In this 3-part series, I’m going to share with you some reasons that might explain why your approach to improving your health and changing your body is leaving you frustrated and unhappy. I’ll point out some things you cannot change (and how to practice acceptance), as well as some things you can change (and how to have courage). My goal is to shine some wisdom on your journey so you can reroute your efforts to achieve the health and body you’re meant to have.
And here’s some wisdom right off the bat: The Calorie Myth
It’s what we’ve been told for ages: if you eat less and move more, you’ll impact your body shape and size. The logic being: it’s all about calories in, calories out. Convenient to think that way, but not the way it works at all.
It’s not just food and exercise that impact your health and body, and focusing on those two things is going to leave you frustrated and feeling out of control. If the calorie myth is what you’ve subscribed to, and you’re still feeling bad and beating up on yourself, keep reading.
It’s science right? Healthy diet and rigorous exercise are the sure way to get healthy, and if you don’t have the discipline and will power to do it right, you’re going to become unhealthy and be miserable. Calories in, calories out. Simple, straightforward… but alas, not true. If this is the approach you’ve been taking, and you’re still feeling bad about yourself and your body, here is some info about calories and what they mean to you.
To start, let’s lay some groundwork. Whenever the conversation turns to health, usually the first thing that comes up is calories. How many? What kind? We love to count them: 4 calories per gram of carbs and proteins, 9 calories per gram of fat. Multiply, add, subtract for fiber… you need a calculator just to eat lunch. We’ve got 100-calorie packs of almonds, 1,200 calorie diets, low-calorie frozen entrees, etc. All these creations and machinations to cut back on something that doesn’t even apply to the way your body works. If you’re counting calories in the interest of getting healthier, you’re expending a whole lot of misdirected effort and, unfortunately, probably not going to reach your goals of health and happiness. The whole calorie premise is misleading.
Real Science: Calories are nonsense.
A calorie is a unit of measurement that represents the amount of energy it takes to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. The yield is 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates or proteins, and 9 calories per gram of fat. This knowledge is handy in the laboratory, but it’s not the way your body uses food. There isn’t a Bunsen burner in your stomach that heats up and turns food into energy. It’s beautifully more complex than that.
The measurement of calories isn’t relevant. Here are some things that are relevant: vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, protein, fat, carbohydrates. These are the things your body uses, via enzymes and absorption, to create energy for you to use. Calories don’t make energy, the components of food do. Who would have thought that things like vitamin B5 and antioxidants are how the body makes energy? Without them, the intercellular cycle that creates energy can’t function.
Just to drive home the point that calories don’t count, here’s an example:
Imagine you have exactly 100 calories of two different foods. One is 100 calories of blueberries (about 1.25 cups). The other is 100 calories of Snickers (about ½ bar). Even a third grader can tell you that the berries have more to offer toward making your body work optimally than the candy. Seriously, I asked a third grader and he nailed it. Same amount of calories, but not the same at all.
More Science: The less you eat, the more unhealthy and unhappy you’ll be.
You may have experienced this – being Hangry? It’s the short temper, irritability, and irrationality that comes when you’ve missed a meal or eaten too little and are hungry. Worse case scenario, too little food and your body will shut down entirely – you know, starvation. There is a step between hangry and death, though, and it’s one that has likely been infuriating you for years. The less food you eat, the more you’re going to weigh.
From an evolutionary point of view, your body likes to have enough to eat. Our bodies, as machines, are exactly the same as they were 200,000 years ago when homo sapiens first roamed the earth. Back then, there wasn’t food available on every corner twenty-four hours a day, rather, there could be stretches of time without food. Your body is wired to think lack of food means there’s a famine, and so the less you eat, the more committed your body is to storing fat. Fat is a great source of energy, so storing it as soon as you start restricting food makes sense so it can keep you going through the anticipated tough times.
It’s unlikely that there’s an actual famine, but there is indeed a tough time. It’s you, restricting your food because you’ve been trained to think that if you have less food, you’ll be healthier and happier. But, as it turns out, having less food can often lead to fat storage, which isn’t typically healthy and is probably making you unhappy.
Last Bit of Science: Even if restricting food seems to make you healthier and happier initially, it won’t last.
I hate to be a Debby Downer, but it’s been shown again and again that the VAST majority of people who restrict food and lose weight put it back on and then some within 3 years or less. Not for lack of trying, but as mentioned, bodies fight against food restriction. Your body slows its metabolism to optimize your low food intake when you’re dieting, and it stays slow for the long run. Your metabolism gets tweaked. So when you go back to eating reasonable amounts of food, more of it gets stored as fat. Further, food restriction is hard to do and hard to maintain. It’s a set up for a temper tantrum. Which brings us to:
(Not Solid) Science: For every restriction, there is a binge.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point, you’re going to get pissed off about restricting types or quantities of food, act out, and overeat. You’ll feel out of control and think you failed at yet another diet. But that’s not what happened. Two things did happen: 1) there’s your body trying to keep itself alive by holding on to what little you give it, and 2) there’s your psyche that knows that the food you’re restricting is delicious and fun and is not inherently evil and there’s no reason why you can’t have a piece of chocolate cake and give me a friggin’ piece of chocolate cake – make it two, make it three! Do it NOW! (Individual experiences may vary, but you get the idea.)
I’d love for you to stop focusing on calories and/or restricting food. Focus on what the food has to offer. Read the ingredients and see if there is anything there that sounds like something that might have some value for your body. Fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains – these are nutrient dense. Nutrients are what your body can use and it uses them really well to bring you the health you’re looking for.
Just as important, don’t deny yourself the delicious foods this world has to offer. No, chocolate cake isn’t nutrient dense, per se, but it feeds your soul, is part of celebrations and community, and brings some of that happiness you’re looking for.
Having a hard time letting go of counting calories? Can’t let go of the idea that eating cake is going to destroy your health? Let’s talk. If a lifetime of counting calories has left you feeling bad about yourself and your body, just let me know and we’ll schedule a Free Consultation – a time to talk one and one, so we can shift your thinking and find ways to nourish you on the deepest levels.
Up Next Week: The foods and non-foods that will unavoidably impact your health and body. The things you cannot change! (practice acceptance)
Up In Two Weeks: The foods and non-foods that can genuinely impact your health and body if you use them. The things you can change! (have courage)