When I go to a restaurant, it’s usually because; a) I can’t be arsed to cook, b) my partner can’t be arsed to cook and is offering to pay, or c) I want to eat a fuck tonne of lush food. I don’t normally expect French Fred, the maître D from “First Dates”, to tell me that I need to jog for 45mins because I ate a cheeseburger. But I just watched a TV show where this exact thing happened.
Today I watched the BBC 2 Horizon documentary “The Restaurant That Burns Off Calories” – and man, do I have some views to share with you!
The premise of the show is that folks eat at a restaurant under the guise of being filmed for a show about secret calories in food. Unbeknownst to them, 30 or so gym-goers are in a back room ‘exercising off’ the exact number of calories that diners were consuming.
The idea came from a recent study which suggests that if a menu showed how many minutes of exercise it would take to burn the calories contained in the food served, then customers would make lower calorie choices about what to eat. 19% fewer calories to be exact.
There are three main problems I have with this concept…
1. Obesity-associated diseases may be caused by many things including stress, lack of sleep, your economic status, discrimination, diet, and more. There are links with increased body fat, but it is not as clear cut as ‘being fat causes illness’. It doesn’t always. And why so much importance is placed on what you look like naked is completely beyond me.
2. This approach to ‘fixing’ obesity is likely to worsen or even cause eating disorders, including orthorexia – an eating disorder characterised by an obsessive fixation on ‘healthy’ eating.
3. They are using science that cannot be translated into the real world.
‘Calories in, calories out’, as a theory in a science lab absol-fucking-lutely works. We technically should be able to count calories, track the number we expend, and adjust each accordingly to change our body shape.
But there are two very big ‘buts’ in that science.
1) We should be able to track how many calories go into us… BUT we are rubbish at counting. We do not weigh properly, or we forget to log things, and food labels can be legally inaccurate by up to 20%. Restaurants are notoriously incorrect when it comes to calories, mostly because it’s a human chef cooking. Sometimes they are going to include five more chips, or a slightly bigger cut of steak, or a tiny bit more sauce, or a gram more olive oil or butter.
Our bodies do not help with the tracking either. We each use the energy in food differently, depending on a huge number of factors… this documentary even admits that by showing identical twins (so the exact same DNA) taking different numbers of usable calories from food, whereas the science of energy says it should be exactly the same.
2) We should be able to track how many calories we expend… BUT we are rubbish at tracking. In this TV show, the exercisers used gym cardio machines. Even if you change the machine settings to your personal height and weight, the number of calories it shows you expending can be far from the actual number you use. Wearable trackers – like your FitBit – are the same. Calorie expenditure depends on height, weight, gender, how much effort you are putting in, body composition, genetics, and more. It’s never going to be accurate enough to make calorie counting a fool-proof method of losing body fat.
The only thing we can be 100% confident about is that when “The Restaurant That Burns Calories” says that it’ll take ‘X’ number of minutes on a treadmill to burn off your delicious cheesecake, they are making a guess based on lab science which would work on a robot, but NOT on a human person. They are using mathematic equations but forgetting about the variables.
What the programme did was imply that we should be using all of our food calories by exercising. It vaguely suggested that our bodies use calories for other things, but it placed all its emphasis on exercise being the primary way we burn energy. This is just not true. Many people use around 1500 calories per day, even if they spend all day in bed NOT exercising. Exercise only accounts for around 5-10% of daily calorie usage in the average gym-goer – around a Mars Bar’s worth of calories if we are following the vibe of the show!
For improved physical health, absolutely exercise. For fat loss, if you medically need it, maybe just don’t eat the Mars Bar.
Helen Fielding nailed it when she said “I realised that I have spent so many years being on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness.” So let’s stop demonising calories, shall we? And remember that they are useful, important, good, and bloody tasty!
Apparently, the supposed health issues caused by body fat are more important than protecting the public’s mental health. It appears that the producers don’t seem to give two fucks about the eating disorders they are going to fuel or create, or the self-esteems they are going to crush. Because every time you imply that people can be overweight or underweight, you are telling them they are not good enough. Implying that the ‘crime’ of eating comes with the ‘penance’ of exercising is fucking up people’s relationship with food, and movement even moreso, and instead it may lead to extreme efforts to achieve this elusive ‘perfect’ body we are all supposed to have.
But even if you are convinced that we all need to get slimmer for our health, then remember that THIS SHIT IS NOT HELPING. Governments (I hate to say it) are bullying people into action because their body size hasn’t achieved the intended goal so far. Why not teach them to respect themselves enough to want to eat an amazing array of beautiful foods, and naturally counteract their energy intake with a healthy method of expending energy?
This entire programme was, in my opinion, a dollop of fatphobic rhetoric, a pinch of discriminatory language, a dash of bullying, and a large sprinkling of thin-person superiority. All in all, a huge helping of ‘stop-skewing-science-to-fit-your-narrative’ bollocks. The BBC has done the country a huge disservice by telling many of its viewers that they are not good enough as they are, and that their entire worth can be reduced down to their BMI.
Don’t believe me? Then why did the lean gym-goers get a round of applause from the average to large sized diners to ‘thank’ them for burning over all their gluttonous calories, if it wasn’t to suggest that they are the better people. And why did the folks eating have to agree that the exercisers had “done them proud”, as if they had done something wrong by choosing to eat a burger and a chocolate brownie during a nice trip to a restaurant.
Fuck you, BBC. Do your research and start making people feel good about themselves, not ashamed. There is a difference between education and freedom of speech with false reporting, misuse of science, and the continuation of our fatphobic culture. Sort your shit out.