Just Frances

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The dangers of counting calories

This entry was posted on Friday, March 14th, 2014 by Frances Ryan.
Tags: ocd, health, food, fear, crazy, confession

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—though 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 less 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 waist line.

I 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 amount 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 ranges.

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 less 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. (Though 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 estimates, though a recent study showed that some foods could be miscalculated by 50% (though most inaccuracies are far less than that), and that the caloric value of foods can change by the way its 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.]


a fat frances? it could never happen! sounds like a good thing that you don’t count calories after lent is over if you think it will make you eat too little. as much as i like a slim and trim girl, there is such a thing as too slim. it can be unhealthy AND unattractive; i’d rather someone 5 or 10 pounds too heavy than to be too thin.

be sure to eat enough calories though and don’t worry about those extra three here and there. we both know you’ll make up for too many calories by running or even dancing around the house.

good luck sweetie,
m&ms; candy man

by mm at 10:06am (GMT) on March 18th, 2014

Thanks, Candy Man! As you know, I’ve never been one to worry about calories so this really is a strange place I’ve found myself in. In the last few days, however, I’ve started to relax a little bit about the calorie “limit” that the counter programme has set for me. Basically, I now realise that I can go over without problems because I really do get more exercise than I realise.

Still… I am really looking forward to Easter when I will make up for all of the crisps and sweeties I’ve been missing out on!!


by Just Frances at 11:00am (GMT) on March 18th, 2014

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