Looking beyond calories – seeing food as fuel

When I start typing a post that has anything to do with nutrition, diets, or something in that vein, I feel the need to preface it with a disclaimer. This isn’t because I feel like I need to justify what I say – my opinions are my own and that is what this blog is about so I don’t want to apologize for that. It is because the topics of food, dieting, and disordered eating are so sensitive to so many AND because what works and doesn’t work in regards to nutrition habits varies so much from person to person.

So my disclaimer before writing this post is that I understand what is true for me isn’t true for everyone. I know that counting calories works for a lot of people who are trying to get a better handle on portion control etc. I welcome everyone’s comments about their viewpoints on this issue because I think it is something that needs to be discussed, not preached by me or anyone else.

Moving on…

The other day as I was perusing social media I came across a post where someone was laying out their new eating plan in order to lose weight (not a very large amount of weight, per say). They were aiming for around 1300 calories per day. As a knee-jerk reaction, the number made my eyebrows raise a bit.

My reaction was partially due to my own nutrition habits. I probably eat over 1,000 calories before lunch time most days and if someone told me to live off of 1,300 calories per day my instinct would be to laugh at them. Because… just, no. Granted, I am a little more active than the average bear, particularly when training for a race, and I am not attempting to shed pounds so I am not having to focus on calorie deficits or anything like that. I do have factors working against me including an underactive thyroid (which can often lead to weight gain) and a 9 to 5 job sitting at a desk, so I cannot just eat whatever I want whenever I want. Everything about this part of my reaction is very “me, me, me” oriented.

Hunger Meme

But, both in stepping back from my personally focused reaction and in realizing how many personal consideration go into my and every other individuals dietary needs, the second reaction that came to me is, ‘Where do these diet-minded calorie numbers come from?’ I had very recently read a thoughtful post that Sarah wrote that only further encouraged my mind to wander around this topic.

I feel like there are certain calorie quantities that have been jammed down our throats by way too many media sources for way too long. For example, the 2,000 calorie number that is on every nutrition label ever. Or the 1,200 to 1,500 calorie number that seems to be pushed on women as the magic amount to eat if you want to lose weight. I question whether 1,200 calories is enough to even keep someone’s body functioning properly. This information from the Institute of Medicine would suggest that the answer is no… unless that someone is a sedentary 4 to 8 year old girl.

There are two important things to realize about these media-stimulated magic numbers:

1. They don’t even remotely take into consideration the infinite factors that impact each of our individual dietary needs.

2. Calorie numbers mean nothing if the food being consumed to fill those calories is nutrient-void crap that can’t properly fuel your body.

As an experiment to speak specifically to these points, I went on the Special K website and made a ‘personalized’ meal plan. There were several diet options including maintaining current weight but I selected the option to do the ‘Special K Challenge’ since that is what they promote all over TV ads and magazines as a way to lose 6 pounds in 2 weeks. After choosing this option, I go to an ‘About Me’ page where I would expect to fill out some important information like my age, height, weight, sex, and how active I am or plan to be. Nope. It just asks me how much effort I am willing to put into my meals and what date I want to start my diet and, poof, out pops a meal plan. According to this website I should be eating just over 1,200 calories a day: a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a fruit crisp bar as a snack, a meal bar plus 12 almonds for lunch, 20 multigrain crackers as a snack, and then a 500 calorie dinner.

It doesn’t seem to me like this kind of diet is healthy for someone who wants to incorporate regular exercise into their life – which I honestly believe everyone should. And do I even need to point out the fact that, under a meal plan like this, the person following it wouldn’t consume a SINGLE fruit or vegetable until dinner time? Those 1,200 calories are even more marginalized when they are worthless, empty calories. This type of quick-fix diet is something that myself and many others would likely immediately dismiss as unhealthy and impractical, but this is the type of diet message that is pushed on our society hundreds of times a day!

The point that I am trying to make in this quasi-long-winded post is that everyone needs to get past these delusional magic calorie and/or weight numbers. If calorie counting is something that works well for someone in a healthy, beneficial way then I am not saying that person should disregard calories. I am suggesting that if a diet is going to be based on numbers then they should be numbers specific to the needs and variables that are true to the individual using them.

People who are thinking about making drastic diet and exercise changes should probably talk to a dietitian or nutritionist if they can. But I think everyone could stand to do some research on their BMR (basal metabolic rate – the amount of calories a person should likely consume to sustain their height, weight, and activity level) and put hard thought into the best way to fuel their life with quality foods in a way that is sustainable for them. Our health is far too important to trust completely to a person, company, or ideology that attempts to cram us all into the same uniform box in order to sell more bars, shakes, and books.

No questions but please respond with any and all comments, thoughts, etc.

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11 thoughts on “Looking beyond calories – seeing food as fuel

  1. Great post! There was a time that I was living on minimal calories and it really affected my workouts and my life. It’s more fun to be able to eat and enjoy life as well as fuel your body for performance.

    • I’m so glad you were able to figure out something that works better for you than restricting yourself so harshly. The focus really shouldn’t be on meaningless numbers, but the best way to fuel our body and lifestyle.

  2. Thanks for the link! I HATE seeing numbers like 1200 and 1500. It’s not freaking realistic. Whenever people show meal plans that are around that many calories I can’t help but open my mouth. I need a lot of food. The numbers we see in magazines and online aren’t healthy, realistic, or backed by science. I wish everyone would realize that they have the 2000 calorie breakdowns for a reason.

    • You’re welcome! Your post really got me thinking on this whole issue. I agree and if I ever tried to eat that little I would be THE grumpiest person in every room I entered…. until I just passed out from lack of proper nutrition. And I know everyone is different and so on but I feel like 1200 is walking a very VERY thin line between dieting and starving and it is unhealthy and, like you said, unrealistic.

  3. Anna,
    I loved this post, thank you. So many of my friends are doing these various calorie focused diets and feel terrible in the afternoons because they are working out and frankly not eating enough to sustain themselves. Thanks for bringing this topic to light. Your everyday healthy eating inspired me to get mine in check and I can honestly say it is life changing once you do it correctly! Love you lady.

    • Thanks for the comment and support! It is a shame that those super low calorie diet messages are so common and instilled in our culture. Because while some are able to see it for what it is and understand that it is unhealthy and not the answer, plenty of people see/read/hear it and accept it as truth.

  4. Great post. Thanks for writing it. And for calling that Special K Challenge out! Too many diet / calorie deficit programs focus on the belief that people don’t actually want to workout/work at loosing the weight. The preverbal “Magic Pill” mentality.

    Currently I’m trying to mentor to a girl who is full-blown starving herself because she fears other people thinking she is “big”. My friend and I are trying to teach her about healthy nutrition and about how not eating is worse than eating to loose weight. If you have any thoughts on how I can help this girl, I’d love to hear them. We’ve already tried to talk to the parents and her school to get her on the radar, but….well… there are other issues too. We’re trying to mentor her through the bullying and the family problems too.

    • I’m glad you liked the post and its really admirable that you are trying to reach out to help someone who is struggling with this. I hate to say that I am likely not the very best person to ask because I have never struggled with an eating disorder myself or had someone close who I needed to help counsel through one. I will say that, since it sounds like her family and school is maybe not as helpful right now as it could be, it is great that you are providing her with information and someone that she can speak to openly when she is struggling. I would guess that nothing can be more helpful than having someone to go to who is helpful, but at the same time never judgmental or critical. If you are looking for more resources for yourself or her, I would really suggest checking out Sarah’s blog, runfargirl.com, and maybe even contacting her. She has really been through the ringer when it comes to disordered eating and has so much insight on these issues. I hope this is helpful for you. Thanks so much for reading!

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