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November 2003 Issue
Chart Your Way to Health … or Not?
by Michael Fick
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This began as a discussion of the calories expended in various types of everyday physical activity. It seemed like a valid topic at first, but quickly faded, for two reasons. Reason number one: just ask Google. Throw such words as “activity” and “calories” at it, and you’ll get plenty of activity calorie charts, plus sales pitches. In those results you’ll see the term “MET” often associated with hospital and university sites, so add “MET” to your key words to fine-tune your search and weed out some of the snake oil peddlers. You’ll instantly find many calorie equivalence charts for everything from eyebrow plucking to pro wrestling (it’s not real wrestling, but it’s certainly real exercise and it takes bigger tights than most of us need).

But first ask yourself what you’re going to do with those calorie expenditure charts. Do you really think you will measure and chart your stairs, the distance to the bathroom and coffee pot (hint: there’s a relationship there), the hike to your clunker parked by the front office door or your new Beamer parked sideways at the back of the lot, your lawn mowing time, vacuuming, the gym, gardening, the softball game (yeah, sure, THERE’S a weight-burner!), hoisting the remote … you could go nuts with all this and still have a huge margin of error even if you didn’t lie through your teeth about how much exercise you get. That’s reason number two: there’s more slop in those calculations than in your diet … if you’re lucky … and you’re no more likely to keep up the chart than you are to keep up the Cabbage Soup Diet. (Don’t even ask about the cabbage soup diet. At least the charting activity won’t drive your friends away, and diet is about food, folks, not gimmicks. Soup in general can be an effective long-term weight loss booster, though, and we’ll cover it soon.)

Even if we could and would calculate and log our daily activity calorie expenditure, that’s only half the battle. For the chart to be of any use, we’d also have to chart our daily calorie consumption equally rigorously. Some people do; nutrition chat group perusal indicates that more than a few dieters count their raisins. That sounds sad even as a joke, but even sadder is that some people actually do fret over a dozen raisins, an ounce of chicken, an extra celery stick, or a spoonful of peas. You can bet that many of them are obsessed and underweight, even anorexic, and many more need to worry more about that dumpster full of chicken buckets and pizza boxes behind their house than about celery sticks. Any adult whose weight can be affected by their raisin and pea count has a medical problem needing treatment, and anyone of ordinary height who tops a couple hundred pounds needs to count their Big Macs, not their celery sticks. Calorie content charts run scores of pages, and counting calories by the spoonful is an obsession, not a diet, unless one has a specific medical problem such as diabetes. A muffin a day = 50 pounds of weight gain per year, but the problem isn’t the number of raisins in the muffin; IT’S THE MUFFIN!

Before we can generate a weight management plan from all that research, charting, logging, and arithmetic, we need to calculate how many calories per day we should eat to maintain our current weight. Even that’s complicated; the National Academy of Sciences says that, for men, it equals 864 – (age x 9.72) + [weight (in pounds) x 6.46 + height (inches) x 12.8] x Activity Level. Worse yet, that Activity Level thing comes from a whole ‘nuther chart, which rates 40 minutes of jogging, 80 minutes of aerobic dancing, or seven miles of brisk walking -- every day -- as moderate activity, worthy of only a 1.27 Activity Level factor. Given that most of us lie about our weight, exaggerate our activity level, and would rather run a marathon than do math, weight management by charts quickly resembles ironing our underwear … it takes way more time than it’s worth.

Weight management isn’t about heavy charting except for people who choose to make it about charting. The real measure of how well our weight management efforts are working lies not in charts, but in our body fat. If it’s increasing, the charts might serve us better if we ate them for lunch or lifted them 200 times per day. Ultimately we tire of living by the charts, fake or forget ‘em, and revert to the old eating habits that put on the excess weight to begin with. Unless you’re actually managing your weight successfully with charts, they’re just a time-consuming hobby, not a health tool. The real issues are whether you have too much fat on your carcass and/or whether your diet is healthy, and those are easy to determine without piles of charts.

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