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. 

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.

Christmas Over Indulgence

It’s Christmas. Christmas means food right… and by the end of a few days of eating feeling like we’ve massively over indulged.

Now, Christmas or not, we all have days when we over indulge – whether that be food, alcohol or both.  It shouldn’t be a case of trying to never do that because that would make life pretty miserable.  We can however choose to respond more positively to these over indulgences so we don’t sabotage our results in the long term.

So what do you do if you feel like you’ve massively over indulged to stop yourself feeling rubbish?

Do drink more water

Depending on how you over indulged you may be dehydrated, but regardless extra water will make you feel fresher.

Don’t do extra exercise

Avoid using exercise as a punishment for over eating as this will create a negative association with training, plus if you have a hangover exercise isn’t really what you want to be doing.

Do use the extra calories to fuel your next workout

Whilst you don’t want to add extra training in you could use those extra calories to push yourself harder in your next scheduled workout and come out feeling really good, or you could take yourself on a long walk to get some fresh air, sunlight and move a bit which almost always makes you feel better.

Don’t starve yourself

Punishing yourself by drastically reducing your calories in the days after will create a negative cycle of eating.  You could look to slightly reduce your calorie intake for a few days subsequently (couple of hundred calories max) but reducing what you eat dramatically to make amends will only make you feel worse.

Do eat nutrient rich / dense foods the next day

Eat foods that will both fill you up and make you feel good the next day, making you feel better without starving and allowing you to mentally get back on track.

Don’t skip meals

By the same token don’t purposefully skip meals to try and compensate.

Do Move on

One bad meal or day doesn’t define your diet overall, so rather than punish yourself for it look at it as a day / meal you enjoyed and focus on the next day / meal instead.

Don’t scrap the rest of the week

Try moving on straight away instead of saying well I may as well start again Monday now.  This essentially ensures damage limitation.

Eating Over Christmas

We often get stressed about what to eat over Christmas. Parties, drinks, meals out, mince pies and the seemingly never ending stream of food on Christmas Day itself can create a feeling of guilt and overindulgence which makes us feel fat and wretched.

When you think about it, Christmas is one day, three if you count Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. Yet we often spend the whole of December muttering about how much we’ve eaten and how much we are going to need to go on a diet come January. There are various ways you can approach food over the festive season, whether you give up all pretense of eating anything that resembles a vegetable on the day you open the first door of your advent calendar or continue to strictly count every calorie berating yourself for the mince pie you accidently ate last Tuesday.

Now either of these might work for you and if you want to do them you are free to do so, we all suit different ways of eating. But there is such a thing as the middle ground.

Do you want to abstain everything you would enjoy over the month of December? Probably not, but equally even the most level headed person would probably feel some guilt over eating like an unsupervised child in a sweetshop for four weeks straight. But what about picking certain days to forget the tracking (the three big days, those days when you’ve events planned) and during the rest of the time eating normally.

Now I get to the idea of eating normally – because when I say eating as normal, that doesn’t mean not having those Christmas treats- because those treats can be part of your normal diet. Whether it be Christmas or any other time of the year having flexibility in your eating is the way you will most likely see success and find you working towards your goals.

That’s not to deny that Christmas can be a more challenging than other points of the year. Maybe you need to put some extra strategies in place to help you eat normally and not go mad. Perhaps you have a big brunch before that last minute shopping trip to avoid the need to stop and grab high calorie fast food options, perhaps you decide what days you’ll have that creamy Christmas coffee instead of your normal black coffee rather than replacing every coffee with a Christmas alternative. If you have lots of celebrations planned (less likely this year lets face it) maybe you pick some to not drink to reduce your alcohol calories of hangover food feasts. These type of tactics to help you stick to your goals can help at any point of the year though, so shouldn’t be thought of as specifically Christmas related.

So my diet message for Christmas is, think of this time of the year as no different from any other. Some days you will want to relax your focus and eat ALLL THE FOOD, but if you eat normally all the days around that you can still reach your goals. A few days a month of not eating within your calorie range will not undo everything – at any time of the year.

If you try and take away the mental association we tend to have of overeating and Christmas going hand in hand we can enjoy the festive period without feeling like we need to repent in January.

When what you eat does matter

I wrote earlier this week about how calories matter most when it comes to weight. That how you make up those calories is not as important.

Today I want to almost contradict that and talk about what types of food you eat does make a difference.

I’m not changing my message. The calories you consume still matter the most. But, if you are going to stick within a calorie goal, how you get those calories will define the quantity of food you get to eat.

Because you could have some quite high calorie foods that in terms of density don’t equate to very much. Equally you could eat foods that are much more dense for their calories, eat the same amount of calories but far more food.

Of course you wouldn’t want to never eat the high calories foods (they tend to be the foods we crave more) but you equally if you are trying to stay within a calorie goal, you want to eat foods that you will find filling and satisfying. Plus, as much as it upsets me, if you only eat chocolate and cake for a few meals you do eventually start to crave a vegetable!

So if you stay within your calorie goal you will be able to see results and on a base level how you get those calories doesn’t matter, but once you have the foundations of your calories in place you can start to think about what type of foods allow you to eat in quantities that satisfy you and make you feel good whilst staying on track.

Permission To Eat

How many times have you not eaten a meal or snack because you ate too much the day before or because you haven’t trained today or you’ve been really lazy?

So you skip a meal or eat the lowest calorie thing you can find to compensate.

Then later, when you’re either really hungry because you’ve not eaten or you really want to eat certain foods because you now feel bad and want comfort food, you eat all the foods you enjoy but which also make you feel bad because they are ‘naughty’.

Then the next day the cycle begins again.

Or you are sticking really closely to a low calorie diet and creating a 500 calorie a day deficit.  You do this for 30 days creating a 15,000 calorie deficit.  But it’s hard to stick to, you always crave your favourite foods.  You get to a weekend away, and you’ve been so so good recently so you think what the hell and eat anything and everything all weekend.  Now you have 5,000 calories a day for 3 days, which is the same amount of calories that you just spent a month creating a deficit of.

You’ve deprived yourself so much that you feel you have to have a blow out and the blow out almost cancels out the progress.

Both of those situations are linked to how we view food; good and bad foods, naughty foods, how we deserve or don’t deserve food, how some foods should be avoided or we need to earn higher calories foods.

The problem with thinking about and labeling food in this way is your emotions affect what you eat and what you eat affects how you feel.

In other words we need to not feel guilt when we eat certain foods or certain amounts and accept that food is something that we use for energy.  We can enjoy it and should enjoy it and yes, depending on the situation, we do also need to be aware of calorie values and how much or little we consume.

However labeling food does not help us, equally telling ourselves we much do a certain amount of activity to earn food is also damaging to our own self worth.

You need to eat a base number of calories every day for energy even if you stay in bed all day.  Telling yourself you do not deserve to eat certain foods because you’ve not trained much is equally as bad for your own self worth as feeling bad about eating certain foods.

In finding a way of eating and training that you enjoy and is sustainable removes the guilt and the urges to binge and allows you to feel happy with your diet and nutrition routine.

We need to give ourselves unconditional permission to eat.

 

 

 

 

Training and Nutrition: Lockdown Edition

So here in the UK we are now coming up to a week into lockdown and a couple of weeks of concerted social distancing.  This has without a doubt had a dramatic impact on so many aspects of our lives.  I briefly did a blog on working last week but being a fitness related blog I wanted to take a moment to talk about how I’m approaching my fitness during this whole thing.

Obviously everyone will be different and depending what equipment you have at home and what your goals are how you approach your training and diet right now will vary.

For me, like a lot of people I would imagine, I have no equipment at home, very little space indoors and my garden is not really suitable for exercise (it’s all gravel) although there is a car park which I can make use of on the grounds.

So with that in mind I’ve decided to approach my training by forgetting about maintaining strength or fitness, forgetting about trying to improve in any particular way.  Instead I’m focusing on just moving and using moving in a way to feel good, stay mobile and benefit my mental health.

My general plan of action is to do a little yoga flow in the morning, go for a short run at some point to get some fresh air (literally 2- 3 km or some intervals / sprints/ pyramids) at lunch time and then do either some body weight training fro 2-30 minutes or an online class such as Les Mills On Demand in the evening.  This does mean I’m doing much less each day in terms of exercise but I am still keeping myself ticking over and feeling good.

Stretching and mobility work is going to be really important.  I’m sitting a lot more and my new set up of home working is not good for my posture so it’s vital that I stretch more often to avoid discomfort.

My real challenge is going to be my diet.

I normally walk a lot- I do 25,000 steps or so without trying a day.  Last week not only did I train a lot less but i also moved a lot less in general.  My step count was closer to 5,000 steps.

I’m therefore burning fewer calories.  So i know I’m going to need to eat less.  I can’t control not being able to go to the gym.  I can’t replicate my training at home.  I can’t move as much as normal with one opportunity to walk or run each day.  I can control how much I eat.

So I’ve tried to cut my calorie intake by around a fifth.  The first couple of days that was tough but I am moving less so I’m not lacking in energy from it.  This is the strategy I know that will stop me feeling like a potato by the end of lockdown because I’ve done much less than normal and eaten the same or even more .

So in a nutshell that’s my plan – it might evolve, maybe it will change but right now I have a strategy to help me feel like I’m drifting aimlessly or getting wound up because I cannot replicate my normal routine.

What’s your plan of action for the next few weeks?

 

 

Overwhelm

This year has been tough so far, I’ve been stressed an because of that I’ve found myself training less and eating chocolate like it’s the only food on the planet.  At first it was lack of time stopping me training.  I normally do most of my sessions on my lunch breaks at work but I’ve been busy and kept thinking if I just work through my lunch today I can catch up.  Of course I never did catch up but I have got myself completely out of the habit of training.  I normally eat chocolate quite frequently anyway, that’s fine, it fits into my diet perfectly well but as I’ve been more and more stressed I’ve turned to it more and more, it’s a comfort food thing I suppose.

The issue is eating well and training are anchors in my life.  When I am in my normal routine of a short training session most days and getting some good meals in me along side some chocolate I feel good, I feel capable of dealing with stress and juggling lots of roles.

So falling out of these habits because of stress kind of creates a never ending circle where I’m not doing the thing that prevents stress because I am stressed.  Not great, especially as I suffer from anxiety and so keeping track of the anchors that make you feel good is really important.  As an added stress on top of this is that because I’ve been eating more and training less I’ve also put on some weight, whilst I’m still not overweight or dramatically busier my clothes feel tighter and I feel less comfortable, this of course doesn’t help when you already don’t feel great.

None of this is uncommon, lots of people have these struggles.  They are perfectly valid, we lead high stress lives these days and it’s easy to end up a bit overwhelmed and a bit crap.

For me I always think it’s bonkers that you’re a fitness instructor, so you know exactly what you need to do to fix it, because you advise and support other people with this regularly, but that knowledge doesn’t always equate to making things easy.  I mean most of us know we need to burn more calories than we consume to lose weight, simple concept, not simple to do.  Most things in life are really quite simple at their core, it’s the application that is the thing that trips us up.

The thing is it’s ok to fall into a this cycle but you do need to be able to pull yourself back out of it too.

So how do you pull yourself out of a cycle where you are struggling with your training / nutrition?  Small changes, focusing on doing small simple things that you know will make you feel better over time.  I’m not talking bubble baths and face mask style self care, I’m talking doing the easy practical things that will make you feel more purposeful and on track.

My small things for this week are:

  • Track calories for the week to see where I’m actually at with food consumption
  • Drink 4 litres of water a day
  • Take my lunch break very day regardless and go down to the gym and train for 20 mins
  • Stretch every day
  • Get in at least one long walk this week

I’m not expecting at the end of the week for these things to have magically made me feel amazing, but I think that if I do these things I’ll feel better than I do right now and that is a step in the right direction.

 

Why Your Diet May Be Like The Gulf War

I remember one evening from my childhood, my nan and grandad were babysitting and we’d stayed up late to watch a Disney film (I want to say the Little Mermaid) and after the film the news came on.  The coverage was about the Gulf War.

I’d guess that meant this was around 1990 so I would have been around eight.  Eight year old me watched the news about this war (with a limited concept of what war meant that was basically confined to the two World Wars) and imagined bombs would soon start falling just like the Blitz.  What I vividly remember confusing me most however was what golf balls would have to do with a war.

This is what happens when you watch or listen to things where your understanding is limited and you put two and two together coming up with twelve.

It’s an extreme example, but in reality how many little misunderstandings over the years have crept into your brain and now exist, as ‘facts’ when they are actually not true at all.

Carbs are bad for you, eating carbs after 6pm will make you put on weight, fat is bad for you, lifting weights will make you bulky.

You think you understand how to eat and train to reach your goals, and on the whole you probably do, but perhaps there’s something in your head that you’ve just misunderstood, something that you are doing which you think is helping but is actually hindering your progress.

Often when having a chat with clients about their diet and setting some goals to work towards, the client will go away and make those changes but weeks later still be clinging onto an idea of something else they also should or shouldn’t be doing, largely because it has a mythical ‘fact’ status in their mind.

So perhaps they’ll have worked all week on hitting a calorie deficit and eating a certain amount of protein (agreed goals), but then even though they’ve done this be upset with themsleves because they don’t feel their macro split is exactly right (idea stuck in the head that precise macro splits are vitally important and not hitting that split means all the calorie deficit wins are pointless).

It takes time and effort to retrain yourself to not revert back to the misconceptions you have lived with for many years, but if you think about it my ridiculous misunderstanding of the word Gulf and Golf is no more ridiculous than some of the ideas we have developed over the years about how we should eat and move.