forbidding them will only lead to deprivation and preoccupation with getting them. Omitting them surely sends a message—that they are bad, and kids and adults will feel bad including them.

The impact on real kids

This might be just what Dan needs to meet his nutritional needs.
Dan decided to become a vegetarian last year, along with a family member because he cares about animals. Fine enough, as far as I’m concerned. But then his high school health teacher (using the FDA curriculum) directed him and his classmates—regardless of their size—to reduce their fat and sugar intake and choose foods lower in calories. You know, because of the ‘obesity epidemic’.

Problem is, Dan was thin from the start. And his intake was limited enough. And being tall, and active, resulted in inappropriate weight loss, during a time that weight gain is appropriate and necessary to support growth and development. Guidance from a respected figure like your high school teacher seems like a logical thing to follow—especially when it’s coming from the US government’s program.  Yet Dan is one of many, many kids I’ve seen negatively impacted by the direction of their health or science teacher.

Are you eating  just for calories?

Kids, like adults, eat for all kinds of reasons—because they’re stressed or anxious, because they’re tired, because they’re procrastinating getting their work done and because their friends are snacking, to name a few. Just telling them ‘here’s how much to eat’ fails to acknowledge the many obstacles to ‘Just doing it’. What if we taught them how to moderate portions and how to manage stress, arming them with alternative coping skills?

If you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight.
I’m tired of weight gain being framed as a negative. Yes, they’ll gain weight! Isn’t that what growing kids are supposed to be doing?

400 calories or more per serving is high; 100 calories per serving is moderate
Yes, so what? The teenage athletes or kids in super growth modes might need closer to the high end than the low for calories per snack.

Consider stuffing a pita or wrapping a low-fat whole grain tortilla as a lower-fat alternative to some breads.
Why lower fat alternative? And how many breads are high fat anyway—unless we’re talking about croissants, which we don’t typically refer to as bread! And why pull out fat as a problem nutrient to be watched? There’s no shortage of evidence that low fat diets  have failed us in our attempt to control weight.

Read the Label to see which foods are lower in nutrients to get less of — then replace one high-fat or high-calorie item you would have ordered with one that has lower calories or fat.
Again, why villainize fats? Maybe portions to meet individual’s needs would be more appropriate to address.

Choose foods with less sugar.
For the record, you should know that a glass of milk—plain, unsweetened milk (yes, even organic and even more so fat free) contains a decent amount of sugar. Natural sugar, called lactose, that hasn’t been linked to disease development nor to obesity. And dried fruit? And fresh—if it had a label?  All are also high in sugar and need not be avoided. Perhaps this needs to be clarified in their materials.

Nuts and dried fruits can make great snacks because they often contain nutrients to get more of – as long as you follow the serving size!
Does that mean kids need to limit their portion to ¼ cup—even of their calorie needs are high?

Why this needs to change

I worry about the impact on our kids.
Dieting is one precipitator of eating disorders; a significant percentage of those struggling with an eating disorder started off with what seemed like an innocent diet. And we surely don’t need to increase this population.
Kids need enough calories to support growth. Weight loss is generally not indicated in kids.

General educators are not skilled enough to nuance the recommendations individually, and may have their own nutrition and diet baggage, so to speak. The teacher educating kids to calorie count who perhaps is also on Atkins is not the person I’d want influencing my children’s eating.
I certainly support nutrition education in schools. But I’d like to see a different type of education.

Imagine this

What if we taught this in schools instead? (adapted from Drop the Diet, Lieberman and Sangster link):

  • Eat breakfast within a half hour of waking.
  • Include 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily, at a minimum. Avoid going more than 3 ½ - 4 hours without eating (during waking hours, of course).
  • Avoid compensating for a less-than-stellar day of eating; consider a clean slate, forgiving yourself for less-than-ideal eating.
  • Shut the TV and the electronics when eating, and work on eating mindfully. 
  • Keep all food in the kitchen—not the TV room, not the bedroom.
  • Use your senses; smell, see, feel, hear and taste your food, and truly enjoy eating.
  • Beware of false fullness from drinking lots of water or non-caloric beverages, or eating large volume of low calorie foods.
  • Ask yourself  “Am I hungry?” Consider other means to satisfy those other eating triggers when you aren’t hungry.
  • Clean up the environment. Keep foods off the counter to prevent them from calling to you. But eat foods you enjoy when you do need to eat. Then use the strategies above to manage portions.
As for the adults impacted by this campaign, be aware that at best, approximately 1 in 5 people who intentionally lose weight successfully keep it off for more than a year—and few studies track outcomes beyond this point. But maintaining lost weight should not be the sole measure of success. Weight suppression data identifies the risks that maintaining a weight below one’s highest weight creates.

Let’s not be short sighted and worsen one problem in an attempt to improve the health of our kids. There really is a better way.


  1. Hmm, why can't kids just eat when they're hungry, like I did growing up? I guess it's not that simple. I grew up eating whatever I wanted, when I wanted, and spent most of my days outside playing in the yard until I was old enough to play on school sports teams. I had no weight issues. I still developed an ED, but that's another story. I ate lots of crappy snacks, healthy snacks, great home cooked meals, and was very active and did not have a weight issue. I think the greater issue is not so much what kids are eating these days, but how inactive they are. Too much technology and not enough physical activity. I definitely don't think counting calories is a good idea. That's got disaster written all over it.

  2. This scares me too. I can't believe that we are not learning anything, either from science or from experience. Fat is very important for developing brains and to leave that basically off the chart is just dumb. So sad. What we should teach is eating mindfully and send the food police packing. I really like your approach, listed in your post. For the past three years I have been seeing a nutritionist who has been teaching, very patiently and persistently, that same thing to me, and I am very thankful for it. Living with an ED is no fun! I am glad I found your blog, thank you!

  3. Ugh so horrible....If I really regret one thing in my life then it is that I started counting calories as a child.I
    I think I copied my mother's behaviour a lot, I was stress eating, always eating until it hurt, eating huge amounts of candy when no one was around...... but i was really not that big.A big problem children face today is that there is often noone there who is taking proper care of their nutrition, leaving them to be in charge when and what to eat.I mean listening to your body and trusting it is a good thing to experience, I just think it is too much of a burden to take all these decisions without guidance from the parents.I think eating for other reasons than hunger is fine once in a while; but what our children really need to learn is self confidence, and how to cope with stress and fear and pressure.Like many of the readers I struggle with an (often changing) eating disorder and counting calories as a child made me believe I am a failure if I eat more than 1000 calories. Right now, 10 years later I am trying my hardest to "unlearn" counting calories. I cannot believe "experts" from the government think this is sensible advice, especially for children.

    Sorry this post was a little unstructured. Keep up the great work, this is my favourite ed-related blog because I always agree with your approach and your thoughts.And it makes me want to recover. :-)