Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Asian food labels, Calories, and their significance?

Last week, I headed to the Asian supermarket. I go once about every 3-4 months, all depending on when I run out of this: Yes, kimchi! It's probably one of my favorite foods. I'm not the typical Korean, eating it for every meal, just dinner, along with my other veggies, rice/noodles, and protein.

While I was there, I picked up other items, like noodles, sweet wild
rice, crackers, sauces, frozen potstickers, bean paste products, and even some whole sardines! (for the dogs not me) Who knew sardines came in other sizes than just those ones you see canned? :grin:

The majority of items there have labels both in Asian and English languages. However, I was thinking about this very thing. I used to love to try all the different Asian ramen noodles there. They are much tastier than the standard supermarket kind. I used to buy 5 or 6 different types--everything from kimchi flavor to sesame to even green tea! That was until I read the actual food label. As I've mentioned before, my ED descent led me to a life of being fat-phobic. So I w
as naturally appalled at how many fat grams this 4-5 oz package of noodles had. Well, that was the end of that, and I never touched those specific noodles again, rather opting for something like soba noodles which were less calorific.

Then, I was thinking, what if all my food items were only with Asian food labels, like this one below.

I say this, because I cannot read Asian characters. Would this make a difference, or would it backfire and just cause me more anxiety not knowing how much a certain food item was? I mean, what if I were stuck on some island like all those people in Lost and had to forage for myself? (The Lost people did find normal, packaged foods which they lived off of for awhile) Would I be thinking about calories then?

This led me to think about the actual history of the "Calorie." (kcal) How did it become to play such a significant role in how we eat, diet, and exercise?

According to this brief article in the Journal of Nutrition, it really wasn't until 1887 when chemist Wilbur Atwater published a paper about the "Calorie" relating to food energy that the concept even arose. Atwater used the calorimeter as away to measure the energy in food. In this case, the Calorie is the amount of heat produced when a food is burned to dry powder or ash.

It wasn't until about two decades later that the idea behind calories with dieting hit mainstream. Prior to this, we could say "modern" dieting began with the likes of William Banting in England, forerunner of the Atkins plan, Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham cracker who believed in strict vegetarianism, and Horace Fletcher, aka the "Great Masticator" who felt everyone must chew their food something like 32 times before swallowing. None of these men said people should eat X amount of calories.

That is until Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters published her book, Diet and Health, the key to the Calories in 1918. This is considered the first modern diet book where counting calories became the key to weight reduction. The book gives a formula to find ideal body weight, sort of a forerunner to the BMI configuration. She also includes advice on how many calories one should eat based on their ideal body weight with an analysis of macronutrient information. Dr. Hunt, surprisingly, did not promote diet aids nor saccharine.

However, she was apparently not shy to tell readers that dieting was hard work, a life-long commitment, where vigilance was required--that dieting was based on self-discipline. Some have credited her with starting the idea that being overweight is a moral sign of weakness. Despite this, the book proved to be successful, selling somwhere between 800,000 and 2 million copies.

After this book, there came others who emphasized food combinations and when to eat certain foods. Some even mentioned "magic pairs" of foods to eat. During this time (1920s and beyond), there were also many substances touted as the miracle cure for obesity (hmm, that one hasn't changed a bit, has it?), as well as an array of diet plans.

So ladies and gentlemen, that's a brief overview of how the Calorie came about in the role of dieting. It's quite amazing when you think about how much "clout" we give to a simple word, a simple measurement of heat in science, isn't it?

Other Sources:
The history of diets
The history of dieting
When did dieting begin?
Lulu Hunt Peters and the birth of the modern diet book

*Note--I'm still working up to eating those Korean ramen noodles with much more than my usual alloted fat grams.


Reagan said...

Very interesting!

And it puts things in perspective...there are so many reasons to want calories!! Your body needs them!

And there are also so many reasons to ignore them! They are just a scientific measurement! Just a simple piece of information about your food. No biggie.

Kara said...

Wow, I had no idea that that was what a calorie is. Cool. And weird.

When did Lulu Peters publish her book?

Tiptoe said...

Reagan, so true, Calories seem like a double edged sword at times.

Kara, it was 1918. I'll re=edit to put that in.

Lisa said...

Neat! Thanks for doing the research and sharing.

Gwen said...

Kimchi is supposedly a very healthy food. I've never tried it, but now I will since it's come so highly recommended. As far as calories - I've often wondered how we became such slaves to them. Thanks for doing that research. Personally, I hate counting calories. Though I do it. I think the world would be a healthier place, mentally and physically, if people stopped counting calories and started eating intuitively. But of course that is just my silly little opinion. I'm sure there would be a ton of people lining up to disput me.

Afterglow05 said...

That's something my therapist and I have been working on. I can't stand not knowing, but when I do know it doesn't make it any easier.
Right now I'm having a really hard time eating things that don't have a label. I NEED to know. So, I don't eat things that I don't know what their caloric value is. Disordered - yes, but I guess that thing is that I'm trying...even when all I want to do is run away!

Thanks for voicing exactly what I'm feeling too.

Tiptoe said...

Glad you all enjoyed the info.

Gwen, yes, I think kimchi is good for you so long as you don't overdose on it. By many, it is considered a superfood, with lots of probiotics, and Koreans claim it is one reason why the SARS virus never came there. The only downside is the nitrogen and high sodium content.

I agree in terms of intuitive eating. Unfortunately, lots of us have a problem with that ED or not.

AfterGlow, it's hard place to be in when you feel you HAVE to know the numbers. I don't have a real solution other than continuing to try to challenge yourself. It's baby steps.