Calories are fact

There’s been lots of content around calories and calorie tracking in the news and on social media recently (at least there has on my feed).  The announcement that restaurants will have to display the calorie content of dishes in an effort to tackle rising obesity levels in the UK has been met with a variety of reactions.  Notably anti dieters have argued it could have a negative effect on some people, those with or recovering from eating disorders for example.  Others have argued that, much like the super skinny waif super models of the 90s, the emphasis could have a negative impact on young people (mainly female it is generally assumed) perception of themselves.

I struggle with the anti calorie counting movement if I’m honest.  That’s a slightly against the trend thing to say but hear me out.

Of course there are people for whom calorie counting is not beneficial and if your doctor or any medical professional you are seeing advises against it you should follow their advice.  Nor do I advocate obsessively tracking every last morsal of food nor restricting youself in the amount of type of food you eat.  I don’t believe you need to be a certain size or weight to be happy and I think you should eat what you enjoy eating, and be a meat eater, vegtarian or vegan for whatever reasons you so choose.

The fact remains however that being aware of the energy values of what you consume daily is useful.

People who are at a happy healthy weight for them probably consume about what they expend on an average day, either without thinking or conciously.  People who want or need to lose or gain some weight for their health probably do not. Yes there are exceptions, but generally the majority of us are not genetic marvels, the majority of us who wish or need to change of current mass are simply eating either too much or too little.

Again, I’ll say that anyone with any form of disordered eating should seek professional advice and follow that, not what someone on the internet says, but if you are an average Joe, then being aware of the energy balance equation is likely all you need to make any changes you either need or desire.

I was flicking through some recipes the other day, there were purposefully no nutritional values given because the author wanted to promote a non diet culture.  I respect that, it goes with their ethos and fits in with their values (and the recipes look lush), but I couldn’t help thinking, man it would be easier if they were provided so I didn’t need to add each ingredient into MyFitnessPal.  Because for me, knowing what I’m eating is useful, it’s like knowing how much fuel is in your car rather than just driving with blind hope you’ve enough to get to your destination or paying for things without knowing how much cash is in your bank account.

I almost feel like being so against calorie counting is as much of a red flag as obsesively calorie counting.  If the idea of knowing how may calories is in your food on a menu really does trigger something and stop you eating it (as opposed to heping you making an informed decision) then perhaps that is also a sign you need to look at your view of food.  Because eating what the fuck you like because you enjoy food is great, but if the idea of knowing the energy number attributed to that freaks you out there’s still an issue.  The goal is surely to know that sometimes you’re eating higher calorie foods but you’re just aware of your overall energy balance so allowing yourself to mainatin your energy levels, feel good and remain nurourished and healthy.

For every person who has struggled with an eating disorder where calories are a trigger word there are plenty of people that just aren’t really sure how the energy balance works.  All the media coverage around diet clubs like Slimming World attest to this.  Fitness professionals argument against these clubs is that they don’t properly educate people, bringing the notion of calories more to the forefront of people’s conciousness could help change that.  There will be people for whom calorie counting is not beneficial, they can ignore those numbers.

In fact that’s the issue isn’t it.  Almost every policy in the world will not benefit some people, but will benefit others.  We need to know how to ignore things that don’t help us, to learn how to not get affected by things that we may see as opposed to be outraged that something that could benefit someone else but doesn’t benefit us is visible to us, even if it upsets us.

That isn’t saying not tracking calores is wrong or that you should track every day.  It’s saying that for some people who want or need to make a change undertsanding and being aware of their consumption is vital and clouding a realtively simple process of tracking with intuitive eating, mindful eating, anti diet ideas doesn’t help them.  Those concepts all work, they are all valid but if you are eating intuitively and not happy with the direction you are going in you need to retrain your intuition.  When you learn something new you follow rules and methods and don’t follow intuition, eating isn’t much different in this case.  If you are happy and feel your energy levels are great you can crack on with what you are doing.

The crux of the matter is calorie counting isn’t the thing that causes disordered eating.  Deciding you wat to lose some weight because you’d like to or because you’ve been advised I would help isn’t the sign of disordered eating.  Caloires in v. calories out is a simple fact, like gravity.  The issue isn’t that it’s all the stuff we have constructed around it. 

Listening v. Learning

Listening to your body / eating intuitively / being kind to yourself. All buzz words and phrases in recent years. And as I’ve written many times before, a perfectly valid way to eat if in doing so you are in a position where you are happy with your body and your energy levels.

I can eat and stay on track without tracking quite easily. I do track, largely as a habit that I don’t find particular cumbersome or triggering, but I could not track and still roughly know how my week’s food intake was likely to affect me. I maintain, as I have written previously, that is largely because I have mastered tracking, got an idea of what I need in terms of food.

But to move beyond the arguing what works best to lose body weight thing for a moment, you know what I personally could not do via intuitive eating. Listen to what type of food my body wants.

Because the idea of feeling like I need xyz so that’s what I’ll give my body allows me too much freedom to eat things that will derail my goals and in portions that at no point would my body actually intuitively be asking for. All I’m saying is my body rarely screams at me in needs vegetables.

Perhaps I need to be more in tune with myself. Maybe I could teach myself to think hmmm I feel fatigued my body is craving carrots instead of god I’m knackered I really need a tub of ice cream. Point is though I do know what my body needs. Over the years I’ve learnt what my body needs, what works, when, what actually makes me feel sluggish even though I think it won’t, what times of day I prefer exercising on an empty stomach and when I need to be fed first and so on. That was by trial and error and planning and tracking rather than eating when my body told me and what it old me. I mean apart from anything else I think with my brain how would I even plan my shopping eating intuitively! I’m flexible of course I am, sometimes I don’t feel like whatever I’ve planned, sometimes I need extra food than what I planned, or more sugar or more carbs.

The fact remains I think by understanding my body by seeing what works and then sticking to the systems that have worked and suit me and my taste buds and make me feel good when I train, I mat not be listening to my body but my body is probably more grateful that I’m doing that over eating what it thinks it want (it seriously only ever think it wants cake I tell you now). Is what I do more onerous that intuitive eating? I really don’t think it is.

Ultimately I don’t think we need to get caught up in the idea that tracking and planning and eating mindfully is bad. It may not suit some, there may be some it isn’t a good option, that’s the case for most things though. Like anything intuitive eating might not be the solution to all diet problems.

Is Calorie Counting Restrictive?

One of the most commonly quoted objections to calorie counting is the lack of freedom, the feeling that it is a restrictive way of eating.

Yet if you eat intuitively but find yourself saying I can’t eat ‘that’ I think that’s more restrictive than tracking how many calories are in ‘that’ as you eat it.

‘That’ might be bread or pasta or ‘bad’ carbs. ‘That’ might be chocolate or cake or crisps. ‘That’ might be a takeaway or other type of junk food.

We often put lots of rules in place with our own diet, have our own ideas of what constitutes a ‘good’ diet and what is ‘bad. If we find ourselves saying we mustn’t eat certain foods or eating them and then feeling guilty that is not a non restrictive diet. Whether you track or eat intuitively if you find yourself avoiding certain things you enjoy that is still a restrictive way of eating.

In fact, if you track your calories to work towards your goal and eat all the foods you enjoy whilst doing so I’d argue that that is much less restrictive than not tracking but having a list of avoid / bad foods.

Calorie counting for all it’s apparent simplicity causes a great deal of debate amongst some people, but I think sometimes it gets a bad rap for restrictive ways of eating when it can actually be a way of eating much more freely and removing some of the guilt from eating certain foods.

Calories Counting v Intuitive Eating

I’ve written previously about intuitive eating and how I feel like you cannot eat intuitively until you understand calorie tracking. Two ever so opposite end of the scale things but they kind of work together.

I get why people don’t necessarily want to track calories. I get that for some people it could get a bit obsessive. I get that you don’t just want to make food about numbers. I get that it’s time consuming and dull. I get that there’s so much more to life than how many calories you eat and constantly thinking about what you have left in your calorie bank.

But. But but but.

If you want to lose weight… or gain weight for that matter… you have to be eating the right amount of calories compared to how many calories you expend each day / each week.

Now you might be someone who is happy with their weight. If that’s the case you probably can just eat intuitively, because what you are eating right now is keeping you where you want to be. This post is not for you!

If you want to change your weight, up or down, that indicates that what you currently eat right now either provides you with too many (if you want to lose) or not enough (if you want to gain) calories. Before you say it, yes maybe you are that rare person who is struggling because of a condition and the reason is far more complex, but harsh truth – the majority of us are not that person, the majority of us just aren’t eating the right amount for our goals.

So if you aren’t eating the right number of calories right now you can’t eat intuitively. Because to do something intuitively requires knowledge of how to do it in the first place. At work, do you do tasks you’ve done many times before instinctively, without thought- looking at a problem and knowing the issue and solution before you’ve really even thought about it? Can you answer the question before it’s even been asked because you know what they’ll ask because it’s what everyone always asks? Could you do that on your first week of the job? Of course not. You learnt your job and over time through doing your actions became more instinctive, more confident.

Same with calories. You need to understand how much of the type of foods you eat is right for you to reach your goal. To do this you need to track. The more you learn about this as you track the less you need to rely on tracking, because you can learn to start reading you own body and hunger and getting used to the right kind of portion sizes for you and your goals.

So over time you can track less, maybe just checking in occasionally to check your still in the right zone, or using it as a refocus if you’ve found yourself going a bit off track. You don’t have to commit to a lifetime of strict tracking everything that passes your lips. But to get a handle on where you are at and work out where you need to be you do need to be aware of what you are really eating, and tracking is really the only way.

If you don’t want to track you don’t have to of course, but if you’re frustrated you aren’t reaching you goals and aren’t tracking you may want to reconsider because whether you track or eat intuitively calories do count.

Cheat Meal Time

Cheat Meals. Two very emotive words that muttered on Facebook always tend to create debate and bring out two very polarised camps of people.

Generally as a PT I would fall into the don’t think on meals or days as ‘cheats’. You can manage your calories and how much you eat across a week to be able to have what society would generally deem a ‘cheat meal’ and still stay within your calorie goals and reach whatever goal you may have.

More than this, classing a meal as a ‘cheat’ can lead to you thinking of foods as good and bad can be damaging to your feelings around food. Guilt about eating a certain type of food does nothing for your mental health, how you view yourself or your eating habits in general.

Equally however it’s actually really hard not to fall in the habit of referring to foods as ‘treats’ or ‘cheats’. Personally, I know a takeaway isn’t an automatic bad thing and that actually some days I could end up eating fewer calories after a fast food meal than I would have had I made a ‘healthy’ meal. Some people do not know this. Some people might know but not be quite willing to accept it, so throw away comments about cheat meals, whilst not a big deal for me could create a bigger barrier in someone else’s mindset.

For me there are two issues relating to the idea of cheat meals. Teaching people that foods do not need to be grouped into good and bad and working on our own language and how we absent mindedly refer to food.

But there’s one more issue to add to this mix. We’ve noted a lot during the Pandemic that obesity is an issue in the UK and that it causes health issues. We’ve largely noted beyond that (unless your Boris who prefers the less educated approach) that education on nutrition and the energy balance is key to this.

Now here, at a very basic level, the good / bad food list can be useful. If you want to educate someone about the benefits of a balanced diet and the benefits of eating fresh foods then there is going to be a little bit of a good / bad rhetoric. Cheat meals are essentially the idea of people who have a relative understanding and interest in health and nutrition and would benefit from understanding the restrictions this mentality can place on you. For someone with a very limited knowledge of the energy balance equation we are essentially going back to the food pyramid which does promote an element of good / bad foods.

We need to acknowledge that yes essentially weight loss can be incredibly simple, that does not mean there are not lots of obstacles we can nee help with at various points. Sometimes the simplest things can be quite tricky.

Boris, please stop talking

Wow – I saw a video today where Boris talks about what he’s been doing to lose weight and what the Government plan to do to help people lose weight.

Now if you follow me on any of my other Social Media you’ll know I’m not a Boris fan, but I think I’m pretty open minded and I’m capable of not being a fan of a person but seeing where they make a positive impact. But really Boris, really?

Last year he admitted after he was hospitalised with Covid that his weight was an underlying condition that affected how he reacted to Covid (I know a lot of people not from the UK read this so bit of background- Boris Johnson is our Prime Minister who caught Covid and was taken into hospital with breathing difficulties). The fitness industry has been vocal throughout the pandemic about our importance to the nation, not just with Covid but the Health Service in general would benefit from people being healthier. Obesity is a problem for this country and so combatting that quite rightly should be an objective for the Government.

But how are they combatting this? We’ve seen word of links with Slimming Clubs and now the PM is telling people he’s gone low carb. Seriously. Seriously.

We are all so aware now about how dangerous fads and extreme diets can be for people. Promoting diets that cut out food groups completely or encourage eating in systematic ways without providing any education as to either why that might help them drop some pounds or the effect it might have on them is incredibly irresponsible.

Reality TV stars get called out all the time on Social Media for promoting fads to their followers, but its seems the Government is allowed to to the same in the name of policy?

I wholeheartedly agree with the overall mission statement behind the initiative, but they have access to advisors, surely someone should have thought to give Boris a script or just tell him to shut up.

We need to learn as a nation the basics of the energy balance, that to not put weight on we need to not consume more than we burn. Teach it in schools, create tools that GPs can use that teach it to adults, promote that on TV shows rather than 800 calorie diets that create a media storm to increase ratings. Be responsible, which I’m pretty sure is what Government is meant to be.

Me: Man Down

This week was tough. I needed to complete my February challenge of 56 miles for the month (I had 9 miles to do) and wanted to hit 100km and also run a half with my friend Hollie.

Wednesday we met to go for a 6 mile run, that day I’d not eaten nearly enough and had a busy day, including going for an ill advised lunch time 3km run. I just about managed the evening 6 miles but also completely wiped my energy levels. I spent the next two days trying to refuel and did absolutely limited amounts of activity to recover, but come Saturday it was clear I wouldn’t be able to run. I woke up and my hip and knee were so sore and stiff I was barely able to walk properly, let alone run 13 miles. Deciding to postpone I ended up sleeping a lot on Saturday and generally felt completely wiped out energy wise.

I think the improved weather today made me feel a bit more energetic. A nice long slow walk with a friend round a park made me feel less lethargic and I decided to give a little run a go to get the last couple of km I needed to reach the 100km in February mark. Four very very slow km later I completed that challenge and went home to have a long stretch. A 45 minute Les Mills Stretch class felt needed and made my hip and back feel much better than they have done the last couple of days.

So my lesson for February is I need to focus on my recovery as much as my activity lessons. I know I need to keep increasing my activity levels, that will help me greatly when we can go back to classes and I’m teaching several classes a week again. I don’t want to suddenly go to teaching after barely moving at all for months on end, as I don’t think that would be enjoyable for me Equally however, whilst I do start to increase what I’m doing I also need to make sure I’m eating enough and resting and stretching adequately to ensure I also stay in a good condition.

March is therefore another 100km challenge, a sensible calorie deficit and more mobility work. Hoping the good weather continues to make this feel easier!

So there’s February’s lesson.

Which Camp Do You Sit In?

Recently my consumption of social media has got me back to thinking about something I touched upon in a podcast back in January.

Possibly because I follow a lot of fitness based accounts and pages I feel like there are lots of different messages out there at the moment. I mean they’ve always been out there but Lockdown and the impact of the fitness industry feels like it has made more noticeable- perhaps I’ve just got more time to notice, perhaps people are putting their messages out there more forcibly.

There are accounts pushing weight loss, accounts pushing detoxes, accounts pushing fitness transformations and the ideas around obesity and it’s connection with Covid (even Boris has said he struggled to fight it because he was fat). At the other end of the spectrum there are accounts promoting body positivity, health over size, intuitive eating. Between these two camps (if you like) some overlap in moderation between the two whilst others are firmly in one camp and critical of the other. Trigger Warning is something I’ve recently started to see on posts more frequently, with the notion that someone posting about food or training or body image in a way that disagrees with the reader in any way may trigger some terrible emotional response.

Is it any wonder people get confused about diet and fitness. When there are so many conflicting and emotive messages on a topic someone is already a little confused about anyway they muddy the water.

Personally I tend to agree with both sides of this coin. I don’t believe you should be made to feel like you need to look a certain way or be a certain size or eat a certain way. Equally however, whether you are overweight or not, if you are not happy with something and want to change it in a healthy way then you shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about that and like you are betraying a body positivity movement. Much like feminism shouldn’t mean women who chose to stay at home over becoming a CEO shouldn’t be made to feel like they are betraying women kind, people who want to work towards a physical goal shouldn’t be made to feel bad.

Again, I’d say many fitness professionals would agree – it’s a balancing act. We don’t go up to people in the street and tell them they must work with us to lose weight. People come to us, they have seen our services advertised and they want the service offered. Equally, whilst many PTs these days specialise in the type of work they do, not all our clients are the same. Some may be looking to lose weight, find motivation, need encouragement to stick to workout schedules. Other clients may be the opposite and need help training sensibly or gaining weight. Advice that works for one person could potentially be damaging for another.

Of course that’s where the internet and posting about fitness gets tricky. Generally a post will have a target audience. If it’s about losing weight for instance, the writer really wants to get across the importance of reducing calories. Could someone with a potential eating disorder latch onto that advice? Maybe, in the same way that people who need to lose weight could latch onto something about intuitive eating which could be very useful to someone who needs to move away from calorie counting because it sounds appealing but in actual fact is unlikely to help them lose the weight. We always tend to manage to seek out the information that fits our agenda lets face it.

But this is the point, not everything written on social media will be for you or relate to you or be relevant to you. If you are recovering from something and know certain things could be triggering, removing those types of accounts from your feed until you are in a position to be able to read without feeling a reaction is surely a better move than the writer not writing the post (assuming here it’s a responsible, factual post). If you don’t agree with calorie counting and you are happy with your diet then don’t do it, if you find it useful, do it. Lose weight if you want to, if you don’t, don’t. I do believe that obesity is an underlying health condition that predisposes you to be more adversely affected by certain illnesses. So does smoking and drinking. Whilst I’d always encourage people to look after their health whether they want to exercise or eat a balanced diet is no more of my business as how much they drink or whether they smoke is, unless that is, they make it my business by coming to me as a client.

I also believe education is important. It is everyone’s choice to decide what to do with their body, but I’d like it to be an educated choice and there are many basic blocks of health and fitness and diet that people often do not understand, and in place have a series of myths and misconceptions about food. When people say you should eat and do what you enjoy that’s right, but what if you you enjoy is the food and lack of movement that is causing you health issues, at that point a message which is inspiring to already active people who maybe put too much pressure on themselves and need to be reminded they are enough could be damaging to someone who really does need to make changes and maybe needs more structure.

I think judgement is negative, from both sides of the coin. We need to remember that our message normally has a desired audience, an avatar, yet anyone can see it. Therefore it could potentially affect someone in a way we didn’t mean it to. I don’t think there is much we can do about that but that’s why I prefer a more measured message- a message which gets your point across without dismissing the other side. There is never one right way with diet or fitness, when people in fitness struggle with that notion it’s not hard to see how confusing that would be for consumers.

Understanding points of view other than your own and seeing their merit even if you disagree it’s automatically a bad thing or something that weakens your own standpoint.

Me.

Almost everyone I’ve spoken to recently feels similar to me. Lockdown one, possibly because of the novelty, possibly out of panic, I, like many, trained daily and felt like I’d maintained my fitness to a reasonable degree without the gym.

The mixture of Lockdown fatigue and darker evenings have made it both practically harder to train and harder to get motivated. For me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, I’ve also felt more like comfort eating. The result is my clothes are tight, I don’t feel great, I feel quite stiff and generally not where I want to be.

I’m telling you this because I have decided to document my journey from where I am now to where I want to be (which is nothing super impressive just where I was before Lockdown 1… some four hundred years ago).

With Lockdown and not seeing people as much it’s very easy to think you are the only person in a situation, so I partly want to document my diet and training over the next few weeks to show anyone else feeling a bit like this they are not alone. Equally, I know there is often an instinct when you feel a bit unfit or heavy, to want to do something drastic, or to expect yourself to be where you were previously fitness wise within days. That mindset is demotivating and can make you feel rubbish about yourself and your progress. I hope in documenting where I am it shows that it’s ok to work at the level you are currently at.

What Day Is It?

The bit between Christmas and New Year. The bit where days merge into one, nobody really knows what day it is, what time the shops shut and the fridge is still full of Christmas food meaning the food coma kind of just rumbles on.

This is the week you might well feel a bit rubbish, fat, unfit and generally feel the urge to commit to a month long detox in January where you consume only lemon and water.

Of course in actual reality your body does a pretty good job of ‘detoxing’ itself and actually just eating and training in moderation will make you feel better pretty quickly and be far more enjoyable.

People tend to like extremes. A diet doesn’t work unless we go from whatever size we are to emaciated stick in three days, a training programme doesn’t work if you can’t go from couch to marathon in three sessions. If it doesn’t have a label on it that says natural, vegan friendly and detox on it it isn’t goo to be effective.

These things don’t last though. When was the last time you made a drastic New Years resolution and actually stuck to it?

You know what does last? Finding a nice little routine that works for you.

I love food. I eat a lot. No point in being restrictive – I just ricochet the other way. I also enjoy moving. Running, lifting, classes – movement makes me feel good. So I move.

I’m writing this on an exercise bike in the gym – some people here are clearly working off their Christmas. Me – I felt stiff after a few days of largely sitting and wanted to move. I didn’t need to guilt myself to coming here – I wanted to, I woke up looking forward to it.

This January find yourself something for your body and mind that will make you feel good. Doesn’t matter if there is something my else that would be more ‘effective’ for fat loss or fitness. You’ll stick to the thing you look forward to doing, the thing that you feel great after doing. You won’t stick to the thing you ‘should’ do.

Then next year when Christmas is over (and we are in tier 784) you’ll be heading off to do that thing that makes you feel good for moving and not thinking about what you can do in January to feel less like baby elephant.