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A typical day of “calories in < calories out:”
- 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.)
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.
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?
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…)
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.
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.
*See: “Obsessed is the word the lazy use to describe the dedicated,” et. al.)
Believe it or not, before 1918, people lived without calorie counters. Yes, folks, you heard me: before the end of the first World War, it was possible to eat a sandwich without entering every morsel into Fitday.*
What happened? It’s not like once the calorie was discovered, it started infiltrating our food and making us fat, forcing us to begin counting in order to stave off weight gain.
A couple of things: First of all, we as first-world denizens started eating more processed foods and drastically increased the amount of sugar we consumed on a daily (and monthly and yearly) basis. Second of all, with the rise of the moving picture industry and its resulting stars, we started to become a nation focused on the importance of image.
Third, and most damaging, of all, we figured out that we could quantify ourselves and our food. And suddenly, the diet industry had a powerful tool that led to its quick explosion. In 1918, one Miss Lulu Hunt Peters published a little diet book that introduced the population to a new way of manipulating the body through food: by counting the “newly discovered” calorie.
Apparently, however, diet books published in 1918 don’t come with trigger warnings (so those of you who need one, please consider that before you read the following excerpt).
Because it was published in the teens (and therefore a few years out of copyright), Lulu Hunt Peters’ Diet and Health with a Key to the Calories is available as a free download through Project Gutenberg. So I downloaded it to my Kindle app and started reading. And within a few seconds, I had a good idea of how this incredibly influential diet book helped kickstart the current calories in/calories out-eat-and-workout-or-hate-yourself mindset.
From the first chapter (and I quote): “Are You Thin and Do You Want to Gain? Don’t read this.
Skip this chapter. It will not interest you in the least. I will come to you later. I am not particularly interested in you anyway, for I cannot get your point of view. How any one can want to be anything but thin is beyond my intelligence. However, knowing that there are such deluded individuals, I have been constrained to give you advice.”
Oh. My god.
Talk about body shaming! Please, if you can’t hear how absolutely sick this is, let me know, and I’ll help you locate a therapist. This simple paragraph epitomizes the voice of ED as it blares in your gym, your mother’s kitchen, your head…This book was the first to teach Americans how to quantify their food in calories.
She goes on to write:
“You should know and also use the word calories as frequently, or more frequently, than you use the words foot, yard, quart, gallon and so forth…Hereafter you are going to eat calories of food. Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.”
But what the hell is a calorie, anyway? A calorie, as we modern Americans know it, is actually a measurement called the kilocalorie. A kilocalorie (or Calorie, big “C”) is “defined as 1,000 times the energy it takes to heat a gram of water from 14.5 to 15.5 degrees Celsius.” That’s all it is. Not some insidious fat-building virus that proliferates upon introduction to your body, not a molecule that attaches to your belly and makes it bigger or morphs into thigh cellulite out of spite. It’s just a measurement of energy. That’s all.
And food contains energy. That’s why we eat it. Because we need energy in order to live. So, therefore, yes, food contains calories. That’s an inescapable fact of life.**
And living burns calories. We need a certain amount of calories just for our bodies to function. If you want your heart to beat or your lungs to expand, you need calories. Again: inescapable fact of life.
Now, it would stand to reason that, as a post-industrial society, eating food indiscriminately and also growing fatter by the year, we’d want to know if there were ways of controlling the sudden spike in tendencies toward overweight. So it made sense in the minds of people like Lulu Hunt Peters that, once we came to understand the concept of calories–how many exist in each morsel of food we eat, how they’re used and burned by our bodies–that we would all become masters of our physiques.
That was 1920. And guess what? We’re not masters of our physiques. We have no idea how to deal with the complex machines that are our bodies. We’re anorexic, bulimic, overweight, underweight, obese, compulsively exercising, sedentary, snacking, bingeing, and restricting, and we’re no closer–as a population–to understanding why calories in/calories out doesn’t work.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because every calorie is not the same. And if we could just come to eat the right ones, we’d stop having reasons to obsess about the others.
And maybe our Cheerios couple could stop living the disordered cycle of calories-in/calories-out.
*Although, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Fitday came a little later…hehe.
**Unless you’re eating zero-calorie food-like products, but since they don’t contain calories–or pronounceable ingredients that can be found in nature–they’re not technically food.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
*Cardio on an empty stomach