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How To Make a Better World For The Children, By Counting Calories

counting calories Counting calories is a big drag. But it works: Restricting the quantity of food you take in is one of the few proven-effective ways of losing weight. Ideally, calorie counting translates to healthier eating, when people realize, for example, that vegetables have fewer calories than other foods and can allow them to eat more food than they might get to otherwise.

I’m not suggesting you adopt this strategy for your food intake (though if the food recommendations continue along the current trajectory, I could see a world where pregnant women are logging each bite into their cellphones).

Writer/environmental soothsayer Amanda Little’s taken this theory and applied it to another area where we could use a little belt tightening: energy expenditure. If the energy crisis in this country doesn’t have us all shaking in our boots, it should. Thinking about the future of the planet is not optional for parents. It’s part of our job as caretakers of our children to take care of the world they will live in. Clearly we need to find a way to control our energy gluttony. And Amanda has an excellent idea.

Her solution: labeling. We track how many food energy calories we’re taking in, we should be able to track how many fossil fuel “calories” we’re gobbling up in our day to day consumption.The idea, says Amanda,  is that when we’re confronted with the hard numbers of how much everything we do “costs” in energy expenditure, we’ll maybe make lower calorie choices.

“For example, in Europe, Tesco, a supermarket chain, has begun a “carbon labeling” program for some 500 products, which displays the amount of energy consumed and greenhouse gases generated from their production, transportation and use.

We could do the same thing here, with labels providing a product or service’s “daily energy calories.” Along with physical labels, imagine a smartphone app — we’ll call it “Decal” for short — that would scan a product’s bar code and report how much energy it took to produce that item.

Like the nutritional data on the backs of food products, Decal would give consumers a user-friendly, universal measure that they could use to compare products or count their daily energy intake. For example, the app would enable an energy dieter to scan two otherwise identical loaves of bread and see which one required less energy to produce.”

I love this; it might just be simple enough to get this abstract “carbon footprint” stuff through our thick heads. Because as much as we may get the basic ideas: food miles, eating local, the environmental cost of raising meat vs. vegetables, etc, this is all a lot of information to manage. Which is why I would take Amanda’s idea one step further. Forget calories: let’s assign a point value to our energy expenses, like Weight Watchers.

The reason the big WW is the king of the weight loss programs is that it takes an already effective method of weight loss: calorie counting, which is really about consumption control—and dumbs it down into single digits.  Because let’s face it, people are just not that good at math.

But the other thing we could stand to learn from the Weight Watchers model may be even more important to its effectiveness: support. When you’re asking people to bypass personal gratification—whether it’s a chocolate cake or the loaf of bread that’s right in front of you rather than the one 10 minutes away at the farmer’s market—it helps to have people cheering you on. Maybe we need to start applying that model to other kinds of consumption control.

Waste Watchers?

Read Making Every Oil Calorie Count in The NYTimes (requires login)

photo: Mini True/flickr

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