BLT sort of thing via D. Sharon Pruitt/Creative Commons
Earlier today I was talking about food and one particular irony of food and current food culture. I run a farm—in addition to this here job on the internet—and I'm also broke. It's been a difficult farming year and all of my tomatoes (the vegetable farmer's cash crop) are way late. I should have been selling them a month ago and eating prime rib every night. Anyhow, I eat terribly as many people that are broke do: ramen, McDonald's, clearance shelf bread. I have food from the farm though: chilis, cucumbers, squash, kale. It all tastes great and it's nutritious in a variety neat ways.But, it's not nutritious enough to live on. They're all missing calories, relatively speaking.
All of those super-healthy farm things have virtually no calories at all. Eating a cucumber is like drinking a glass of water in that respect. The others are a little better, but not much. A cup of summer squash has about 15 calories while, being fairly active, I burn roughly 3,500 calories a day. That's what I need in order to have enough energy in order to live. If I don't eat enough, I'll burn fat and eventually muscle. At that point, the situation becomes starvation, as the body converts muscle tissue (instead of food or fat) to glucose to keep the body supplied with energy. And, hey, the heart is a muscle too and that's how starvation kills: the starvee's heart eventually gives out. (This is actually usually due to a combination of muscle degradation and electrolyte imbalances.)
Malnutrition or malnourishment kills more people in the world than anything else. This isn't not getting enough vitamin C (though vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be lethal), it's starvation due to the above—not enough calories, leading to wasting and death, either through heart failure, opportunistic infection, or something less common. Someday I'll share my first-world starvation story but, in the meantime, let me just assure that it's miserable and you'd almost certainly be better off drowning or being shot. I promise.
I once got into an argument with someone that didn't believe that a calorie counts as nutrition at all, let alone the most crucial element of it. You need vitamins and minerals for all kinds of reasons—like having suitable building blocks for tissue, maintaining proper chemical balances, regulating metabolism, helping enzymes do their work, etc.—but calories are the fuel for the furnace. Absolutely nothing in your body works without them. One calorie equals about 4 joules of energy, which is used for any task imaginable: contracting heart muscle, firing neurons, repairing or growing tissue. And so on, until we have a complete living creature.
The "calorie free" concept is one of the most depressing things about post-everything life, the ultimate signifier of evolution-into-leisure or something even more fundamental. I hate the idea of talking at people about the "right" way to think about food. Food in human society is one of the weirdest things about us as a species—not sex (the least weird, arguably) or information storage—and calorie trolling is the most depressing thing about that weirdest thing. If we could just eliminate this one pollutant from our diets we would be approaching better health.
Calories are actually awesome. Not dying is awesome. I'd rather have an "overweight" world than one that is terrified of its most basic unit of nutrition. That's a pathology that goes deeper than anything else I can imagine. Most of the world is still just surviving, while the first-world has another problem. And it's certainly deeper than eating habits.
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