The dangers of counting calories

I am not fat, nor am I at risk of becoming fat – unless I drastically change my eating and exercise routines. At the same time, I am not (too) thin. But I can see how counting calories could make me too thin, or at least too obsessed about my calorie intake.

You see, I decided that I would eat “simple” foods for Lent and that I would eliminate extra treats like desserts and my lovely (unhealthy!) salty snacks. But I wanted to make sure that my Lenten sacrifice didn’t become a caloric sacrifice, so I have been using a calorie counting tool to track my daily intake. The idea was that I wanted to see how many calories I’ve consumed so that I knew if I was getting enough energy every day. (After all, this sacrifice is for strengthening my faith, not shrinking my waist, although I’m safe to lose a few pounds if it happens.)

But what I’ve found was that knowing exactly* how many calories I’m consuming means I am a little too aware. And that extra awareness means that I am really paranoid about eating too many calories.

Basically, the calorie calculator says I should be consuming x-number of calories a day to maintain my weight. But that is based on averages and isn’t taking into account my activity levels, other than workouts and runs that I enter into the database.

So, if I don’t exercise one day, I have no “calories out” to enter into the system – even though I know that the simple act of taking a shower is burning calories. But if I do exercise, I have lots of burnt calories to add. (Like the ones from last weekend’s half marathon that equalled more than my normal daily intake!)

And here’s where the crazy comes in:

As I add my food intake over the course of the day, I see my “available calories” count dropping. And there’s a trigger in my mind that says “Don’t go over that magic number or you will get fat”. And so I find myself hesitant to eat too much so that I end my day with a little room to spare. For some reason, I feel calmer knowing I’ve gone to bed with fewer calories consumed than more.

And if my caloric intake is more than the allotted amount, I feel guilty and a bit frightened because I know that the accumulative effect of extra calories can mean an accumulation of inches around my waistline.

know that I am not overeating, yet there is this weird little trigger that sends a bit of fear through my mind when I start thinking about the number of calories I’m consuming. I start worrying that one little tiny calorie over the “recommended” amount will tip me over the scales to overweight – even though I’m well within the “normal” weight range.

And that’s how I find myself in a situation like today. I realised that I didn’t bring enough food with me for lunch so I went to the school’s little shop to get a granola bar. I then looked at the back of each bar to see what the calorie count was and chose the one with three fewer calories over the one that I really wanted. (Three calories? Come on, Frances, that’s just silly!)

I suppose I am lucky because I am aware of what’s happening and I am aware that my thoughts are silly. I know the voice in my head is lying to me. I know I’m not fat. I know I’m not going to become fat by eating an extra slice of pizza or those three extra calories from the granola bar I wanted over the one I had. (Although I admit that I fear I will become fat if I were to ever stop running.)

I have to say that my level of panic and my need for being in control over this process has made me realise that – if I were the sort of person who regularly counted calories – I could easily find myself in an extremely unhealthy situation where I wanted to “beat the calorie count” each day to see how few I could manage. (This is why I don’t use a bathroom scale: I fear I’d want to see the numbers going down all the time and that I would panic if they ever went up.)

But I will keep using the tool throughout my Lenten sacrifice because I really do want to make sure I’m eating enough, and also because it’s a good reminder to me about just how many calories are in certain foods. Then, once Easter Sunday rolls around, I’ll leave the counting behind in favour of my normal calorie-control system which is, basically, I eat what I want when I want, and I try to get as much exercise as I can. If my clothes start getting a bit snug, I eat less junk and I run more. If my clothes start getting a bit baggy, I order a pizza and spend a weekend fattening up on the couch!

As for lessons I’ll take away from counting calories over Lent, it’s hard to say what the lasting ones will be. I hope that it only makes me more aware of my daily intake, and not that it makes me paranoid about calories on a long-term basis. I have enough obsessive-compulsive tendencies to deal with, I don’t need to add eating disorders to my list**!

* Calorie counts are only ever estimated, although a recent study showed that some foods could be miscalculated by 50% (although most inaccuracies are far less than that) and that the caloric value of foods can change by the way it’s prepared or even eaten. [More information here.]
** Most professionals do not believe that eating disorders are on the OCD spectrum, however, there are many parallels and often people will suffer from both. [More information here.]

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