How did you just react? Just hearing the word “calories” can be a loaded experience and bring up memories of calorie counting, restricting, worrying about how many calories a binge is, or how many calories your workout burns.
Yet, calories are not something to be deprived of or to ‘burn’ off. They’re not “tiny creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes a little bit tighter every night” as a meme I’ve seen floating around says. They’re simply energy. Essential energy your body needs to survive and thrive.
Calories have a wonderful purpose in your body. They don’t enter your body with the sole purpose of changing your weight and storing as fat. Fat cells, by the way, are organs too that are essential to your body). Having enough energy in your body keeps every cell and organ in your body functioning. It keeps your heart pumping, lungs breathing, digestion working, hormones in balance, temperature regulated, hair, skin, and nails growing, and much much more.
Of course, we don’t think about this on a daily basis. We take for granted everything food offers us on a biochemical, physical level. It’s only when we deprive our body of essential nutrition and energy that we notice what happens to the body. Luckily, our bodies are extraordinarily resilient and will adjust when it’s being deprived. Your metabolism will drop to preserve energy. And your brain starts obsessing about food, as a way for you to get out there and search for food. On the other hand, when your body is well-nourished and satisfied after a meal, you can move on to your next activity of the day. And not have to think about food.
How accurate are your assumptions of calories?
Take a moment to guess how many calories you’d burn on a daily basis if you were just lying in bed all day. Some clients guess from 0-500 or so. And are always shocked when I say that the average woman would burn 1200-1500 calories a day if they were just lying in bed. Your body’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) is still running, even if you’re having a lazy, watch-Netflix-in-bed day. When you take into account the energy from daily activities like school, work, and then exercise on top of that, your body is using a tremendous amount of energy.
Now, take a look into the average women’s health and fitness magazines. The meal plans they are promoting are typically barely meeting this 1200-1500 calorie basal metabolic rate. Women following this very low-calorie diet are going to have a hard time having energy for daily activities and exercise. Which explains the irritable, cranky, ‘feeling-crazy-around-food’ feeling women report after being on a diet.
The semi-starvation state is well-documented in the famous Minnesota Starvation Study. In the study, healthy men were selected and their energy/calorie needs were cut in half for 6 months. As expected, they lost weight, but they also noticed a dramatic decrease in their metabolic rate. The men became obsessed with food. Some of them ate ravenously or started to eat their meals extremely slow. While others reported episodes of binge eating, and their personalities changed with the onset of apathy, irritability, moodiness, and depression.
If you’ve ever been a diet or struggled with disordered eating, I’m sure you can relate. Often, the side effects of restriction are food obsession, binge eating (response to deprivation), and mood changes. Not only is the body being deprived, but the brain isn’t receiving adequate nourishment either!
What can you do?
Now, it’s not necessary to start counting calories. But I’d like you to consider to reframe your mindset around calories and energy. Start to become aware of the messages you hear on social media, from friends, family, or coworkers, or in the media. You’ll start to notice that there’s never a positive message about calories. And there’s always an underlying message that your diet should be calorie restricted for weight loss, health, or to change your body shape.
Now, work on shifting your personal mindset. At meals, be aware of what rules you’re following. Are you restricting types of food because of calories, like fats? Are you restricting how much you eat or portion sizes?
Instead, start to appreciate food and the fact that it offers your body nourishment and vitality.
All foods can offer this energy – even ice cream, pasta, or other fear foods of yours. A moment of gratitude before a meal to appreciate the food you’re eating and yourself for nourishing your body can be a powerful practice. It can help you shift your mindset away from rules and restriction. And into a practice of appreciation for food and its power to nourish your body.
You may also like: Why Diets Don’t Work with Lauren Fowler [Podcast]