Monday, March 27

I’ve already wasted too much energy calorie-counting – pass the chorizo! | Zoe-Williams

It was a sunny Saturday and my first experience of calories on menus. I can now tell you that prawns are low in calories, chorizo ​​is high, and salt and pepper squid is surprisingly energy-rich – though this is not surprising to me because I am a woman of a certain vintage, and we can all tell you how many calories are in absolutely everything, so long as it was in common usage by 1985, in other words, not seitan.

The calories in/calories out model – the fitness industry now calls calorie counting “If It Fits Your Macros”, which conveys something huge about modern life – tyrannised my youth. Even if you pretended not to care, or actually didn’t care, you could still rate any given food item at 50 peaces. You could name everything that looked healthy but was highly calorific, everything that was more or less calorie neutral, all the foods miracle that did high satiety for low energy load, all the foods that were discreetly low calorie (cottage cheese was so obviously). There were so many numbers and properties all neatly filed away in millions of brains.

I hate to think how much other, more useful information was displaced by this nerdy, self-hating food-spotting, though I have a fair idea. Years later, I used to do a quiz for hen nights with one round called The Wonderful World of Men; you had to point north, throw a ball of paper into a bin, correctly identify a Sten gun and down a can of Foster’s under timed conditions. All of those skills had been lost by a generation fixed on getting to the bottom of whether or not celery took more calories to digest than it delivered to the body.

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Anyway, at some point in the intervening million years, people started to ask, if this was so damn simple, and all you had to do was use more energy than you ate, why didn’t calorie counting work? In quiet corners of the world, ignoring the cacophony of “it’s all about willpower, stupid”, scientists working on the obese mouse model discovered the hormone leptin, which led to a much deeper understanding of appetite and lethargy.

A clearer picture also emerged from the role of protein, and the relative hormonal impacts of glucose and fructose. For brevity, your body doesn’t care about your bookkeeping, your appetite doesn’t care whether you’re beach-ready, and the main driver of obesity is not your pathetic lack of backbone, but rather, food manufacturing processes that add a load of sugar to everything for the purposes of longer shelf life. If that completely upends your natural ability to regulate your intake, well, so be it and ker-ching!

So, I want to say that this government initiative of printing calories on menus is a pointless move that will have no impact. Yet, that’s not quite true – it is disastrous for people with eating disorders, who are already working full tilt to overcome their anxiety just by coming to the restaurant, and are now confronted with a system that reinforces calorie fixation and creates a sense that their every choice is exposed and scrutinized. It is quite a useful insight into just how bad policy can be, when it’s not interested in the problem, only in appearing to be interested.

While I was choosing prawns and chorizo and salt and pepper squid, because I genuinely don’t care, the broadcaster Sophy Ridge was sharing a menu on Twitter, where the calorie counts were head-spinning: pork belly came in at 2,500, a side of cauliflower cheese at nearly 500; you could only energy-neutralize this meal with 10 solid hours of weight training, and you would still have change for a Wordle (another youth fixation: exactly how many calories were used by thinking). A theory: restaurants, knowing this new rule is stupid, are subverting it by rounding up, to create a world in which you either have to go home, or stop caring. Hospitality is smart and imaginative, in piquant contrast to the rules that govern it.

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