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Calories & Calorie Counting 🍽

What is a Calorie? 🍎

Calories are everywhere and they haven been constructed in the media and literature, to be associated with one thing, fat! It’s important to debunk the myths around Calories and talk about facts instead, so what is a Calorie?

Scientifically, a Calorie is the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of a single gram of water by a single degree. So really, all a Calorie is is a unit of energy! ⚡️

Calorie Counting 📃

Calories are often discussed in terms of weight loss and as a result of this people often count calories in the hope of maintaining a certain body weight, they might even have certain dietary rules around calories too or think that calorie counting is important to be ‘healthy’.

It is difficult as there are so many sources that frame counting calories as helpful, from healthcare providers and handouts, to menus, social media and advertising. In short, it's really hard to not feel bombarded by information about calories and so counting them can often feel like a habit: this habit can lead to more rigid thoughts and anxiety around food and eating.

Calorie counting may start as a coping mechanism that feels reassuring in the short-term but in the long-run it can lead to an unhealthy, rigid, and obsessional focus on food content. 😵‍💫 In this blog post we think about the other side of calorie counting which is harmful and dangerous .

Why is Counting Calories Dangerous?

If we limit Calories we also limit the macro nutrients that we intake, macronutritents are Carbohydrates, Fats, Protein and are classed as the components of food that our bodies need for energy and maintenance of its systems. Limiting macronutrients to fixed amounts can cause problems to the function of our organ systems. 🫀

Problems with Inaccuracy 🙅

It’s really hard to calculate the total number of calories needed for each of us as individuals. It’s also nearly impossible to accurately calculate the calories of the food we eat too. What we do know is that our bodies are very good at calculating the number of calories we need for us: humans and animals who are not dieting and do not have any underlying health conditions do maintain a stable weight over time and our bodies adjust e.g. activity levels to maintain this.

We all have individual factors that influence our energy needs, for example:

  • Age, gender, weight, height, ratio of muscle to fat and our metabolic rate.

  • The kinds of foods we eat e.g. our bodies do not use 100kcal of oats and 100kcal of milk in the same way

  • Regularity of eating

  • Activity level

  • Temperature conditions, including the outside temperature and our own body temperature

Remember our energy needs shift and change over days, weeks and months.

A Fact About Calories Adjustment 🚨

Adjusting calories in relation to weight changes (either daily or weekly) is false news! Our body mass and body fat are influenced by many factors and they fluctuate regardless of how many calories we ingest, in the same way the number on the scale does. The number on the scales can go down regardless of whether you have limited your calories. 💭

Calories Governing Eating

Ignoring our internal hunger drives and sensations can disrupt feelings of hunger and fullness, this makes our body confused about how to regulate future energy intake and this means that we’re much more likely to overeat. In turn this can lead to increased anxiety. 😓

Using a calorie limit can lead to malnourishment both in terms of energy intake of macronutrients but also micronutrients too (vitamins, minerals). If we are nutrient deficient our bodies are not able to function at their full potential which can impact negatively on cognitive and physical functioning.

Impact on Mental Health 🧠

Rigid rules can be easily broken, breaking rules can feel like failure which again can lead to feelings of anxiety, low self esteem and poor self worth. Calorie counting can become consuming and obsessive, leading to you feeling preoccupied with figures throughout the day. These rules can also lead to feelings of uncertainty when calories are unknown which in turn can lead to an avoidance of e.g. restaurants. Although it is hard and may feel distressing to stop counting to start with, being able to walk away from calorie counting leads to relief of anxiety. 💆

So, How Do I Stop? 🛑

Changing rigid rules take time and a place to start is by changing your behaviors, here are some ideas

  • Not looking at food labels

  • Stop recording calories, either on your phone or written

  • Try to distract yourself from the sums in your head

  • Eat regularly

  • Eat a variety of foods

  • Listen to your body’s cues and learn about portion sizes

Although you can not ‘unlearn’or ‘un-know’ the information about calories, it is absolutely possible to stop this information impacting your thoughts and behaviours.

Each time you fight the thought it’s a win for you.

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Written By:

Marianne Le Coyte Grinney

Marianne is a psychotherapist and lead within the UK's National Health Service, and she has been working in a setting with eating disorders for about 12 years now. She passionately believe that recovery is possible from any and all kinds of eating disorders and always holds hope that things can be different. Behind the scenes, she enjoys spending lots of time with her doodle dogs. She can't wait to meet you in the server!


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