Possible trigger warning: This post discusses calories in the context of metabolism, intake and weight-loss.
Before I get into this post, I want to give you a little pop quiz. Just a few questions:
1) Sue is a 34 year old woman who is 5’7″ and weighs 165 pounds. She exercises 3 days a week at a low intensity, has a fairly sedentary job and has no chronic illnesses or conditions which affect her thyroid. Which range of calories best represent the amount Sue probably needs on a daily basis to maintain her weight?
A)1650 – 1850
B)1950 – 2150
C)1350 – 1550
2) Barbara is 23 years old. She is 5’3″ tall and weighs 150 pounds. She exercises 5 days a week at a fairly intense level. She too is in good health with no thyroid issues. Which range of calories best represent the amount Barbara probably needs on a daily basis to maintain her weight?
A) 2150 – 2350
B) 1950 – 2150
C) 2550 – 2650
3) Kathleen is 42 years old. She is 5’5″ and weighs 272 pounds. She exercises 5 days a week at various intensities. Kathleen has no health issues which might affect the rate of her metabolism, but she is not as healthy as she’d like to be and is looking at losing 1lb/week. Which range of calories best represent the amount Kathleen needs to lose one pound a week?
A) 2250 – 2350
B) 1850 – 2050
C) 1250 – 1350
Answers: 1 – B, 2 – A, 3 – A
I have no doubt that a lot of people who read this blog got it right, but I also don’t doubt that a huge percentage of women in our society would have gotten it very wrong.
One thing that keeps confounding me as I work my way through mazes of weight-loss blogs is the sheer number of women who don’t eat enough. A woman close to my age and weight, but 3 inches taller than me who berates herself for failure to stick with her 1600 calorie/day diet. A woman who makes a promise to herself and her readers that she will not eat more than 1200 calories/day. These are not women who seem, in any other respect, to be particularly disordered when it comes to weight loss. They know they should look at slow weight loss, often they explicitly state that they only want to lose one pound a week. They find exercise they like and don’t overdo it. And yet, they’re dropping their calories by 1,000 or more every day.
It is, I think, indicative of a larger social trend where a large percentage of women eat over 2000 calories/day, believe that they’re eating around 1700 calories/day and think that they should be eating 1300 calories/day.
All of this has been on my mind as I read about New York’s law mandating chain restaurants post the calorie count of foods on their menus. If you want to read some good posts and interesting discussion around the particulars of the law (and some similar proposed laws) check out this post from the Rudd Center’s blog or any one of these three posts from Rachel.
I’m torn on the law itself*, but one thing I know for sure is that any possible benefit people could get from this information is useless if people don’t know how to apply it in context. So long as people, women especially, have no clue how their own bodies work or how much energy they actually require in a day, the question of whether to order the 750 calorie lunch or the 550 calorie lunch will be pointless.
The NYC health department is also releasing an ad campaign in conjunction with the new law reminding people that ‘most people’ only need about 2000 calories/day. That 2,000 estimation has got to be one of the single most annoying numbers ever. Remember, that number includes men and women; the elderly and teenagers; athletes and sedentary people. Translation: it is absolutely meaningless. And honestly, when it comes to the majority of women I see, their metabolic misunderstandings tend to be in the direction of underestimating their energy needs.
All of this is, to me, indicative of the contradictory nature of so much of the public health work around obesity. We’ll make restaurants post calorie counts because people have no idea how much they’re eating, then we’ll tell the public that ‘most people’ don’t need more than 2000 calories/day because those fat people all think they need a billion calories a day.
So what you end up with is a bunch of people choosing the 300 calorie lunch who then feel pretty hungry soon afterward which makes them feel like a failure because they believe they ‘should’ feel satisfied with 1400 calories/day – hey, it’s less than 2000, right?
I do believe more information can help us look after our health. Knowledge is power, after all. But it can’t be incomplete information or overly-simplified information. And any attempt to give people information to aid them in making food choices which doesn’t also address the huge amount of misinformation about food and weight is probably not going to accomplish much.
Note: The answers to the pop quiz were estimated using the Mifflin-St Jeor equation which, some research suggests, is the most accurate for North Americans. Tomorrow’s post will deal with different ways to estimate and actually measure individual metabolism.
*I don’t know what the answer is, but I understand both sides of the issue. At the very least, menus without calories should be made available at all restaurants.