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During a recent conversation about the “thin beauty ideal,” weight stigma, and counting calories, I started to think about what exactly a calorie is. Almost instantly, I was transported back to my high school physics class learning that a calorie is term used to represent energy. While most of us know this in theory, it seems the word “calorie” has taken on a life of it’s own. This is noteworthy because how we conceptualize this term may have some interesting and potentially important implications for our behavior.

“Do you know how many calories are in that?” In our everyday conversations, calories are treated as evil entities that are to be avoided at all costs. But if a calorie represents how much energy a food or drink provides us, shouldn’t it be thought of as helpful or, at the very least, more neutral? How would conversations change if we starting talking about the energy contributions of foods instead of how many calories they have? You might overhear someone say, “I ordered that because it provides enough energy to fuel all of the activities I have planned until my next meal.” That may sound a little corny, but you get the idea.

This shift in terminology may be useful from a number of angles. For example, we know that the obesity epidemic is a serious issue in our country, as well as worldwide, and a large contributor to this is thought to be an energy imbalance (too much energy consumed but not enough energy expended). If we think of calories as energy and energy as part of this equation, we might start to think, “That dessert looks good but there is no way I am going to burn that much energy.” Replacing the word “calorie” with “energy” or realigning this word with its original meaning allows us to think of our food intake and physical activity in a more concrete and perhaps useful way.

In light of the number of body weight concerns people have and the current statistics of overweight and obesity, it may be worth reconsidering our vocabulary surrounding food. Because how we talk may change how we think and ultimately, the choices we make.