Calories are on everyone’s tongue – no pun intended, but they are. So, should they be counted? You bet! The fact that there is even a debate around increasing calorie awareness, sparked in part by the launching of the proposed upgrade to the Nutrition Facts label, is somewhat shocking, especially in the U.S. where 69% of the population is overweight or obese and almost 10% suffer from diabetes. Everyone should know what their ideal daily calorie intake is, and they should try to stay within that range by eating and drinking the healthiest foods possible.
Should you obsess over calories? Absolutely not. Do you need to count them? If it helps you keep track of them, then, yes, count them. In an evidence report from the Obesity Expert Panel published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2013, the strength of the evidence for the role of self-monitoring food intake as part of a comprehensive lifestyle approach for weight loss was determined to be high. So, clearly tracking the calories in foods and beverages is part of an overall lifestyle approach to successful weight loss and weight maintenance.
Will the new larger and bolder calorie and serving size labeling system on food products help? Yes. First of all, one does not need super-powered reading glasses to discern the numbers. Second, the proposed “per serving” and “per package” wording will “reflect how people eat and drink today, which has changed since serving sizes were first established twenty years ago,” according to the FDA’s website. One potential downside to highlighting calories is that it may turn some people off consuming healthy foods with high calorie counts, such as nuts.
How about “added sugars” being listed on the label? This is an excellent move as consumers can really see how much sugar has been added by manufacturers. This is essential for empty-calorie products, such as sodas and junk food, where the sugar is high and the nutritional value is low.
Will “calories from fat” being deleted from the label information help consumers? Yes. This was a confusing number that no one knew what to do with except nutritionists. In order to determine the percentage of calories from fat (30% is the current guideline), consumers have to divide the calories from fat by the total calories. Few consumers did this. Research shows that what is more important than the number of calories from fat is the type of fat.
Everyone’s daily calorie requirements are unique, but the good news is that most of us have “predictable” metabolisms that can be calculated using equations. These equations factor in your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level to determine how many calories you need to maintain or to lose weight. Over the years, according to the Nutrition Facts labels, many folks have been fooled into thinking that we all need 2,000 calories per day. This figure is grossly overblown for many people, particularly women.
Americans, in general, are consuming more calories than ever before, about 2,600 calories per day, which is 500 more than forty years ago. One solution to this misleading baseline might be to do away with the 2,000-calorie reference and instead add a realistic reference range on nutrition labels. Let’s say: 1,700 to 2,100 calories per day for low-active men; and 1,300 to 1,600 calories per day for low-active women. People can increase their calories needs according to their levels of physical activity.
And, while we’re differentiating between men and women, in a perfect world, “calories out” values would appear on the label too: how many minutes it will take a “reference” man or woman to walk off the calories per serving. This will never happen, but these numbers would put the energy balance equation into perspective.
All this said, there is a simple message to consumers that the food, beverage, and nutrition industry should agree upon: Watch what you eat and watch your calories. Many companies and individuals who have their own agendas, continue to push unhelpful advice along the lines of: Forget counting calories and only consume healthy foods. Or, count every calorie and consume whatever you want. Ideally, the simple message above should go one step further: Adopt a healthy lifestyle, pay attention to what and how much you eat and drink, and try to move more.