Why Diet Culture’s Calories In, Calories Out is The Worst Advice

calories in, calories out. Illustration of woman sitting at the dining table with a plate of food.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the concept called “Calories In, Calories Out”. Calories in refers to the energy you get from the food you eat and calories out refers to the amount of energy you burn.

Do you ever experience thoughts like ‘I need to walk 3 miles to earn my sandwich’ or ‘I went out with friends and had a big dessert so I should work out an hour longer tomorrow’?

Diet culture convinces us that this is a healthy way of thinking about food. It teaches us that when we eat food we should ‘burn’ it off or engage in exercise in order to ‘earn’ food.

We have to stop treating food and exercise as a transaction. Simply just stop. I don’t have another or more subtle way of saying this.

Yes, we need food and energy to move our bodies but we don’t need to move to earn food. I just can’t stress this enough.

Eating disorders and counting calories

People struggling with or recovering from eating disorders typically have a very toxic relationship with food and exercise. The stream of misinformation coming in from diet culture and society doesn’t help improve this relationship. Registered Dietitian, Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, states that ‘in order to function at your best, your body needs a regular balance of carbs, protein and fat to stay nourished, feel satisfied, and prevent mood and energy crashes that come with rigid eating patterns.’ You don’t need to earn food or burn it off.

Calories in, Calories out in recovery

When you have been programmed and wired to believe that you need to fear food it can be hard to resist the urges to restrict or engage in exercise to burn off food. The key isn’t to ignore those thoughts or pretend they are not there. The key to healing is to let yourself have those urges and feelings but not give in. We heal through action and participation. When you resist the urge to control or track your calories and sit with the discomfort you actually take away its power. Diet culture and the calories in, calories out method

Moving away from diet culture and calorie counting

Food is fuel AND nourishment. It’s social and part of all the wonderful things life has to offer. Food is not a transaction and you don’t need to burn X amount of calories to earn X amount of calories. Period. When I was in my twenties and suffering from anorexia nervosa, this was how my brain operated. This is how I found a sense of calm, or at least I thought I did. Looking back, there was no such thing as a sense of calm. I was a prisoner of my own distorted thoughts and beliefs fueled by misinformation about food and exercise.

Your body is your vessel through this life and it’s okay if it changes. It should be changing, that means you’re living and growing.

Get the confidence you need to overcome your greatest struggles with food, body, and love with the help of Recovery Warriors podcast network. Many voices, one journey.

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1 Comment

  1. says: Lu

    Thank you for this Mirjam! I needed this reminder. It’s crazy that even when one can recognise that they need to get out of energy deficit and maybe gain weight and therefore require extra calories to heal, the fear of “This is too much” continues to rage,
    and the thought “I don’t need ……. because I haven’t done enough today” resounds loudly in one’s head!?!? I get so caught up in the “what if I’m having too much” that I forget A). This thought is not helping me move towards the future I want to inhabit & B). Even if it is more than usual and/or a consequence is that I gain weight, this is not a bad thing. It is weight i needed to gain, it is an achievement to have defied the ED. This defiant action is equivalent to working out the healthy pwrt of my brain, &/or it is no big deal and normal if someone’s weight fluctuates throughout life. C. The thoughts are years of programming and have been a way to manage anxiety, distress and trauma, but that they don’t actually help me live the life or by the values I hold. Therefore, when the sirens/hazard lights and fear rear their heads it is automatic and, like a false or faulty alarm, they are unreliable.

    The physiological and mental and emotional fear response are so powerful and convincing in the moment it is incredibly difficult to not believe them to be true (& therefore not do what the thoughts/compulsions urge one to) isn’t it!? But if we can bring to mind the consequences previously of following the fear response and directives, & remind ourselves “this is so predictable and normal” when recovering from an ED/OCD, then it can help one ‘s healthy/true self to get just enough lucidity and power to go not react to the alarm bells in the way we’ve always done. Thus hopefully, usually showing us that our fear response was grounded in unreliable beliefs and wiring. Next time the courage to doubt the screaming fear and do ‘opposite actions” (quoting @megsyrecovery) will be less difficult to conjure up and therefore distrusting the thoughts and trusting one’s hunger or supporter will be a bit easier. Sorry for the long splurge, this has ended up being as much a selfish pep talk to myself as a thank you and appreciation to you and all the recovery warriors who guide andsupport one another. Thank you and take care. Xxxx

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