Toxic Diet Culture?

Today I saw a post referring to calorie counting / losing weight (dieting) as toxic.

Toxic!

In 2022 can we please stop referring to anything we don’t personally like as toxic? Because whilst calorie counting may not be right for everyone that doesn’t mean it’s toxic. same with weight loss.

Now, quick caveat, there are people for whom calorie counting isn’t a good idea, it can indeed for some become obsessive and be damaging. For those people yes calorie counting is not to be encouraged.

But for many calorie counting is the most simple straight forward, cost effective and practical way of creating a calorie deficit – which if you want to lose weight – is what you need to achieve.

So let’s reframe the notion that calorie counting is toxic. Calorie counting is simply a method of tracking energy intake which for some people will work well but whom for some may not be beneficial.

Swimming is a very good way to exercise. Except not for me, because I can’t swim. Does that mean swimming is toxic and a bad way to train, because it doesn’t suit me? Pretty sure everyone reading said no in their head just then.

Very few things in life are in themselves toxic, our relationship with something may well be toxic, that doesn’t mean it is also toxic for everyone else.

Diets get a bad rap, because traditionally they’ve been seen as restrictive and not sustainable. That’s really not the case these days. Most coaches will encourage sensible calorie deficits and won’t suggest you cut out food groups or stop eating your favourite foods.

Diets are just using a bit more energy than you consume each day to create a physical change in your body. Unless you’re doing that to please someone other than you it is not toxic.

Certain things might be a bit triggering to us personally, that doesn’t mean they’re automatically toxic, I think it’s a bit unhelpful to ourselves not to recognise that, as it puts all the responsibility for our reactions onto society, when in reality we can’t control what other people say or do so we have to instead look to control how we chose to react to it.

Why do people doubt the energy balance equation?

As a PT and group fitness instructor I frequently talk about the Energy Balance Equation.  How if you want to lose weight you must have more energy going out than in, if you want to gain weight it’s the opposite and to maintain you want them to be about equal.

It’s essentially the base of any nutrition knowledge, and the first thing anyone needs to get to grips with if they want to work on their nutrition.

Macros, meal timings, supplements.  They all have a place sure, but if you haven’t got your calories in v calories out in the right place what time you eat dinner, the amount of protein or fat you eat or whether you take BCAAs or won’t make much difference to your success.

Equally, people will say I had massive success with this way of eating / this method / this diet, and essentially behind each of these methods the fundamental reason for success is the individual found a way of controlling their calories in v. out that was appropriate to their goals and which suited their lifestyle.  It can be dressed up in many different ways but that fundamental lies behind every successful method of actively managing food intake.

So why are we so reluctant to believe this?

Almost universally, at some point of another, most people have chosen to believe that either the reason they are not reaching their goals or are reaching their weight management goals is something beyond calories.

No again, I’m not saying that other factors cannot help refine a diet.  If you are managing your energy balance well the types of food you get your energy from, when you eat, extra supplements can help you improve energy levels and performance.  They do this however building upon the foundation that is you eating the right amount of food for your gapl each day.

If you are over eating by 1,000 calories every day whether you eat those calories at 6 am or 6 pm makes no difference.  Whether the calories come from avacado and lettuce or Nutella on biscuits makes no difference.  Your body shape makes no difference, your genetic make up makes no difference.  You are eating too many calories for your goal.  Energy in v. energy out is like gravity- it’s a fact.

So why do we self sabotage on this so often?  Because actually, when it’s this simple, we all have the ability to successful manage our food intake in line with our goals.

I think  it comes down to two main reasons:

Firstly, people selling their ideas means that very often the calories truth is hidden behind a gimmik.

We buy into products or brands or books and theories that promise us results.  In order for those brands to stand out and or you to go to them specifically they need to have a selling point- the thing that makes their methods work.

For that they need to sell you lots of reasons beyond calories as to why their methods work.  You do their diet, you lose weight or gain weight and so accept that those methods must be the reason.  But behind all of these diets there is still always the energy balance equation, and whilst other factors can also provide benefit you still need that energy balance to be right.  What these brands don’t do is actively promote calories as the key.  They let is silently do the work in the background and let their ‘unique selling point’ take the credit.  Essentially they are like a really bad boss taking credit for what their team does as the ground work!

The second factor is our own emotional response.  It’s so much easier for us to think if i can get this one really sexy aspect of my diet right everything else will fall into place.  Why else do diet pills appeal to people – you take this one pill, make no other changes and you’ll see results.  We like that idea.  If I add this supplement that will make the difference.  Because accepting that actually we aren’t eating enough or are eating too much means we need to actually work and make real changes to what we eat.

We also often tend to over estimate (for people looking to gain weight) or under estimate (for people looking to lose weight) how much we eat in terns of calories I find.  That’s why tracking, whilst unsexy compared to intuitive eating, is useful.  Again though it’s harder work and seems very old school and boring next to I eat what my body tells me it wants.  Now i’m not saying doing that is a bad thing – but you have to know how to listen to your body to do that, and if you aren’t already getting the results you want I’d suggest you don’t yet know how to listen to your body.  The way to learn is unfortunately the very boring learn about calories in v. out until you find the right balance for you – once you’ve grasped that eating intuitively and not tracking becomes very possible because you do then have a better idea of your energy (by which I mean calories) levels.

We all want to think we are different.  That calories might be your issue but mine is my metabolism, mine is how I react to certain foods, my blood type and so on.  It might be to a certain degree – but that thing is in reality going to be such a small factor in comparison to your energy in v. out.  So for many of us is our issue is we are focusing on something that makes a 1% difference to our diet instead of focusing on something that can have a massive difference.  We then assume that because we aren’t seeing our desired results we need to delve even deeper into our biology and chemical makeup to see results.

The best way to get results is to stop bullshitting yourself.

Workout what you burn.

Workout what you consume.

Change those to get the result you want.

It’s boring.  It’s simple.

That’s why we always look for other answers.  We assume it’s so boring and simple and obvious it cannot be the key.

We literally cannot see the wood for the trees.