Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Are Calories Good or Bad?"

My 7 year old daughter asked me the other day, "Are calories good or bad?" Since she has asked me this question more than once in recent months, I'm feeling like something in my answer is not getting through to her. This time, we talked about it a little longer and as we were all in the car together (some of the best conversations happen in the car!), my 11 year old - currently learning about food and nutrition in her health class - also joined in. My answer has always been that calories are neither good nor bad and you need calories to live. This time, however, we talked more about the relationship between calories and energy. You need calories in order to do things like dancing, running, and even just sitting and breathing. My 11 year old drove home the point that different activities need different levels of energy and calories. We also talked about trying to eat the amount of calories that your body needs for growing and for different activities. She seemed satisfied with our answers. Whew...

I worry sometimes though about the messages my kids are getting about things like "calories." There seems to be so much value judgment in the education that they receive around the topics of food and eating. Some of that may be very well intentioned, but some of it may be misguided. I recently read the Academy for Eating Disorders Guidelines for Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs (http://www.aedweb.org/media/Guidelines.cfm) and was really impressed with how thoughtful they are. In our best efforts to prevent the growing problem of childhood obesity, we should be careful not to harm children psychologically and perhaps unintentionally create other problems.

I don't want my children worrying that calories are "bad." It's like worrying that inches, grams, or any other unit of measurement are "bad." I also don't want every decision my children make about what to eat to be based on the calorie content of food. I hope for them to be successful eaters - eaters who eat a variety of foods, eat when they're hungry, stop eating when they're full, and enjoy their food. I hope messages that they receive about food and eating from school, media, friends and other adults support my goals for them, but I'm not always so sure...


  1. My kids are 4 and 2 and haven't asked questions such as yours.

    It's really important to me, too, to not send any damaging messages about food/eating/weight.

    If I were asked whether calories were good or bad, I think I might say that calories are necessary and an important part of living, but that, like many other things, too many can be unhealthy.

    Like sunshine - being out in the sun is good and it's healthy and our body needs a certain amount for Vitamin D - but too much sunshine is damaging - it can burn our skin and give us sun poisoning. I'm sure there are even better analogies than that.

    By the way - I really enjoy your blog. Great "food for thought" and I'm glad to have found it.

  2. One other thing I just thought of - I'd probably tell my kids that they don't need to worry about the number of calories they are consuming - but they should learn to listen to their bodies. Eat when the feel hungry, stop when the feel satisified.

    I believe our bodies know how much energy we need to grow and develop (and just maintain) and if we listen to that -we'll consume the right amount.

    Ok, I'll leave you alone now... ;)


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