Forget Calories

Counting calories is misguided. The focus belongs on real food.
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“Coca-Cola is taking on obesity,” read the AP coverage of the company's new commercial this week, “with an online video showing how [much] fun it could be to burn off the 140 calories in a can of its soda.”

The scene puts a covey of Californians around a comically oversized bicycle on Santa Monica beach. They stationery-cycle in montage for 20 to 30 smiling minutes each (depending on each person’s size and vigor), until they’ve burned the requisite number of calories to coax an aluminum can along a whimsical Rube-Goldberg-type trapeze. The can eventually reaches the big payoff, when a giant disembodied hand bestows to the pedaler Coca-Cola.

Coke Happy Cycle

Not everyone thought it looked fun. "They're showing exactly why you wouldn't want to drink a Coke,” brand consultant Laura Ries said, presumably not while biking. “Twenty-three minutes on a bike is not fun for most people.” (23 minutes was the average time required for a 140-pound person—though as Adweek noted, the average 20-year-old man weighs 196 pounds, and the average woman of the same age weighs 166 pounds.)

It’s also uncomfortably evocative of a lab experiment where hamsters run on a wheel until they are delivered a pellet of, say, opium. But others in the foodie world were less skeptical of the marketing move than they were enraged by it. I probably would have been too, if I were still capable of strong emotions.

Because asking how much time it takes to burn off the calories in a can of Coke is like asking how many Hail Marys it takes to uncheat at poker. I think it does something for your immortal soul, but if you get caught you’re still going to get punched in the stomach. Even if you give everyone their money back, it’s not over. Best case scenario, future games are going to be awkward.

“This is a light-hearted, down-to-Earth message,” Coke spokeswoman Judith Snyder told USA Today. “There are fun ways to burn calories. We want to be very clear that this is not at all a dig at nutritionists but a fun, lighthearted way to present this message.”

It is, though. It’s a dig, Judith. Coca-Cola is not taking on obesity; it is taking on its rotting public image. The campaign is absolutely a dig at the work of nutritionists, in that “Keep eating junk food, just exercise the calories off” is exactly the message that public-health advocates have been fighting in recent years, because it’s not the legit proposition it might seem to be.

***

I like the sounds of the words diet-sage doctors use. I like their deliberate scrubs and airbrushed faces on billboards and book jackets. And I relate to Joan Didion's notion of being a writer feeling no legitimate residency in the world of ideas. My eyes are drawn to the periphery of the weight-loss market, the absurd tag-lines of bestselling-hopeful books with titles like My Beef With Meat, to the drama in scientists slinging mud at one another with professionally acceptable level of passivity to mitigate their aggression. That’s what I like to write about.

But writing is necessarily, Didion again, “an aggressive, even hostile act … an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s.” Like it or not, you are always imposing an idea. If writing is an invasion, then doing a TV or radio appearance is scorching the earth. There an idea is meant to be extracted in its most distilled form, on any number of the billion talking-head shows, in two to five minutes. Clearly, concisely, without caveats.

These appearances were never part of any plan I made for myself, but they come with writing, and to my mother it’s pretty much the height of success. So I do them, but I end up answering questions in ways that visibly/audibly disappoint hosts. Just tell me what’s good and what’s bad, the audience seems to want of its health media. “It’s complicated” is not a helpful answer. Last weekend I was on MSNBC talking about my feature “Being Happy With Sugar,” and the interviewer T.J. Holmes, doing his job perfectly, was trying to extract a stance on just how evil sugar is. And, it’s complicated. Sugar is “toxic” insofar as anything is toxic at the right level, and thinking of it as toxic may or may not be a helpful construct.

“What’s one of the biggest misconceptions out there that you wish you could turn around?”

Well, I’m not sure what your conceptions are? After a few minutes, Holmes said I was killing him. I was, I’m sure. He was killing me. Sugar is killing us all. To some degree. I hope the invasion of my sensibilities was more aggressive to Holmes than it was to the people watching weekend daytime news. But it helped me hone this idea that I have to deal in ideas in a frank, consumer-oriented way sometimes if I’m going to be productive to public health.

On Wednesday I got to do a longer segment on the local NPR affiliate alongside Dr. David Ludwig, a professor at Harvard Medical School. That was a good discussion, as it always is with host Kojo Nnamdi. Ludwig is a man of ideas, important ideas that he’s been saying for a long time. Here's the most interesting part:

NNAMDI: Many of us have been led to understand that weight gain or loss is simply a matter of willpower, our ability to restore balance to that equation of the calories that go in our bodies and the calories that we use and go out. You've done a lot of research that suggests our basic understanding of that equation is off kilter. How so?

LUDWIG: … Very few people can lose weight over the long term with low-calorie diets. And those who can't are blamed for lack of discipline and willpower. So, according to an alternative view, weight is controlled like body temperature and a range of other biological functions. Eating too much refined carbohydrate has, by this theory, raised insulin levels and programmed our fat cells to suck in and store too many calories. When this happens, there are too few calories for the rest of the body. So the brain recognizes this and triggers the starvation response. We experience that as becoming excessively hungry and our metabolism slows down. ... Eventually we succumb to hunger and overeat. So a better approach, if this theory is correct, is to address the problem at its source by cutting back on the foods that are over-stimulating our fat cells: the refined carbohydrates like grains, potato products, concentrated sugars, especially the refined grains. And by eating this way, we can basically ignore calories and let our body-weight control systems do the work.

NNAMDI: Is it oversimplification to say that your research suggests we’re getting hungrier because we’re getting fatter?

LUDWIG: [No,] that’s right.

Ludwig and co-author Mark Friedman wrote about this in a New York Times article last month headlined “Always Hungry? Here’s Why,” saying that the “simple solution” ingrained in people who want to lose weight “is to exert willpower and eat less.”

The problem is that this advice doesn’t work, at least not for most people over the long term. In other words, your New Year’s resolution to lose weight probably won’t last through the spring, let alone affect how you look in a swimsuit in July. More of us than ever are obese, despite an incessant focus on calorie balance by the government, nutrition organizations, and the food industry. … As it turns out, many biological factors affect the storage of calories in fat cells, including genetics, levels of physical activity, sleep, and stress. But one has an indisputably dominant role: the hormone insulin.

The food industry didn't necessarily focus on calorie counts until recently, but it has definitely embraced it now. Twix and Oreos come in 100-calorie packs. Coke tells you exactly how to burn its calories off. It’s better than nothing, right? Here’s my foray into the realm of nutrition ideas: Eating based on calories is a problem. That’s what I should’ve told T.J. Holmes. It’s really an aggregate of what many nutritionists and writers are saying right now, but: Calorie counting doesn’t work for most people, and it’s manipulated by companies marketing junk. It’s not a good way to think about food.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.

 
 
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