Calories in calories out is medically true. But it isn’t the answer to weight management or wellness, beauty or survival. We have to ask “why” calories in, otherwise we’d all just fix our math and weigh in somewhere in the perfect zone. Easy peasy!
There are a ga-freaking-zillion strategies out there that are geared toward “helping” us manage our intake and output, in favour of leaner bodies, looking sculpted or petite, or like we are a cute little daisy in an oversized vase.
If we consider where our weight becomes medically optimal, you know, enough to survive but not put any strain on all the moving parts, I’m guessing we will arrive at a half past skinny, and a quarter to lean. No one is going to starve to death if stranded in a forest, desert, plane crash, or strike at the Ben and Jerry’s factory (I am feeling a little snacky as I write this), but also we’re not carrying a LOAD. And optimally we have some muscle tone in there to hold our pieces together and keep our bones from rattling. That’s the sweet spot (FML the puns choose me!).
But there is much more tied into intake and output management than meets the eye, or the plate. And for the record, though many of us know this, not all of us do, overweight isn’t synonymous with lack of effort, often it’s the reverse.
It goes like this:
Somehow we are getting the message that we need more intake than we actually do, so our bodies store that shit. MOST OFTEN, I am gonna go out on a braised shank of lamb here and venture, that “somehow” is emotional (JK about eating baby sheep, not that I’m judging). “Emotional eating” doesn’t necessarily mean eating our pain. We emotionally eat all the time as a culture, and across cultures. We eat to celebrate abundance. We eat to share and connect. We eat our exhaustion, as a sleep or rest alternative. We eat things for nourishment. We eat things for flavour. We have an economy that thrives on selling us convenience, which we need because we are required to maximize output for survival. We eat to feel good. We eat to alleviate stress. And then we try to correct for all of this emotional eating with 1001 ways to conquer diet and nutrition. Maybe there is a board room somewhere of evil strategists, trying to keep us fat and miserable and running on the hamster wheel to burn it off —but let’s say it less malevolent than this, for the sake of argument. A million and one gurus, with their gazillion and one insights, don’t have access to the way it all short circuits for each one of us personally. Calculating your macros and eating for your body type sounds well and good, but it’s not going to solve for the way birthday cake makes you rejoice or the power of a sandwich to get you through the next ten pages of your thesis on the thermal dynamics of protein folding.
When I was a wee girl my mom told me she was going to buy me a chair and place it in front of the cookie cupboard, where I would often park myself, circa 8 or 9 years old, and shovel in hundreds of broken pieces of cheap department store cookies that had collided into a cookie cereal, which I found absolutely heavenly. My sweet tooth was intense, if not discerning. I can remember wistful afternoons of daydreaming that coffee tables were actually made of chocolate, coasters were actually biscuits in disguise. I once ate half a bag of “candy” which turned out to be old brown sugar that had hardened into small lumps. “Thanks for the treat, it was delicious” I declared to my Mom who had walked in from her night on the town and shot me a look of consternation, Dear Lord, what did she dredge up from the bowels of a single mom’s cupboard this time? I was deadly afraid of child-eating witches, but damn that gingerbread house! In fact I think that the lure of rainbow gummies and shimmering lollipops cascading from icing rooftops, infused with the horror being cooked alive pretty much captures my relationship with food as I ventured into adulthood. And though it’s much better now, somewhere inside of me an 8 year old screams out in terror when the chocolate has run out or someone declares that they lost 30 pounds by cutting out sugar.
Which brings me back to our gurus and their plans for me. The eating clean and a hundred other promises for a happily ever after kinda stuff.
Well, when you have been at it long enough, you get really good at outsmarting yourself. I knew the calories in most food groups by the age of nine, so if you tell me no sugar, or eat clean, or don’t eat after 6, or cut out carbs, I will test you, and I will find the loophole. My inner rebel will rise up like Jennifer Lawrence in the woods with a broken arrow and baby sister in jeopardy, and prove to you that I can have zero sugar or carbs, or food so clean it can pass a lie detector and a drug test, and I will still FAIL TO LOSE, or even gain a pound or two. I will win the Hunger Games, friends.
Plans that tell us how to manage diet or exercise at the end of the day are promising to control our fat conversion process. If we are made of muscle our bodies will do it for us. If we are eat only raw, if we eat organic, if we eat keto, if we eat vegan, if we eat super foods, if we do our crunches while suspended in space and thinking about small things.
But they don’t account for our brains. And our hearts. And our hurt. And our confusion. AND OUR FEAR.
Over time our emotional cues to eat have physical implications. If we are overweight our bodies hunger for more calories to maintain. Cue the whole Supersize me experiment here. Bodies become addicted to poison. They send out their own signals in response to familiarity. Sadness says I need comfort. Fear says what if I am deprived? Joy says express me with a feast. Shame says this should be easy. Fear says we must overcome. And all of those fun signals make a feedback loop, which is why I am craving salted caramel right this very second.
So how do we talk our selves out of our programming?
First and foremost, we need to stop fighting ourselves. I estimate that 30 percent of calorie excess happens in that moment we feel want and denial. This creates a compulsive response that basically screams at us to shove it in our face before “mom” says no, or calls us fat, or weak, or tells us we shouldn’t really want it because we are supposed to be a bad-ass, fierce, muscle wielding, impulse-free force of natural beauty (that is inner mom I am talking about).
We have to get rid of our base line shame. The I am inherently flawed, broken, weak, ruinous, failing baseline. Shame is like a hot potato —we can feel it somewhere non-body related, and then hot potato it over to the body, where we try to control it. If we can understand and experience our body as neutral, and stop measuring our worth in calories or pounds, well we are leaps and bounds ahead in terms of undoing the broken calorimeter. Our bodies are “containers”. Not measures of worth. We are not oh so freaking loveable and in control and killing and crushing and fab when we are “down a few” and sorry lumps of uselessness when we are up. That shit needs a garburator. It’s so mean. And it’s so wrong.
Solve for fear. If we stop measuring ourselves in relation to overcoming our bodies, we will feel less fear. Fear does not allow for intentional choice. It works impulsively. And it warps our perception. Once upon a time I taught some group classes on healing the body relationship. It was an eye opener, just looking at the diversity of body types that showed up. Some looked like they had been dusted off of Shape magazine and blown into my classroom. Some looked average. Some were “heavier”. I remember a woman told me that in eight weeks we had erased 34 years of damage. That still sticks to my ribs. I remember another woman bursting into tears when we did an exercise involving drawing your imagined size on a piece of paper, then standing inside it and having someone else draw you. She was half her imagined size. The point of the exercise was not to exalt her smallness, but to illustrate the role of fear in perception.
We are gonna have to give a LOT of love to that little kid who is starving for affection, nurturing, kindness, play and rest, because that is the only way s/he is going to stop sabotaging, screaming for candy, and feel safe eating less than the whole bag of Doritos.
I am never going to say to a client that s/he should be happy with where s/he is at, or settle for being a size blah blah blah when s/he wants to be a size blah blah blah, or have a body fat ratio of blah or a six pack that is not drinkable. Because again it’s personal to you and your experience. Healthy matters. When your aesthetic desire either compromises your health, or is a manifestation of ill health then we have stepped out of the “betterment” zone. But otherwise, if it’s important to you, then it’s worth pouring some TLC and support on it. If your clothes fit better and you feel better at size blah, even though your buds think you are a skinny bitch or a muscular bastard or a muscular bitch or a skinny bastard, you doing you, is the only way.
To this end, it is worthwhile CONSIDERING what your standard of beauty is doing for you. Is it serving you, or is it just punishing and hurtful? I direct you to an article I read in Marie Claire some years back about a culture where the standard of beauty is, or was then, cascading rolls of fat and shimmering silver stretch marks. Now the article itself was a troubling account of force feeding young Mauritanian girls that provided a startling juxtaposition to the eating disorders of young women in Western culture. What stayed with me was an image of some women friends belly laughing at the preposterousness of liposuction, when they can’t manage to keep on the layers that make them the town’s “hot bod”. Digest that for a moment.
If you, like me, fall prey now and again to a “Victoria Secret/Calvin Klein underwear model” standard of perfect, and find yourself coming up short and wide, I invite you to see those women laughing at our plight, and laughing with us in spirit.
EAT HAPPY THOUGHTS.
And if for future musings, I have made y’all cognizant of just how often I mention dessert, well it’s because, while I do eat my fair share of veggies, my sweet spot is, for the record, still pretty sweet.
— Love Erin
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