Calories Are Not The Enemy

colorful illustration of woman sitting at the dining table.

Calories are not the enemy.

Yet you would think so the way that they are portrayed in our society. Low calorie. Zero calorie. Cut calories. Calorie free. These pesky little things are apparently something to be avoided at all costs.

What are calories?

Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 litre of water by 1 degree Celsius. So when it comes to food, a calorie is simply a unit of energy. When you eat food, you are consuming the energy that is stored within the protein, carbohydrate, and fat molecules of that food. The total amount of the energy stored in the food you are eating is represented by the calorie content of the food as indicated on its nutritional label.

Energy is life

We need energy to live. It’s as simple as that. No energy means no life, very simply. It’s not just energy to walk, exercise, think, learn and be busy, but energy for our hearts to beat, lungs to breath, and brains to function.

Calories are necessary to make the body work.

There is a certain amount of energy required to keep the body working – even if we were to lay in bed all day – called the basal metabolic rate. That energy comes from calories, which comes from food.

How many calories are needed?

Not everybody requires the same number of calories each day. Our ideal calorie consumption depends on several factors, including our overall general health, height, age, weight, sex and physical activity demands. One thing that is true, regardless of personal situation, is that we do all require calories to survive.

No one enjoys being tired and sluggish, unable to do the things that make them happy. No one likes to be without energy. But if we do not eat properly, where do we expect that energy to come from? It’s not enough to be laying in bed all day. It’s not enough to be on a drip. That is not living.

Life and the world we live in is full of wondrous and beautiful things to enjoy, and can be best enjoyed with vitality.

For some reason people with eating disorders expect their bodies to behave in different ways than biology allows for. To live without calories is physiologically impossible. We might be able to for a short period, but when we consistently eat less energy than that which we expend, our bodies start to look to other sources, including fat, muscle and organs.

Essentially, your body will eat itself until it dies.

Something that can be difficult to deal with is that recovery often requires a greater energy intake than may be anticipated to restore the neurological and physiological damage that has been done. The body will use the energy to deal with the backlog of cellular repair, lay down fat to protect the vital organs, address longer term issues such as bone density and bring biological functions back to their necessary levels, reboost the metabolic rate, and then get to work on things such as hair growth and skin cells.

Many people with eating disorders have increased motor activity and therefore even when not engaging in formal exercise are burning more calories than they may realize. And it’s not uncommon for metabolic rates to ramp up so quickly at the start of beginning to eat properly again that even more weight can be lost.

Stop the counting

Ultimately, counting calories is not something that is recommended for eating disorder recovery. There are many arguments that obsessive counting, regardless of weight, is a disorder in itself. A life rigidly shaped by the numbers is not one that is recovered and an over focus on calories not conducive to a healthy relationship with food. However, it is unrealistic to expect that for the rest of your recovered life you will be able to avoid them. So if you can’t avoid them, don’t be afraid of them. Remember that they are what makes your life happen.

Take a lesson from my sister

A few years ago, when I was 19 and my sister 8, I was making her a sandwich for lunch. My family always have a few different varieties of sliced bread in the bread bin, and I asked her which she wanted. She climbed up on to the worktop and started reading the back of the packet, no doubt as she had seen me do. Panicking and angry at myself that she had noted and was copying my behavior, I let her do so, rather than admonish her for it.

‘What is a kcal?’ she asked.

I told her the truth. ‘It’s a unit of energy.’

‘Then I want this one.’ She said, pointing to the bread with the highest number of calories per slice.

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because I want loads of energy! I’ve got lots to do!’ And she jumped down off the worktop and ran into the garden.

From the mouths of babes.

Do you consider calories as your enemy?

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1 Comment

  1. says: Jaclyn

    Thank you for the story about your little sister.I do not have a diagnosed eating disorder,but have been struggling with restrictive eating following an illness.I so want my energy back…..I never thought of checking for kcals….take care..

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