Counting calories: Pointless habit No 1
Published 30/09/2010 | 11:58
There's a good Sarah Silverman joke about women and their dietary habits. "9/11 was devastating," she deadpans, "especially for me, because it happened to be the same exact day that I found out that the soy chai latte was, like, 900 calories. I had been drinking them every day."
Of course, she's having us on: there's no way a woman with Silverman's slender figure couldn't have guessed that a large cup of creamy coffee would easily tot up so many of those evil c-numbers.
I've never been on a serious, drop-a-dress-size diet, but like most women I know, I do borrow certain tactics used by the serious dieter, for no other reason than I think I ought to, in case I develop upper-arm dimples or more than two chins. When I remember, I try not to eat bread after 5pm; I'll practise the run-equals-a-sandwich self-bribery deal; if in doubt, order chicken; and I know that 2,000 calories a day is good, a bit less than that, even better.
Keeping a daily tally of calories is probably the most pointless habit, the most embarrassing (especially after Bridget Jones) and the hardest to give up.
Pointless, because the way I do it is a bit like book-keeping that doesn't include any bills you don't like the look of. So the energy content of red wine is resolutely ignored, and any food consumed in foreign countries, particularly France or Italy, is also exempt.
Hard to give up, because it's made so very easy for me by the diet-food industry. The simple act of buying lunch at M&S can take 20 minutes, as I silently trade off a salmon salad (420cal) against a packet of salt and vinegar crisps (200cal), realise that a juice (100cal) will push me over a randomly assigned limit (perhaps I read it in Grazia), and put everything back in the chiller cabinet in frustration.
There'll usually be a little crowd of us, the number-crunchers, shivering next to the sandwich shelves, calculating which lunch a thin person would eat. What wrap would Nadia Vodianova choose: bean or prawn? (As if she'd eat either.) We're not thinking about how hungry we actually feel, nor that we have a long and exhausting afternoon ahead of us that requires fuel to keep going. And I always notice that none of us calorie-readers look anywhere near obese.
Now that reflex to count rather than choose will be indulged further by a new voluntary scheme in which restaurant chains display their calorific content on menus. The Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wants to, "give people the help and advice they need to adopt a healthy lifestyle. I want to make it as easy as possible for them to do that."
A recent, similar programme by the Foods Standards Agency involving 18 chains , including KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut, ended with most of the companies dropping out; only Pret A Manger has stuck with it.
Will menus with calorie counts - already introduced in the US - really deter junk-food addicts from eating junk? No more than the information already printed on packaged supermarket foods helps prevent obesity. People who don't care about being overweight won't let a few thousand cals get in the way of their snack of choice; Wimpy put calorie counts on all its menus two years ago and says it has not noticed customers switching from burgers to salads and jacket potatoes as a result.
Keeping track of calorie intake is fiddly and only dedicated dieters succeed losing weight that way. That's why the easier-to-follow colour-coded "traffic light" labelling system is so feared by the food industry and was successfully derailed by lobbyists at the European Parliament in June.
The only other group of people who use calories as a guide are brainwashed quasi-dieters like me who imagine they're being self-disciplined by lunching on a joyless, mayo-free chicken sandwich (380cal).
Independent News Service