Calories Don’t Count

I find it hard to eat my toffee yoghurt.

It’s not surprising, I can hear you say, she’s the boring anorexic moany one.

Actually, I don’t have a problem with eating the yoghurt per se. I know I need to eat it and, dare I say, it tastes rather nice.

The problem is that there is no way of turning the pot so that I can’t see the calorie content label. I have developed a technique, whereby I whip the lid off (or am lucky enough that someone does it before they pass it to me, if I’m not on fridge duty) and then shovel the yoghurt in as fast as possible.

This is not (entirely) because I am scared of knowing calorific values. I am – to a certain extent – mostly because I know that, if I know them, I will find it more difficult to eat. Really, it is because I don’t believe in calories. Yes, I know they exist in that one calorie is the energy needed to raise one gram of water by one degrees Celsius. I also know that man (or indeed, woman) cannot live by pretending that they’re eating when they’re actually not, because we do need food, and energy, and therefore calories.

What I don’t believe is that we need to be counting them.

The problem stems from this: to find out how many calories people need, in 1936 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) asked randomly selected samples of the population how many calories they ate per day. On the face of it, this seems like a very good idea indeed. However, as someone who often can’t remember where I parked my car, I would find it pretty flipping difficult to tell you how many calories I had eaten. So what would I do? In all likelihood, estimate.

As an anorexic, one of the things that I find hardest is when people tell me they’re on a diet. ‘I haven’t eaten yet today!’, they will tell me, at about 2pm. And, despite my knowledge that I haven’t got a swimmy head and they probably have, I will feel guilty for having eaten breakfast, morning snack, lunch etc. etc. I have discovered, however, that what the majority of people mean when they say, ‘I haven’t eaten yet today!’ is that they mean they’ve not had a bowl of cereal and a sandwich: the KitKat Chunky and the bag of Percy Pigs (happy 25th birthday to you) that they’ve been snacking on have been promptly forgotten.

I’m not trying to be all ana-snob here. I dream of not counting every last calories that comes within a five metre radius of my nose. What I am saying is that people forget to count the food that they don’t count as food.

So, what we’ve got so far is a group of people who just can’t remember what they’ve eaten and a group of people who think they know what they’ve eaten but don’t count some of the things they’ve eaten as counting.

And then we’ve got the people like me. I would be mortified if someone asked me how much I’d eaten. It’s one of the questions I try to avoid most. What would I do if somebody did ask me? I would make it up. And, to make things worse, the identity of the person asking me would change the answer I gave: a therapist would be more likely to get a number that had a few calories added on; random Mike on the street would be more likely to get an answer with a few knocked off.

And there’s your research group. Sounds trustworthy, doesn’t it?

But this is exactly what the USDA did to find out how many calories people need per day. The recommended amount (although it varies from country to country and depending on which experiment you read the results of) that the trial first decided upon was 2350 calories per day.  However, nutrition groups argued that this would lead to overconsumption.  So, to please everyone, they rounded it down to 2000 calories.

Doubly labeled water experiments (where scientists remove hydrogen and oxygen from water, and therefore can use it to measure energy use in the body) have since shown that  people require a different amount of calories because they have different bodies, and do different things with their bodies. I am not going to put a minimum required calorific intake here because it’s a magnet for comparison. And, anyway, what’s the point of putting a number when I don’t know what your body’s like, your genetics, or how much activity you do?

The Minnesota experiment looked at nutritional needs in a different way; beginning by taking food away from individuals and investigating the results. Basically, Ancel Keys persuaded thirty-six men to starve themselves for a year. He watched, made notes and then wrote about it in a book called The Biology of Human Starvation. Which, I hasten to add, comes with a warning if you’re of the disordered way of thinking.

The results were simple. Basically, the men’s bodies started to fail after not that much was removed from their diets. They began to display obsessive behaviours around food not long after that. When they were allowed to eat again, it was found that they needed a lot more calories than imagined for them to increase, and maintain their weight.

As with doubly labeled water trials, the number of calories the men needed to gain and maintain weight was found to be unpredictable. Nobody could tell which of them would need more calories to maintain a healthy weight; nobody could tell which of them would lose their marbles eating a tiny fraction less than they were to begin with.  No scientist can put one average, overall number on food because it just isn’t possible.

And this is the point (amongst waffleage) that I’m trying to make.

If you are limiting your body to a certain number of calories, whether that is because you are attempting to lose weight or because you really believe in the power of kale, you are restricting your intake. The Tudors didn’t know the first thing about calories but they were not – on the whole – obese. They didn’t wake up in the morning and have a ‘cheat day’ variety of eggs (you what now sorry?) because they knew they had to limit the numbers they put inside themselves: they ate when they were hungry. And there is nothing to stop us being the same: your body doesn’t reach the maximum number of calories you have decided is your daily maximum and then think, ‘Crikey, lads, five extra calories coming in there: let’s get to work larding some fat on the hips.’. Your body might need that food because you’ve got a graze on your knee that needs healing, or you’re tired or you’ve been thinking really hard. We can’t predict that from the outside, but our body is wonderfully clever enough to know exactly how much we need.

If only we would listen to it.

Our diets are not meant to be examples of scientific perfection. We spend a lot of time trying to make people understand that our good qualities cannot be measured. Why measure our bodies in stones and pounds and inches when we could look for the good bits and celebrate them?

There is a wonderful website on the internet called which focuses on brain retraining to help those with eating disorders recover. It used to be run by a doctor who is an advocate of the MinnieMaud recovery programme, in which people are encouraged to eat as much as their bodies tell them too, often going vastly over the recommended ‘maximum amounts’ for as long as they feel that they are hungry. The idea is that, if they learn to eat according to their hunger, their bodies will re-adjust until they reach the state that is right for them.

I was never brave enough to try MinnieMaud. I had a couple of goes, but it wasn’t the right time (i.e. I didn’t actually want to put on any weight at that point) and I was committed enough to put myself through recovery.  If there are two things you really need when recovering from an eating disorder, they are food and actually wanting to get better. I can promise you it won’t work otherwise.

Circumstances as they were meant that I also had that decision taken away from me slightly by being in inpatient and having my diet pre-arranged when I finally did get round to choosing to get better. I do, however, like that the MinnieMaud method gives back freedom.  I love that it advocates minimums instead of maximums – it is basically giving a recovering person permission to say yes. However I do worry that minimums will bring another sense of diet control: surely counting that we’re eating enough calories is just as harmful, however necessary we might feel it in the short term?  Is it really necessary to worry about eating enough, when people with eating disorders have spent so long worrying about eating too much?

I guess the answer is that we should trust somebody else. When the Maudsley programme is given to teenagers, the mainstay is that they give a trusted adult complete control of their diet. If someone else is telling you what to eat, and you’re eating it, you need never count the calories yourself.  At a time when your body’s natural reaction is to restrict and eat as little as possible, letting someone else take on some of the responsibility can only be helpful.

Trust is a really important component of eating disorder recovery. What we do need to do is learn to trust that our hunger isn’t our body trying to make us put on gross amounts of weight. Hunger is not a sin, and it is not strong to ignore hunger for as long as we can. What I would say is that counting calories is going to get you nowhere apart from hungry or miserable. Calories don’t actually mean anything, because your body is as unique as the next person’s. Some of us can run faster than others, and that’s celebrated. Some of us need more food than others, like some of us have bigger shoes than others. Why is one seen as a negative and the other just a fact of life?

The problem is that we cannot be full without society judging us for that, comparing us to some data that was poorly collected over sixty years ago and ignoring more that gives the messages opposite to that which society is desperate to cling on to and promote.

The problem is that, if we continue to allow our lives to be dominated by numbers, like those in the Minnesota Experiment, counting calories will soon be the only part of our lives that we can think about.

I could go on about counting the things that are actually important in life here. I’m not going to.

Stop counting calories; give your body (and your mind) a chance.


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