Comparing Apples to Bacon, or When Healthy Lifestyles Become “Diets”

Calories in/out rant ahead. Be prepared.*

Good morning, friends! And Merry Belated Christmas!

I’m sorry that I haven’t been by the blog in a week…I can only hope that you haven’t either–after all, this is the time of year to be spending away from your computer screens and spending time with your friends, family, and loved ones.

It’s strange to be away from the blog for so long–or what feels like so long, anyway. I’ve been doing a ton of writing, but, unfortunately, none of it for myself. Between the writing I do at work (who knew it was possible to go 8am – 6pm without putting down a pen or moving away from the keyboard while writing about a single topic?), the writing I do for freelance projects (hooray for commuting on the train sans wifi), and the transcription I do for the Relentless Roger & The Caveman Doctor podcast (which you should immediately go download and listen to if you haven’t already….I’ll wait.

Aaaaaaand we’re back.), I haven’t actually had the time to analyze, synthesize, and write down my thoughts on any topic that truly hits home at the In My Skinny Genes blog.

But here we are…just a week away from New Year’s, and everyone’s making resolutions about weight loss, exercise, and control.

At the same time, there’s been a lot of chatter in the Paleo-blogosphere about low carb vs. calorie restriction for weight loss, and I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at what’s been going on:

As some of you may be aware, the inimitable Jimmy Moore of the Livin’ La Vida Low Carb blog and podcast as been doing a nutritional ketosis experiment. (For those of you who don’t know what nutritional ketosis is, you can read up about it over at Jimmy’s blog or at itsthesatiety/myketohaven or Peter Attia’s Eating Academy. Suffice it to say that it’s a way of forcing your body to burn ketones instead of glucose for energy by eating a Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) diet. It has nothing to do with Dr. OZ or raspberries.)

Jimmy Moore is doing this experiment because of his health: for the past 9 years, he’s been blogging about his battle to overcome his obesity and his struggle to understand and control his nutrition and fitness so as to live an optimal life. And this nutritional ketosis experiment, which he’s doing for himself and not for anyone else (in fact, he won’t even post his meals, so it’s not like he’s proselytizing a specific diet plan to anyone else), has been a huge success in terms of helping this very insulin sensitive person fix his health. The weight loss is just a part of that.

Of course, Jimmy Moore’s success has spawned debate. He isn’t counting calories or doing high intensity exercise. He’s just eating a lot of fat–not overeating, but just eating until he’s full–and not a lot of carbs . (Like, tons of butter and avocados and coconut and meat and sour cream and all of the things that conventional medicine tells us will kill us). He has lost a ton of weight, started to change his body composition, improved nearly all of his blood markers, etc. etc., But the main thing that people seem to care about is that he’s lost weight. And if he’s lost weight doing this experiment, then perhaps, they reason, so can I. And therefore, in the Paleosphere at least, nutritional ketosis–eating fat until satiety and not counting calories–is being hailed as the next intermittent fasting.

And so those in the very low carb high fat camp have taken up the battle cry, “Calories don’t count! Eat fat!”

And, of course, Robb Wolf–who is a total fitness BAMF and one of the biggest names in Paleo–recently published a post about calorie counting vs. low carb diets. His argument was based on his own experience with very low carb eating in an attempt to change his body composition. Robb, mind you, was an already slim person with a good amount of muscle mass. This, of course, sparked a whole big debate around the blogosphere. The gist of his argument is that, while LCHF worked for a time, eventually it became difficult to support his body composition goals using that diet. (Robb, for the record, was a Crossfitter and now does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, among other gymnastic and strength protocols.) His argument is well reasoned and based on his own case study: “LC is fantastic for this in that one typically feels satisfied on high protein, moderate fat, loads of veggies. If one is insulin resistant, this approach can be nothing short of miraculous. HOWEVER! If one manages to cram enough cheese, olive oil and grass-fed butter down the pie-hole, this is in fact, a ‘mass gain’ diet.”

Robb says (and I’m quoting here, so sorry for “screaming” in caps lock), “CALORIES MATTERED MORE THAN CARBS FOR BODY-COMP.”

Do me a favor, all of you, and just keep that sentence in mind for the rest of the post.

I read another argument about the efficacy of calorie counting vs. low carb/high fat diets for weight loss over at  Weight of the Evidence. The argument there looks at Jimmy Moore’s 85% fat, ketogenic diet, and asks if it’s more useful for weight loss than calorie restricting.

The argument opens with a quote about carbohydrate recommendations made by the Atkins Diet and other prominent low carb advocates, such as Phinney and Volek (two vey prominent LCHF researchers who have published the modern day HF bibles, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance). The author uses Phinney and Volek’s own words against them in order to make the case that, in the end, calories matter most. For example: “…of course, if one eats too much fat during that low-carb diet, you’re not going to lose weight; there are differences in metabolism, but calories count in the process of eating a low-carb diet” from Steve Phinney, and “Don’t count calories, although we ask you to use common sense. In the past, some individuals made the mistake of thinking they could stuff themselves with protein and fat and still lose weight.  If the pounds are falling off, forget about calories.  But if the scale won’t budge or it seems to be taking you forever to lose, you might want to do a reality check, caloriewise” from New Atkins for a New You.

Reminder: keep Robb Wolf’s quote in mind: “Calories mattered more than carbs for body comp.”

So then “That Paleo Guy,” Jamie Scott in Australia, posted an absolutely brilliant rebuttal to pretty much everybody. His argument is that, yes, calories count. Sort of. If you eat enough of them and don’t do anything about them, then sure, you’ll gain weight. BUT the composition of those calories count just as much, if not more. If you can, go check out his absolutely brilliant currency analogy. (Summed up: Calories in and calories out is not just like putting money in checking or savings, but about what kind of currency conversions you’re doing, whether you’ve devalued the currency by flooding the market, etc. etc.)

I’m not going to go into the finer points of everyone’s articles and just rehash and rehash the same thing over and over again. Why? Because the articles are already written, and there’s no need to opine when the opinions are already well-documented…but also because I think everyone’s kind of missing the point.

And the point is this: What is the purpose of focusing on calories in/out vs. LCHF in the first place?

I want you to think about a time when you, or someone you know, started on the calories in/calories out bandwagon or started a diet or made a resolution to go to the gym. What was the reason you gave, regardless of your actual weight?

(I’d place money that the first reason, no matter what you actually meant by it, was the phrase: “to lose weight.”)

If you recall, the first time we even started worrying about calories was in that diet book, Diet and Exercise with a Key to the Calories by Lulu Hunt Peters in 1918. It was, let me reiterate, a diet book. A book about losing weight for cosmetic reasons.

It was a book that villainized body fat, not because of its health implications but because of its social implications. It was a book about losing weight.

Now, when we talk about calories in/out in the “real world” today, we use the phrase–no matter what we actually mean by it–”to lose weight.”

If we look at Oxygen Magazine and its fit sisters–Women’s Health, Self, Health, and the like, you’ll see the “lose weight/cut calories/eat less fat” message repeated over and over, with “lose weight” used as a synonym for “stay fit.” I have friends who love their fitspo and go to the gym every day and plug away at their cardio machines, because they are trying to maintain or increase their fitness. They tell me, however, that they are trying to “lose weight.” When I was 112 lbs, cutting/restricting calories, and adding an hour of cardio to my weights workouts, it was because I was trying to increase my fitness/maintain my level of leanness (or so my anorexic brain told me)…but the words I’d use to describe what I was doing was “trying to lose weight.”

Do you see where I’m going with this?

“Lose weight” does not always mean “maintain body composition/increase fitness.” That is not to say that the two can’t happen at the same time (look at Jimmy Moore: he’s losing fat and increasing muscle mass by eating LCHF and performing low intensity/heavy lifting exercises)–they’re mutually exclusive. And we’re using them as synonyms. And then making arguments based on not necessarily aligned goals.

So here’s the thing–and then I’ll shut up about the calories in/out thing for a little while–I just want you to consider this:

When you look at all of the bloggers and fitness gurus and tweets by Dr. Oz and fad diets on the Today Show and try to parse out a definitive answer to whether eating fat or burning it with exercise is going to be more efficient…it’s impossible. The problem here is that everyone has the right solution…but maybe focusing on and fighting about the solution isn’t really a solution at all and just an excuse to continue feeding a disorder.

So I think we need to stop arguing about which diet is more efficacious and look instead at why people care so much about either diet in the first place. And I think the biggest issue for me is that when people say “weight loss” they actually want “sustained weight maintenance.” Or they need sustained weight maintenance because they’re already at a healthy weight/level of fitness, but are busy chasing after a disordered, aesthetic goal.

Body composition isn’t everything. Weight maintenance is not the same thing as athletic performance OR aesthetic goals. It can be, but it isn’t always.

You have to ask yourself whether you’re living on ketones because you’re trying to improve your blood lipid profile or because you’re trying to get better at kipping pull ups or because you want to look better in your lululemon sports bra. You have to take stock of whether your diet is supporting weight loss for your health, weight maintenance for your well being, increased fitness for your sport, or aesthetic goals because you want to look like one of the skinny celebrities on the cover of Shape.

Whatever your goal, you have to be honest with yourself and others about why you’re striving for it and what your diet and exercise is actually accomplishing.

If you’re an intense exerciser, you need to eat the food that will fuel your exercise, just as if you’re a light exerciser, you might not need as much food (not calories, but food, there’s a difference thankyouverymuch) to fuel your everyday goals.

Low carb high fat is not necessarily a solution for getting a six pack (it can be but not always), but it is a solution to help you get in touch with your body’s satiety signals, to help reset your neurotransmitters, to help end cycles of snacking and bingeing. It’s not only a solution for weight loss (although it can be if you’re starting with a sad diet or processed food/carbohydrate dense diet), it’s a method for finding and maintaining homeostasis. If it is psychologically sustainable for you (i.e. you’re not looking at it as an “Atkins induction phase” and waiting for it to be over so you can eat a doughnut), then it’s just as good as spending 100 hours on the spin bike, if not better.

Calories in/calories out is a short term solution that people mistake for a long term practice that they ultimately can’t sustain. LCHF is a long term solution that people look at as a short term diet fix. Do you see the problem here?

Jimmy Moore is using nutritional ketosis to lose weight. Robb Wolf was using LCHF to increase fitness/change his body composition. Those are not the same things. Maybe they’re both in perfect health for where they need to be, but that’s not always the case. It wasn’t for me. When I ate a calorie restricted diet with moderate carbs, I could do 10 perfect dead-hang pull ups and run for an hour in the hot sun, but I was also not getting my period and at a risk for osteoporosis. And I believe that there is a large contingency of people out there who read these blogs and don’t have the insight or the self-awareness of the Jimmys and Robbs of the world–people who truly understand their own body’s needs, who both understand how to do the exercise and eat the food that works for them.

Instead, these people–my friends, my acquaintances, my coworkers, my blog readers, my strangers-I’ve-eavesdropped-on-at-Starbucks–these people honestly believe that they have to lose weight because they have to be fit, and they honestly believe that they need both of those things to be healthy. So they’ll listen to any person who can podcast their message loud enough, because they’re chasing this magical dream of “losing weight” so they can have a six pack.

So here are my last words (for now, because I’m sure I’ll end up having more to say about the subject) about calories in and calories out:

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: “in shape” does not equal healthy.

Burn all the calories you want. Run yourself into the ground. Restrict your food and grow  yourself a six pack. But DO NOT mistake that for health.

Conversely, eat all the fat you want and don’t think about quantity at all. Gorge yourself on cheese and coconut and never touch a weight. Sit on your butt eating egg yolks. But DO NOT mistake that for fitness.

My unsolicited advice? Eat a diet that helps you clue into your satiety signals and eat until you’re full. Exercise enough to stay fit and healthy without turning muscle into a measure of your worth. Eat fat if it supports your goal. Eat carbs if it supports your goal. Go to the gym or do sprints or take a spin class or do crossfit, but don’t bear your exercise–or the calories you do or do not expend–like a cross. There is more to life than “losing weight,” whatever the hell that means. Find a balance, stop counting calories, and quit quibbling over the minutiae. Or at least stop trying to compare apples to bacon and just eat them instead.

- K.

P.S. I hope this rant made sense. I am writing it before the sun comes up after only about 4 hours of sleep. Just to clarify, in case my thesis got buried: It makes me sad when people sit down to eat together and spend the entire meal discussing a) how guilty they feel for not eating a salad because they don’t like the way they look, b) how they’re eating a salad because they’re trying to count calories because some doctor on TV tried to sell them a fitness tracking device and a calorie counting app, c) how they’re just going to be a “pig” and eat what they want because they’re going to gym later anyway, etc. etc. and that’s how you “lose weight.” I am sick of people conflating “weight loss” for health, and embarking on restrictive diets for aesthetic goals instead of scientifically-reasoned diets to support fitness/athletic goals. Especially when they take a way of eating, like low carb/high fat, and turn it into a weight loss miracle instead of a way of supporting physical and mental health. Does that make sense? I hope so.

*Note: Please don’t read any negativity toward Jimmy Moore or Robb Wolf into this post. I think they’re both incredible and have done SO MUCH to help thousands of people change their lives. I highly suggest following the both of them to learn as much as possible & then go and make educated choices about how you choose to live your life.

A Day in the Life of Calories In < Calories Out

A typical day of “calories in < calories out:”

"I am on a 30 day diet. So far I have lost 10 days."

Is this any way to live?

  • Wake up at 4:30 am after about 5-6 hours of sleep. Raises my ghrelin (the hunger stimulating hormone) and lowers my leptin (the satiety stimulating hormone). Lower leptin means lower endorphins. 
  • Coffee with artificial low-fat creamer. Raises my cortisol, stimulates insulin response. 
  • Get to the gym by 5 am. Take an hour long spin class. Physical stress of intense endurance workout raises my cortisol, artificially increases my endorphins. 
  • Down a protein shake (dairy proteins, lactose, and artificial sugar). Stimulate insulin response with lactose and artificial sugar, irritate gut with dairy proteins. 
  • Get to my job, which stresses me out (because I hate my job, because I have a big project on deadline, because I hate my coworkers/my boss/my direct reports, whatever). Cortisol stays raised. 
  • Stomach starts growling at 10 am. Have a Greek yogurt with berries on the bottom. Stimulates another insulin spike, more dairy proteins for the gut.
  • Starving by noon. Have a big salad with tofu, low-fat dressing, and a piece of whole grain bread. Snack on a banana. More gut irritation from soy (lectins and phytates and phytoestrogens, oh my!), bread (gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, etc. Another insulin spike from influx of glucose and fructose from both the low-fat dressing (added sugars to make up for the lack of fat, for taste purposes) and the banana. Promote hormone dysregulation with phytoestrogens in soy. 
  • Start yawning around 1 pm. Desperate to stay awake. Another cup of coffee. Cortisol stays raised, body/mind still physically exhausted. 
  • Starving again by 3 pm. Forage in purse of 100-calorie pack of cookies with goji berries. They’re gluten-free and low calorie so they must be healthy. Also, some doctor on the Today show said that one of the ingredients was a superfood. Superfoods are good for me, so I’ll eat more of them. Feeding my gut processed foods, feeding my liver glucose. More insulin.
  • Leave work and head back to the gym because I am feeling guilty for “not working out hard enough” this morning. Another hour of weights should do it. Drink a Gatorade throughout, to replenish electrolytes. More cortisol, more glucose. Liver is pumping insulin like it’s nobody’s business. Body isn’t hurting for electrolytes, but someone tweeted an article that said I needed them, so…
  • Get home and make dinner. It’s Meatless Monday, so, after weighing and measuring all my portions, it’s gluten-free pasta with soy-meatballs and beans for extra protein and canned spaghetti sauce. Pasta is gluten-free and therefore, in my mind, a weight loss food. Two helpings! More soy. Beans are primarily carbohydrate; proteins are incomplete. Also contain anti-nutrients called “phytates.” Canned spaghetti sauce has added sugar. Gluten-free pasta is still densely packed with carbohydrates, which will be broken down into sugar (glucose) in the body. 
  • Still hungry. Need dessert. Start foraging for anything sugary to take mind off of hunger. Cereal it is: one bowl–okay, two–with fat-free milk. If it’s low fat, it’s okay to have the extra bowl….right? More carbs and sugars, sugars and carbs. Nighttime binge courtesy of leptin resistance and one last wonderful spike/drop in insulin from the sugar eaten for dinner. 
  • Spend about 45 minutes logging all my food and exercise with an online calorie counter. Have used it every day for the last 6 months, so I already know exactly how many calories I’ve eaten, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel guilty if I don’t. May or may not have fudged the pasta and cereal amounts. Secretly hate myself because I know how much I really ate. Not a big enough deficit. Negative self talk as a result of using a calorie counter. “Staying accountable” to my disorder (and who says I have a disorder, huh?) makes me feel like I have a sense of power, even though I’ve actually just lost the last 45 minutes of my life to pointless worrying. 
  • Off to bed. Hating myself for the second bowl of cereal, thinking about chocolate cake. Guess I’ll have to go to the gym twice tomorrow to make up for it. Feeling depressed about it. Stay up late reading on my tablet–shut down around 11 or 12 and then toss and turn before falling into a light and fitful sleep. Cortisol levels kept unnaturally high by the afternoon coffee mean that sleep is going to be disrupted. Blue-white glow from the tablet screen disrupts melatonin production, which helps the body to fall asleep. Melatonin production also thrown off by disruption of natural circadian rhythm (staying up too late, getting up too early). Lack of sleep also promotes leptin resistance and stimulates ghrelin. Excessive exercise (stress) can contribute to depletion of serotonin, which leads to depression. Depression from lack of serotonin can lead to insomnia, which contributes to further serotonin depletion. (Vicious cycle.) 
Mom's logic junk food vs. balanced meal

The wisdom behind the standard American diet…

Okay. So remind me again why this lifestyle is considered healthy? Remind me why we “love” exercising and having to snack all day? Remind me why people get upset when anyone suggests that it’s not dedication but obsession?

If you’re a slave to the foods you eat or the amount of exercise you do because you believe that you’re benefitting from it, ask yourself if that’s helped you lose weight, get fit, or enjoy your life at all.

Eat Good Look Good Feel Good Fitspo

Can we just strike the middle one from our list of priorities? If you’re doing the first and third, then the second just comes naturally.

And if you’ve taken it to the “eat clean” orthorexic extreme (as I most assuredly did), then you’re definitely in the camp that believes that extreme measures are needed to stay healthy. And while I commend you for eliminating the 100-calorie packs of cookies, you’re in the same boat if you’re snacking on homemade gluten free cookies with dried goji berries instead. You’re in the same boat if you believe that you have to down a protein shake or some concoction made with egg whites and fake sugar. You’re in the same boat if you already know in advance how many calories you ate and burned because you’ve used the calorie counter for so long that it’s no longer even a necessary tool (especially if you have the mobile app on your phone because you want to log every morsel of every meal the second you eat it, so you won’t forget).

But we’ve been taught to eat less and move more for so long, that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that there could be another way.

I’ll post next about some of the changes I made this summer, but I’m interested in hearing what you guys have to say. Does any of this sound familiar to you? What does your day look like?

- K.

The Math of Mealtime

If you have ever been on a diet, every started a new fitness regimen, done your first “couch to 5K” or started restricting one or more food groups for the sake of getting a six-pack, then you know it doesn’t, ultimately, work. Even those of us who maintain weight loss/muscle gain through any sort of extreme change a) know in the back of our minds that it’s not sustainable without restriction/over exercise and b) start to indulge in thoughts of guilt and shame over things we come to believe are cheats, slip ups, and undeserved days off.

The problem is that we’re looking at weight loss/muscle gain through the lens of aesthetics masquerading as health.

When I wanted to “get healthy” by “eating clean,” I really meant that I wanted to “get thin” and “have a six-pack.” And please don’t pretend that any of you are above conflating healthy with some fitspirational ideal. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of society now, that I think it’s just a natural impulse to feel this way. (In fact, one of my blog’s commenters pointed out how the message in the Eat-Clean Diet books is really all about saggy skin, love handles, and cellulite, not optimal performance and vibrant health, as they claim…)

Oxygen Magazine Disordered Fitspiration Collage

How many disordered messages can you count here?

As early as the 80s, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the author of Fasting Girls, noted that “a ‘narcissism based on health’ is not essentially different from one based on beauty. In fact, spokespersons for the new credo of female fitness espouse the same principles of vanity, self-sacrifice, and physical and spiritual transformation that characterized the beauty zealots of the early twentieth century. What is different is that compulsive exercising and chronic dieting have been joined as twin obsessions.”

And our culture has been so inculcated with the idea that the only way to lose weight/get healthy/look sexy is to eat less and exercise more, that we can’t even conceptualize any other solution. And because, according to this mindset, a calorie is a calorie, we have to perform a complex mathematical equation every day just to make sure we’re burning more than we eat:

Calories out must be greater than or equal to calories in. Fats contain almost twice the number of calories that carbs contain, so I’ll just eat more carbs. A stick of gum has five calories and celery has negative calories if you chew fast enough. The nutrition label on my box of cereal has a different number of calories from the one on Fitday, so I’ll make up the potential difference by running longer on the treadmill, which will, obviously, accurately report how many calories I’m burning based on the weight I enter on the machine. I’m starving, so I’ll eat less and move more and that will surely take my mind off of how hungry I am. 

Brumberg notes that “[h]ow much one runs and how little one eats is the prevailing moral calculus in present-day anorexia nervosa,” but I’d argue that specialization in this form of math–and the feelings of moral superiority that it engenders*–has moved past the small enclave of anorexics who once claimed expertise and into the mental calculators of your average gym goer.

But the fact of the matter is, a calorie is not just a calorie.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connection between leptin resistance and exercise addiction, where excessive exercise can actually lead to weight gain. It’s the same thing with calorie counting and restriction.

Calories out can mean that the body starts worrying about starvation and starts holding onto calories in. The wrong calories in can confuse the body into forgetting to let the calories out.

But there’s more to the story. That zero-calorie coke you’re drinking? The artificial sweeteners can contribute to sugar addiction and weight gain.

That marathon you’re running? It could be making you lose the muscle definition you’re working your butt off for in the gym.

Abel James Future of Health Now, Demonstrates Cardio vs. Sprinting with Body Composition

Abel James demonstrates the difference between steady state cardio and high intensity sprints…like a boss.

We’ve been fed so many lies so often and with such startling earnestness that it’s almost impossible to understand where the falsehoods end and the truths begin. And, like a diabetic in a candy store, we eat up the media’s latest health announcements, experience a brief high, and suffer again from the inevitable crash–which has serious implications for our continued health and wellbeing.

In fact, just check out this infographic from Time.com . I’m going to be honest here: it’s the same crap you’ve already heard: exercise more, eat less. Eat mostly carbs. If you don’t burn more than you eat, you’ll gain weight. Track your calories so you know how much you’re eating.

(On Jimmy Moore’s podcast a few weeks ago, one of the guests said that the best way to make money is to sell a diet solution that actually makes it impossible to reach the goal. It’s really true. Because even if you do manage to live happily through the initial weight loss/muscle gain/body and lifestyle change, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to maintain it or regain it after you lose it.)

It’s time for a new paradigm, because the only people benefitting from the current ones are the people who work in the diet, fitness, and fat loss industries.

In my next post, we’ll look at one way of making the shift.

- K.

*See: “Obsessed is the word the lazy use to describe the dedicated,” et. al.)

“But You Still Have To Go To The Gym”

This commercial makes me so angry–it embodies pretty much everything that’s wrong with the state of fitness and nutrition in our country today. There are so many things wrong with commercial that it’s almost hard to find a place to start. So I’ll do my best to focus on the main reason why this seemingly innocuous Cheerios commercial makes my blood boil.

Looking past the fact that I no longer agree with the contention that the whole grains in Cheerios are part of a “heart healthy breakfast,” the majority of my ire today comes from the last line: “But you still have to go to the gym.”+

Now, as a certified personal trainer and an incurable gym rat, I’m happy that General Mills is suggesting that fitness is an important part of anyone’s “heart health” and “weight loss” regime; however there’s a more insidious message behind the commercial, and it contains that ugly, 7-letter “C-word.”

Calories.

(If I never have to hear the word again, it will be too soon.)

The crux of this commercial’s message is: no matter how healthily you eat, if you don’t burn it off, you’ll get fat. (And Cheerios carries disordered food messages throughout much of its marketing strategy. Dr. Deah Schwartz, a Health At Every Size blogger, did a great post on the disordered implications of its “more whole grains, less you” message on Peanut Butter Cheerios boxes).

More Grains, Less You: negative body image from Cheerios Ad

This is disgusting to me on so many levels.

Here’s the thing: calories in vs. calories out does work. But only for so long.

It goes something like this: I start eating well and working out. I eliminate processed foods but don’t change my portion sizes. I buy a pair of running shoes and go for a 12+ minute mile jog 3-4 times a week. I lose weight. And then, all of a sudden, I plateau. So:

I lessen my portion sizes slightly and keep up with my running. I lose weight and then plateau. I get a personal trainer and lift weights several times a week in addition to the running. I lose weight and then plateau. I read some broscience forums and realize that I need to tighten up my diet. I eliminate fats (because fats make me fat amirite?*) and start working out 6 days a week. I lose weight and then plateau. Fine. Now my choices are to either make my portions even smaller or eat nothing but egg whites and tuna with steamed broccoli. I do both just in case. My metabolism slows. I become leptin resistant. I am hungry all of the time. I need to work out more. I go to the gym twice a day or do more than an hour of steady-state cardio every day, because who needs rest days?**

And in order to maintain, I have to continue manipulating my food or my workouts in an ever lessening/increasing ratio.

Exercise should be about rewarding the body with endorphins and strength, not about punishing your body for what you've eaten

FACT.

WHY. Why would anyone–anyone–do this to him or herself? What’s the point of spending your entire life worrying about how small, bland, and tasteless you can make your portions or how long, bland, and exhausting you can make your exercise? For some aesthetic goal? (Because it’s certainly not for health, despite what the fitspo images are assuring you. If you were healthy, you’d be able to go to a restaurant without freaking out when they cook your chicken breast in oil, or stay out late without worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to wake up in time to do an hour on the elliptical before work.)

Sorry to be absolutely blunt here, folks, but calories in/calories out is a really tragic*** way to live.

But what’s the alternative?

Well, let’s start at the beginning.

- K.

+And I can guarantee you’ve all seen this couple at the gym, too–you know, the woman sweating it out on the treadmill for an hour, lifting a light dumbbell awkwardly while reading a magazine, the man sitting on the pec-deck machine for an hour, doing endless sets of chest flyes with his neck jutting forward and taking 20 minute breaks between sets to chat with his friends…

*No.

**Everyone

***I was going to use a different word here, but I figure I’ve maxed out my curse word allotment for this post by using the “c” word again.

The “C” Word

I have added a new “bad” word to my vocabulary. Forget the f-word, forget the four-letter c-word: this is a 7-letter c-word, and it’s the most heinous, stupid, useless wastes of breath I think I have ever wasted time uttering:

“Calorie.”

In fact, I am sick of hearing that word used, because I think we, as a culture, completely abuse it without having any actual understanding of what it actually means.

Over the course of the next few posts, I’m going to explain how potentially ruinous the “calories-in/calories-out” mindset is, so prepare to have your minds blown (and your sanity restored):

From the moment I met ED, I had a niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that part of my miraculous weight loss was due not just to the fact that I was eating less, but also to the fact that I was exercising more.

The summer between 8th and 9th grade was spent not only eating soy-free (a.k.a. apples and peanut butter), but also biking back and forth to the gym every day, spending an hour doing some asinine combination of light weights and cardio, and then doing “toning” and “core” exercises on my bedroom floor each night. And, for a long time, that formula worked.

Skinny Bat Mitzvah Picture at age 16

At my sister’s Bat Mitzvah, the thinnest I would be in high school

After my 9th grade knee surgery, I started increasing my caloric intake while sitting on my rear and healing, so I, of course, gained weight. As soon as my knee would allow it, I joined the cross country team and began doing long, slow (very slow) endurance runs. As my competitive nature kicked in and my leg grew stronger, I started running longer and faster, even on the weekends. By the time I became cross country team captain in 11th grade, I was going for a second run every night after dinner, even if I’d already run long and hard at practice that day.

Of course, the more I ran, the hungrier I got. And all of the conventional wisdom at the time pointed toward carb-loading, so I made sure to have extra helpings of french bread and spaghetti between my after school practice and my nightly training. I also made sure to down a Clif Bar before cross country every day, even though I had eaten a large lunch and a packet of peanut M&M’s less than 2 hours beforehand.

I thought it didn’t matter, because conventional wisdom also said that my exercise (calories out) was burning off the huge amounts of food I was eating (calories in). As long as I went for that second run each night, I was golden.

Wearing school uniform in the school gym, at my heaviest weight

At my heaviest in high school, hiding behind a size-too-large uniform shirt.

And yet, two years later in New York, while I was dieting and cleansing and generally miserable, I was vastly under-eating (probably about 800-1000 calories a day while cleansing, if I had to hazard a guess) plus going to the gym every morning and doing an hour of some asinine combination of light weights and cardio–and I was gaining weight.

It didn’t make sense. But yo-yo diets aren’t supposed to make sense; they’re simply supposed to continue to fuel our negative self-talk, self-hate, and confusion. If anything, we’re doing ED a favor by focusing on eating less and exercising more until our bodies are so exhausted that we can’t fight back.

By the time I started bodybuilding, I got my starvation (*ahem* sorry, eating clean) and exercise down to an art, so I started dropping weight again. By this point, even though the “transformation” I was following didn’t recommend massive amounts of cardio, I still threw in an hour on the elliptical or the rotating stairs, even after a 45 minute workout with heavy weights. The fitness models I followed on Facebook and Twitter all talked about doing fasted cardio* in the morning (which I started doing) followed immediately by weights and then a second workout in the evening (which I technically did by biking up and downtown between my two jobs while I lived in NYC). I wanted to make sure that I was burning calories all day, whenever I had the chance. The more I limited my diet, the more I exercised, the thinner I was going to be.

Calories in calories out scale

Seems right…but it’s not that simple.

By the time I moved to Florida, I was absolutely exhausted. I worked out fasted in the morning and made sure to drink my protein within the 15 minute post-workout window, and then went home and collapsed onto the couch for the rest of the day (with minimal movement allotted for meal times). By this time, I was about 110 lbs. I was also incredibly depressed. If I didn’t work out, the depression went from awful but bearable to absolutely monstrous (cue: depleted neurotransmitters and fatigued adrenal glands lecture here). If I didn’t work out, I would spend the day sobbing, brooding, scowling, snapping or some combination thereof.

Worse yet, I found that, even though my diet wasn’t changing, I had to do more exercise, harder exercise, to get the same weight-loss and mood-altering affects. It wasn’t fair–but I was addicted. I was ED’s willing prisoner, and so I didn’t care.

- K.

*Cardio on an empty stomach