Calories: Friend Not Foe
Most simplistically defined, a calorie is a unit of energy. Without energy, our bodies would cease to function. Obviously, this could mean no running or working out, but what many individuals neglect to realize is that it could also mean no heartbeat or breathing. Without question, the human body requires, yes requires, energy. It has already been established that a calorie is a unit of energy. If this is the case, then it is a grave disservice to society to indoctrinate the masses with the misconception that calories are bad and must be limited by everyone. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens in public schools throughout the country.
In an earnest attempt to battle the epidemic of childhood obesity, health educators in public schools have implemented a curriculum that teaches impressionable young students the misguided notion that calories are bad for you. This overgeneralization is incredibly hazardous, and young learners need to be properly informed on the subject in order to make healthy dietary choices.
Registered dietician, Wendy Kapsak, purports the dyer importance of understanding the concept of energy balance. This concept refers to the amount of calories required by an individual, depending upon the energy they expend through physical activity, as well as their basal metabolic rate. It is abundantly clear that this balance will be unique for everyone. Therefore, a “one size fits all” ideology regarding caloric needs is extremely dangerous and simply inaccurate. A massive confusion has been created among young people due to the irresponsible dissemination of information within schools by self-appointed “experts” in the field of health and nutrition.
A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council revealed an overwhelming 44% of people underestimate their daily caloric needs based on their age, weight, height, and activity level. This lack of understanding develops at a young age through the advocating for a low calorie diet that occurs in classrooms. Rather than creating a negative connotation associated with calories, children must be taught about the necessity for a highly individualized calorie balance that is soundly supported by science.
Furthermore, although many are able to comprehend that food provides fuel for the body, there is still a disconnect in the understanding of the correlation between calories and expended energy in this equation. In Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, the authors explain the metabolic function of how the body converts calories to energy. “Metabolism is the term given to the entire process of using the molecules in the food you eat to maintain your basic functions, build new molecules characteristic of your own body, use your muscles, and produce energy.” Encouraging young people to limit the quantity of calories they consume is ultimately encouraging them to deprive their bodies of much needed energy. Students need to learn how to properly evaluate their caloric needs based on the many factors that contribute to their individual metabolic functions.
Undeniably, there are overweight individuals who may benefit from eating in a calorie deficit. Educators do not fail to consistently emphasize this fact. However, a balanced health education curriculum should not only address the science behind what happens when an excessive amount of calories are consumed, creating a surplus in relation to the calorie balance. At the same time, it is equally important that they recognize that it is not a universal need among every growing child to restrict calories. In fact, there is an ever growing population of children at risk of serious health complications due to an inadequate caloric intake. This is simply not properly addressed in health education classrooms.
A more appropriate alternative for nutrition education is to focus on the benefits that various food products can contribute to a well balanced diet. Adam Drewnowski explains how nutrient profiling has been used for years to identify nutrient dense foods. This profiling system does not villainize foods that society considers to be high calorie, but rather praises foods that are a rich source of healthful vitamins and minerals. For example, avocados and nuts contain more calories than other food options, yet are dense in some of the most essential nutrients and healthy fats. Conversely, a sugar free soft drink, such as Diet Coke, contains zero calories, but has no nutritional value whatsoever. This strongly contradicts the lessons that are representative of the health education curriculums nationwide. Teaching practices would be better focused on information related to nutrition density in order to aid students in making healthy and balanced dietary decisions.
The term balance must also be emphasized to the vulnerable young minds in the classroom. The concept “all foods fit” is a mindset that is paramount for today’s youth to adopt, as our diet obsessed society continues to thrive on disordered eating behaviors. Health instructors must make it clear that it is normal, healthy, and acceptable for an individual’s diet to contain a balance of nutrient rich foods, while also incorporating foods that are simply enjoyable, such as sweet treats. Moreover, referring to foods as “good” or “bad” further perpetuates the vicious mindset that distorts one’s perception of how to fuel their body and encourages individuals to buy into unhealthy habits.
The fact remains that health teachers are not registered dietitians, nor do they have medical degrees. While they may be capable of teaching children basic and necessary health lessons such as the dangers of smoking and drug use, they are not qualified to advise children on a subject that should be discussed with their medical care provider. Nutritional needs are unique to each individual and teaching universal eating habits is wildly irresponsible, particularly during the impressionable informative years of a child’s schooling. Additionally, carelessly interfering with children’s diets at a time when their bodies are rapidly developing can potentially cause irrevocable harm. Alternately, what instructors can do is instill concepts of dietary balance and nutritional value in foods that extend far beyond calorie count. Only then will the educational system in our country be responsibly educating children on the true function of calories and their place in a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Drewnowski, A., & Fulgoni, V. (2008). Nutrient profiling of foods: creating a nutrient-rich food index Nutrition Reviews, 66(1), 23–39.
Kapsak, W. R., DiMarco-Crook, C., Hill, J. O., Toner, C. D., & Edge, M. S. (2013). Confusion on All Sides of the Calorie Equation: Lessons… : Nutrition Today Nutrition Today (Annapolis), 48(5), 195–202.