He Said, She Said: 1,500-Calorie Diet

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A patient sent Joanne the following email. “I overheard a coworker talking about food/calories/etc. and noted her saying, ‘We should all be on a 1,500-calorie diet as women.’ For some reason this really got to me and I normally don’t let these stupid comments affect me, especially when I know better. Thoughts?”


He Said

Yes, I do have thoughts about this, several in fact, but for the sake of time and space, I will leave aside tangential issues of practicing dietetics without a license (If someone without a medical license made a statement along the lines of, “As women, we should all be taking [insert name of a medication] daily,” would you be cool with that?) and the virtually-constant propagation of nutrition myths throughout our culture. Instead, let’s focus on just how incorrect this coworker’s assertion is.

Caloric needs are surprisingly difficult to determine. The most accurate method is direct calorimetry, which utilizes a metabolic chamber in which the subject occupies a compartment that measures the heat that he or she emits during whatever state of activity happens to be taking place at the time. Unless you enroll in a research study that involves one of these chambers, you will most likely never gain access to one in your lifetime.

Indirect calorimetry, which involves measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide intake and expulsion, respectively, is less invasive in some ways and easier to utilize. Large hospitals typically have metabolic carts that can perform such measurements in their research laboratories, and lesser models exist for office settings. The tradeoff, however, is accuracy, as even the best indirect calorimetry tools are a step down from direct calorimetry.

Next we have the Fitbits of the world, devices that use algorithms to estimate caloric needs based on a crude set of variables. Dietitians use similar equations sometimes as well, and when I do, I always stress to patients that the results are just rough estimates that cannot and should not be taken too literally.

These equations have numerous sources of error, such as the reliance on subjective measures of physical activity. Anybody can Google how many calories certain activities supposedly burn, but really these numbers are general rules of thumb at best. Running a mile burns 100 calories, we are told, but is this right? What about the size and body composition of the runner, or his or her mechanics? Does he or she have short, quick strides or long, less frequent steps? What about swings of the arms, point of contact between the foot and the ground, head bobbing, or any number of other factors that can influence the results?

One of my patients occasionally asks me how many calories one burns during sex. Unless you get two people to have intercourse in a metabolic chamber, who knows? Even then, the heat generated would pertain only to those unique individuals in that specific encounter, so what do you do, divide by two and make the assumptions that their efforts were equal and that these results apply at other times and to other people as well? Logistical hurdles and the countless variables involved make estimating caloric expenditure a guessing game not just for sex, but for pretty much any activity.

As a consequence, estimates of caloric needs are just that – estimates – and vary widely from person to person. My degree in mathematics reminds me that I like numbers as much as the next guy if not more, and I can certainly understand the appeal of having a short, sweet, and specific target for which to aim, but really the best method to determine your caloric needs is to set quantifiable data aside and look internally to your hunger and fullness signals. Despite all of the proliferating nutrition myths and overarching messages we are taught from childhood on that we cannot trust ourselves regarding food, our bodies are actually pretty good at telling us what and how much they need. We just need to relearn how to pay attention and trust those signals again.


She Said

Ahhh, the 1,500-calorie diet. It’s amazing how some arbitrary number has gotten stuck in the minds of so many people. 1,200 calories is also a popular number. Flip through any of your typical women’s health magazines and you are likely to read that all women should be consuming no more than 1,500 calories per day to be “healthy.” Unfortunately, there really is no such thing as the “perfect” number of calories for each and every person. 1,500 calories (or 1,200 calories or 1,750 calories) is a myth. It makes no sense to say that every woman should be on a 1,500-calorie diet; we all are unique human beings with unique needs.

As I tell my patients over and over – every body has different caloric needs. Age, height, weight, gender, muscle mass, and activity level are just some of the factors that can affect our calorie needs. Even the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, the equation most often used by most dietitians to determine calorie needs, does not take into account all of these factors. Our caloric needs will vary over our lifespan for a number of reasons. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need many more calories, while as we age, we typically need fewer calories. Anyone who has lived with a teenager can attest to the fact that calorie needs go way up during adolescence! When someone is recovering from an injury, his or her caloric needs might be elevated. For instance, the caloric needs of burn patients can be as much as double what the “average” person’s needs are. The best way to figure out what your calorie needs are? Eat as you normally would. If you see no large shifts in your weight (think plus or minus five pounds), you are meeting your calorie needs!

When working with patients who struggle with eating disorders, I try to steer clear of talking about calories. Many of my patients have spent countless hours logging the calories they ate (and burned), and most of these patients would say that they were “obsessed” with doing so. I had one patient who would log her calories daily, and if she consumed more than 1,300 per day, she felt like she had “failed.” Another patient would try to stick to no more than 1,800 calories per day, and if she went over by just a few calories, she would binge because she had “blown it.”

Instead of talking about calories, I try to use the “exchange” system with my patients. Exchanges are groups of foods that have similar nutritional profiles. For instance, a carbohydrate exchange (sometimes called “grain” or “starch” exchange) contains approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate per serving. This might look like an average piece of bread, a ½ cup of cooked pasta or rice or ½ of a large potato. By using exchanges, we can take the focus off of calories and how we need to limit them and instead talk about making sure we get enough carbohydrates, protein, fats, vegetables, etc. Calories have a negative connotation for many of my patients, while exchanges feel a bit more abstract and neutral.

In short, instead of setting an arbitrary calorie goal for oneself, I think it would be much more beneficial to set other goals. Getting five fruits and vegetables per day, being physically active for 60 minutes per day, and eating intuitively would be much better goals (in my opinion) than making sure one never goes over 1,500 calories per day.

Coca-Cola Classic Nonsense

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A pretty hefty portion of session time is spent clarifying misinformation that our patients have absorbed from various sources and assumed to be true. If you are a dietitian yourself, you know exactly what I mean.

It can be frustrating, but the patients are not to blame. If I encounter a post or article about combustion engines, overseas investing, the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire, or any other of the millions of topics in which I am a layman, I might mistakenly assume that what I am reading is correct, too. Without expertise in the subject, how could I possibly be expected to decipher the difference between fact, half-truths, and pure fiction with any degree of accuracy?

As an example of the nutrition-related nonsense that circulates in our culture, consider a post that popped up in my Facebook feed today entitled “This Finally Convinced Me to Never EVER Drink Coke Again. Once You See It, You’ll Understand.”

No way am I going to link to it; the post already has thousands of Facebook likes and I am not going to facilitate more exposure. If you really want to find it, I am sure Google will be more than happy to assist you in your efforts.

The post begins with Coke bashing. “The sugar content in each serving is astronomical, and the acidity can strip metal (coke is often used to de-grease car engines). If you’re a big fan of coke and still need some convincing to quit your bad habit, check out this experiment.”

Look, I am not arguing that Coke is a health food, but good-bad food dichotomies create way more harm than people realize. All foods have their pros and cons. Yes, even Coke has its upsides. Otherwise, why would anybody ever buy it?

“What happens when you drink some coke after drinking milk or eating a dairy product?” They continue, “You’ll be totally disgusted to see what happens in your stomach.” A series of photos then depict a small amount of milk being poured into a bottle of Coke, which is then capped and left to stand for six hours. By the time the hours elapse, the mixture separates into an upper layer of tan water and a lower layer of brown sediment, similar to how Italian salad dressing separates when left to stand undisturbed.

The caption reads “But what is that totally gross thing at the bottom? Is it dirt? Sand? Colon cancer?” They aren’t done. “The coke is so acidic that it denatures the protein found in the milk, causing this chemical reaction.”

According to an article published by the American Society for Microbiology, Coca-Cola Classic has a pH (which is a measure of acidity) of 2.5. You know what else has a pH of approximately 2.5? Your stomach. According to the National Institutes of Health, our stomachs – when empty – have a pH in the range of 1.5 to 3.5 due to the presence of hydrochloric acid, which is a naturally-occurring chemical that our stomachs secrete. Good luck digesting your food without it.

In other words, put protein in your stomach, let it sit there for six hours (which is unrealistic, as the stomach tends to empty much faster than that), and the product may very well resemble the denatured milk protein in the Coke bottle. The authors want us to think that something abnormal, scary, and unhealthy happened to the milk, but that is really not the case.

But what fun would it be, and more importantly how many Facebook likes would their piece get, if the authors concluded it with a lesson on digestive system physiology? Instead, they played the fear card. “This is so gross, I can’t believe I put this stuff in my body. Please share this with others, everyone needs to see this.”

No, not really. As it turns out, I don’t think anybody needs to see it.


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A friend and I recently got into an email exchange about how rapidly nutrition advice seems to shift and how this often leaves people confused, frustrated, and feeling paralyzed about what to do.

No doubt, guidelines do evolve in response to new research, and in fact the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated every five years.  The shifts, while perceived as quite fickle, are much more subtle than most people realize.  However, the reason we perceive nutrition advice to be oscillating like the ever-changing wind is not due to this evolution, but rather because of misinformation.

Take yesterday as an example.  Each day, Joanne and I receive a blast of nutrition-related articles.  For each topic, we are provided with the story geared towards the general public, such as an article in the New York Times or Boston Globe, as well as the research piece or journal article on which the story is based, such as a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Yesterday’s topic read, “Fats and Oils That Can Improve Your Health.”  As soon as I began to read the story, something seemed fishy.  Ghee and coconut oil topped the list of supposedly-healthy fats.  Although alternative medicine touts both of these fats as having health benefits, the research up to this point has not supported these claims.  Therefore, I was surprised to see them headlining the list.  When I got to the bottom of the article, I discovered that sure enough the story was written by a “Holistic Health Counselor,” as opposed to a credentialed and licensed expert in the field.

Next, I read the position statement released by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on which the above story was supposedly based.  The content of the two publications bore little resemblance to each other.  Regarding coconut oil, the Holistic Health Counselor wrote, “This versatile oil goes well with both sweet and savory dishes and boasts many health benefits.  Made up of medium-chain fatty acids, this oil is good for those trying to lose weight because the body can easily use this healthy fat for energy.  A large portion of the fatty acids found in coconut oil are made of lauric acid, which can serve as an antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial, helping to combat viruses and boost the immune system.”  On the other hand, the position statement read, “New food products containing coconut oil and other palm oils (eg, milk, spreads, yogurt) are touting health benefits of MCTs [medium-chain triglycerides, or medium-chain fatty acids].  Given that 44% of coconut oil is 12:0 and 16% is 14:0, and these fatty acids are hypercholesterolemic, consumption of coconut products is not currently recommended.”  Do you see any relationship between these two passages at all?

Omitting a link to the Holistic Health Counselor’s story was a conscious decision on my part in order to avoid further dissemination of misleading information.   If I showed you the article though, you would discover that it is concise, organized into a list with bold headings, and features colorful and attractive photos as well as a head shot of the author.  Compare that to the text-heavy, chemistry-laden, pictureless, 18-page monstrosity that is the position statement.  The former will attract more readers and gain steam and wide circulation due to forwarding to friends, postings on Facebook, etc.  The latter is lost in the dust, only to be read by the likes of me.

Generally speaking, most people never read primary source articles.  They simply trust that the stories they read summarizing said articles do so with a high degree of accuracy.  Unfortunately, just like in the game of telephone, details and facts get lost or skewed with each iteration; the ultimate and initial messages conveyed often do not match.  The mismatch is what makes playing telephone fun and interesting, but in real life the consequences are negative.  A patient comes into my office having read the more popular article and understandably believes the content to be true, but then he or she hears me present the position statement’s stance.  “Have the guidelines already changed?” the patient asks.  “Who should I believe?  What am I supposed to do now?”  No wonder people feel stuck and confused.  Part of our work then becomes to undo this confusion so that the patient can move forward.

In a culture where we have limited time and attention spans, we get a great deal of our news through tweets, scrolling headlines at the bottom of the television, and sound bites.  Media members, fully aware of the small window they have to present an idea and under pressure to break a story first, sometimes sacrifice checking facts and preserving key messages.  The pressure to be first and to accumulate clicks, retweets, and Facebook likes is king while the responsibility to be accurate gets lost in the shuffle.

Somewhere along the line, somebody suggested to me that I should shorten my blogs.  People have neither the time nor attention span for my entries, and who besides my mom reads all the way through to the end?  Shortening my blogs, I am told, could increase our Facebook fans and Twitter followers, thereby making Soolman Nutrition and Wellness LLC more popular.  That could be true, but my position as a source of reliable information is one that I take seriously, and I am not about to sacrifice my credibility for some extra likes and retweets.  Despite today’s be-first-and-keep-it-short media culture, accuracy and completeness are still necessary in order to minimize confusion.