Calorie Purgatory

Welcome to the church of excess. It’s not so much that we’re devout. It’s just that we devour. Everything.  This isn’t an old church. It’s new. As much as that, at 46, I remember a time when hunger was common. Not because my family was poor; it’s just that things were different when I was young. If you’ve read any of my blog, you’ll understand that I view the eighties as a powerful decade of change. In the eighties, gyms were haunts frequented by fringe lunatics. Exercise was still experimental; jogging was for perverts. That’s how I saw it. Old men in too-tight shiny shorts. Sweatbands and body odour. The linchpin of a new dawn. When normal people were beginning to care about their figures. Transitioning to the nineties brought acceptance of an otherwise ridiculous pastime. The notion that men and women could grunt together in public spaces. In gyms. In dance studios. It was a brave new world. And it was necessary. By Buddha’s wise, tubby belly, it was vital.

This era brought another change. Calorific excess. Before I tread farther, it’s important to draw a distinction. There is evidence aplenty that we ate more in a domestic sense in the 50’s and 60’s. Manual labour was the dominant form of employment. Calories were vital for hard-working bodies. But these meals were home-cooked. Plenty of fats and carbs, dollops of hell into which any personal trainer would now crush your face to teach you a lesson. But that was then. Calorie expenditure was high in comparison. It didn’t matter that every mealtime you ate lard on a stick and ploughed through fields of starch. Our mums and dads, grandfathers and grandmothers; they worked hard. Damn hard. They needed food. Badly.

But those damn eighties. The cosmic herald of change. Electronics were booming. Automation was beginning to take over. When the Luddites rebelled against the evil cotton machinery, they couldn’t have foreseen how bad things would become. What was once a chore of crank-turning and box-lifting became button-pushing and QC stamping (and even that was supplanted by robotics). Manual work faded to the periphery of construction and low-tech warehouses. At the same time, what had once been regarded as a rare treat—the confectionary delight of sweets—became a marketing monster that, to this day, knows no bounds. A reverse survival metric occurred. Calorie requirements dropped but we began to consume more. And by more, I mean more shit. The staple diet of the 50’s and 60’s: meats, starch and buckets of greens, disappeared from our collective minds. Beige colours, hues of orange and yellow crept into every crevice of culinary expediency. Examine a fast-food menu. Where’s the green? Yeah, the Subway logo is green but the food is orange and brown. What’s the colour of a burger bun? Orange. A fry? Orange. A chicken nugget? Orange. Hell, even our potato-derivative crisps tend to take on an orange hue. Do you know Whatsits? They look like fluffy space-carrots and taste like a savoury sock. And if it doesn’t taste like that, it’s MSG-mageddon. MSG: monosodium glutamate. It’s what makes everything taste like heaven. If heaven is sugary salt.

These new foods, hitherto unknown in the days of our grandparents, brought an abundance of calories. It’s a sobering realisation that we in the west speak of hunger pangs when all we want is another nibble of chocolate. Whatever your foody vice, it’s excess, and the hunger you feel isn’t hunger. It’s conditioned greed. We don’t know hunger. This is an unwelcome statement but I have to say it: in the west, poverty and obesity have high correlations. In 3rd world countries, poverty and starvation bind as one. What can be common to both is malnutrition. Obesity and malnourishment aren’t the odd couple you might believe. Healthy, nutritional food isn’t likely to make you obese. High-sugar, high-fat products will. The beige stuff.

But beige is not the only colour of food to be found in the bowels of calorie purgatory. Shiny and bright, the crunchy fruits of confectionary hell pack a wallop of sugar. It’s a two-pronged attack on more than your waistline. It’s an all-out assault on your health. On the one hand, you have the power of beige; those foodstuffs associated with meals. Burgers, nuggets, all manners of crispy coated deliciousness. These are the insurgents. They’ve replaced what was once green and good. Cheaper, constructed of reclaimed animal parts, these things offer little by way of nutrition. But the shiny rainbows of sugar are the devil (and there’s brown in that spectrum too). Given the choice, looking down the barrel of a health-nut’s gun, I’d always go beige before going rainbow. Sweets, chocolate, cakes—and unfortunately, I’d throw ice-cream into that pot—are a classic western disease. They offer nothing. Nothing. Sugary Soma for the masses.

To be clear, I’m not a food fascist. My plate is more often beige than not. I’m not a hypocrite. I’m a willing accomplice to 21st century apathy. But, in my defence, I still exercise to a degree. I know how physiological systems tick. I sometimes eat healthy food. And if not, I understand the calorie weight of my food. I don’t tabulate spreadsheets of nutrition, that’s excessive. I just know my enemy (me, mostly).

Irrespective of your nutritional downfall, those foods, beige or bright, have a cost. Calories are energy. We all know that. But what is that cost? Pounds of fat? Well, yes. But, and this is a big but (pun intended) there’s another way to look at calories. If exercise or activity is redemption, then this is purgatory. A physical cost to your excess. I’d thought of using tables to illustrate but I prefer to shock through the medium of prose. So, let’s get started.

It’s difficult to give a precise number. But walking one mile will expend approximately 80 calories (plus or minus 20) for a weight range of 120-180lbs. For arguments sake, lets’ call it a round 100 calories for 140 lbs. While this may be high for some, it’s better to aim high and lose, than hit low and gain weight. So, one mile is 100 calories. Now multiply. You eat a 500 calorie 6” subway (easy), that’s a five-mile plod. A two-hour stroll. You have the time for that? But then, a 6” sub is damn tasty (all that MSG). The nibbles cometh. You buy a little cutesy muffin. Strawberry sprinkles to satisfy one of your pretend five-a-day pieces of fruit (it’s okay, I still count the hops in beer as vegetables). That’s another 300 calories. What you class as a small lunch can power an eight-mile amble. That’s almost a quarter of your waking hours spent walking. I mean, you could park your car four miles from the Subway. That’d do it. That would be the calorie purgatory for that cheeky little lunch. But I’m sure as hell you’ll not be doing that.

I’ll take one for the team here. Beer. One can of wonderful craft beer. It doesn’t matter it’s full of pretend vegetables and made from water mixed with cereal. It’s still got calories. Probably 100-150. I’ve had two today. Have I walked them off yet? Don’t be silly. I’m too busy writing this.

You can apply this approach of penitence to all junk calories. They all provide energy but far more than we need. For reference, fitness and training aside, the 26 miles of a marathon will have an immediate calorie cost of about 2600 calories (weight dependent). Other physiological factors will burn through even more for energy recovery and cellular repair but you see the point; you see the numbers. If I order a takeaway pizza, it will likely have enough calories to power a full marathon. When do I burn them off? I won’t. That’s the rub. That is calorie purgatory. You become indebted to the overlords of consumption. All that beige at mealtime. Those sprinkles of candy-coloured sweetness. They come to you with a heavy price. Literally, for many of us.

There is good news though. As long as you have the willpower of the Dalai Lama, you can refuse to bow before the rampant consumerism of the food industry. You can avoid the best-tasting foods the chemical industry has ever created. Drink water, not beer and wine. Chow down on kale and sprouts, not crisps and Maltesers. Unshackle yourself from the devil of delicacy that is 50% fat, 50% sugar. Eat starch. Colour thy plate green with leaves and other tasteless plants…

Don’t bother. Life’s too short. I have a better plan. Eat what you enjoy but understand the cost. Have your own reckoning with calorie purgatory. Mitigate your bad choices with your own redemption. Perhaps eat less beige, tone it down a little. Try some green on your plate. Start easy, lettuce is mostly water and isn’t anywhere as evil as cabbage. Broccoli’s good but takes some time to befriend. I’m proud that I can now eat those Bonzai-esque mini-trees. Might even admit I quite enjoy them. Sprouts though, they can go straight to hell. Just make your choices. Understand them. Pay for them in a way you can tolerate. Calorie purgatory need not be eternal. The devil’s in the choices you make. Remember, no matter what you tell yourself, it is your choice.

One final thing. It’s like the Matrix. You have two choices, Neo. If you take the little green fart-ball, you don’t need to go down that rabbit hole. If you decide to take the beige ball of crispy-coated yumminess, you are going to calorie hell.