Monday, March 7, 2011

The Emotional Content in Calories – What You Won’t Find on a Label

We all know that peeling off pounds means stepping up exercise and trimming empty or unnecessary calories. It means reading package labels, making healthier choices, and cutting back on foods heavy on fat, cholesterol, salt, or sugar.
But labels don’t list emotional content. My theory—and I’m sticking to it—is that sacrificing too many of the foods that provide sustenance for the soul can affect your mood and turn a diet into a psychological death march. The minute you get an opportunity to gorge, you’ll seize it and stuff in the goodies with both hands.
       Before you eliminate favorite foods and comfort foods, peer into the past to determine why those foods are loaded with ECPs (Emotional Content Points).
       For example, I put cashews at the top of the Emotional Content scale.  My grandmother bought them at the candy counter in Woolworth’s. Still warm, they were scooped from their tray into a tiny white paper sack just for me. Cashews = Someone loves me, +100 points
       Hot dogs, however, get minus points. I ate one too quickly at a friend’s birthday party and barfed all over the patio. That embarrassing incident is permanently attached to the aroma of grilling dogs. Hot Dogs = Humiliation, -100 points
       Popcorn was my father’s favorite treat for evenings of watching TV as a family. Popcorn = Togetherness and Fun, +95 points.
       My mother was notorious for buying chocolates, eating more than she should, and asking my father to hide the rest. Let the record show that not once did he hide them well enough. Chocolates = Indulgence, +75 points.
       Beets, Swiss chard, lima beans, and canned corn appeared on our plates in the 50s and early 60s in a regular rotation. I despised them all. But there were rules about portions and plate-cleaning, so I choked them down. Vegetables I don’t like = Lack of control, -50 points.
       Macaroni and cheese made with extra-sharp cheddar and cooked until it was crusty on top and bottom, was my other grandmother’s specialty. A couple of times a year she’d invite me to lunch and the two of us would dig into a huge pan. Mac and cheese = Something just for me, +100 points.
       Spaghetti was my father’s specialty and his chance to be creative. Sometimes he’d slap the side of the cabinet and toss in a little of whatever spice fell out. Spaghetti = Creativity and cutting loose, + 95 points.
       Baked potatoes with butter, sour cream, chives, cheese, and bacon bits were a special part of the eating out we did so rarely when I was a kid. I loved the choices and the decisions involved in ordering. Baked potatoes = I’m in charge, + 80 points.
       My mother often spread sandwiches with cream cheese instead of butter or mayo. To this day, I slather it on onion bagels with green olives and cashews, or on pumpernickel with sweet pickle slices. Cream cheese = Experimenting with taste, + 65 points.
       If I have a day filled with disappointment and rejection, how healthy is it to gnaw on carrots and celery? At most, they pick up 10 ECPS, not enough to restore my spirits. In fact, I might feel emptier.
       If I have a day filled with success and love, will it be easier to ignore the lure of cashews and chocolate and dine on spinach salad with tofu? (About 17 points.)
       If I balance emotion-content calories as well as plain old calories, will the result be a more balanced me? Maybe. But how do I determine that balance? ECPs aren’t on labels provide these numbers and besides, they’re different for each of us.

       And, like the message “you’re full” getting from stomach to brain, there’s a lag time between partaking of emotional-content calories, and the “feeling much better” message reaching its destination. In the meantime, I’ve eaten half a box of cheese snacks. (Cheese Snacks = Summer fun with friends, + 72 points)

       Also, part of satisfying the emotional self is the knowledge that there’s enough—not just for right now, but for later. The Great Depression loomed large in the minds of my grandparents; there were back-up jars in the pantry and candy in the purse. My closets are loaded with temptations.

       A rational approach would be to determine exactly how many cashews it takes to cope with an agent’s rejection, how much chocolate wipes out a tough day at school, how much macaroni and cheese makes me take a flat tire in stride. All I need is a marker pen, a stack of labels, and I lot more self-control than I’ve had up to now.

       How do you rate the ECPs of the foods you love or loathe? Leave a comment and share.



  1. You might already know that the pendulum is finally swinging away from rule-based diet tips, that incidentally tend to deprive people of the ECPs (great term)! For example, chocolate's healthful properties are coming out, butter and even lard are considered healthier than many fake fats like margarine or even vegetable blend oils (canola, etc.)--not to go on and on, but my point is that maybe what comforts us isn't so unhealthy after all. I realize we can't eat birthday cake (bday cake = my special day and getting to choose + 1000 points :) but I think we can soothe ourselves with something like mac n' cheese, especially if we put a big ole salad on the side. I guess my real point is that comforting the soul is in some way healthy, too.

    My maximum ECP? Chinese dumplings. a) They taste good b) They remind me of my parents getting them for me whenever I was sick and wanted nothing else, and saying, with respect and a smile in their voices, "She doesn't want soup or toast, but dumplings she'll eat."

  2. Wow - a thousand points! You rock. And dumplings rule.

  3. My dad used to buy a chuck steak big enough to feed a family of five. (What happened to steaks that big?) On a Sunday afternoon he would fire up the grill and place water soaked hickory chips on top of the charcoal. In an old dented metal measuring cup he would melt butter and parsley and baste the steak as it sizzled in the sweet hickory smoke. I was given a water filled squirt bottle with the prestigious responsibility of extinguishing any conflagration that threatened our meal. It was about reading the Sunday funnies and eating on the porch.
    Steak off the grill = Weekend utopia + 100 Points

  4. If you had a steak that big today, you could make a shirt out of it.

  5. Cold cereal is one of my downfalls, as are blue corn tortilla chips, not necessarily in that order. The chips are probably for salt. I'd give them 75. Cold cereal is probably 200. The problem is it really ECPs if you can't stop eating these things once you start? Or are they just imaginary ECPs that you THINK you're getting till you realize you still need more of 'em?

  6. I would give pizza a 100 points. It means indulgence with my husband and I don't have to cook. Which really bumps it up to 300.