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Why Your Calorie Needs Vary By the Day

I know one of the hardest parts of fixing your relationship with food is letting go of the numbers and rigidity. The thought of freedom can be enticing but not knowing how many calories is in something can be scary in the beginning. So I thought it would be important to talk a little about our needs and why it’s important to nourish our bodies, rather than focusing on the calories.

Even in some parts of nutrition school, we are taught that calories in = calories out. To lose or gain one pound, you have to create a deficit or excess of 3,500 calories. Because in a lab, 1 pound = 3500 calories. Again, that’s in a lab where everything is controlled for.

When we’re talking about HUMANS, though, we need to remember we live fluid and changing lives. We wake up and go to bed at different times each day. We have different stressors, make different decisions, and we exercise for different amounts of time (or not at all) some days. My hope with this post is to show you that if you are rigidly calorie counting, there is another way. And counting calories isn’t very efficient, anyway.

How the Environment Affects Us

Part of the problem with wanting to go on a diet, or starting counting calories, is that society tells us we’re not good enough in our current bodies. Society is a big bully and a huge proponent of diet culture. Each week, there’s pretty much a new diet telling you that you have to change your body and to do that, you can only eat xyz. And sadly, many of us fall prey to these beliefs because we are rooted in diet culture. We think that we have to be thin to be “healthy” and we all have to look a certain way. When in reality, diverse body shapes and sizes is normal, and weight does not equal health.

When I’m talking with clients, we talk about “energy” rather than focusing on “calories.” Calories are simply just units of energy. Part of the reason that clients get so stuck on calories is because they like “numbers” and they like control. They like to know exactly how much they’re taking in, so they can do equations in their head. As one can expect, they become really adept and proficient at it, too. They have their “safe” foods and meals and know exactly how much they’re getting because it’s a regular on the menu.

Why Counting Calories Doesn't Work

But do you ever really know exactly? Probably not.

External Influence (Diets)

The first thing I like to share is that nutrition labels are not the end all be all. In fact, the FDA allows some room for error, up to 20% actually. So, if you’re looking at a serving of something thinking you’re getting 100 calories, you could actually be getting 80 or 120. The moral of the story is that it’s futile to hyperfocus and obsess about these numbers because you’re never going to get a completely accurate count. You’re likely eating a different amount of calories each day, which is completely normal. That also leads to variety in food choices and nutrients through your diet.

When you’re eating the same thing over and over, or rotating through safe foods and meals, you’re probably missing out on vital nutrients. The act of following a diet generally means your cutting something out to begin with. Whether it’s low carb, or paleo, or keto, or intermittent fasting, or whatever, you’re changing your eating style based on the rules of this diet. Which means you’re taking something out that you may normally be eating, and you typically aren’t replacing it with anything. This translates to missed nutrients and possible nutritional deficiencies.

Our bodies are smart. We will absorb what we need more of when we need more of it.

More importantly, when we focus on nutrition labels and rules of diet culture, we are eating based on external cues and rules. These are separating us from our internal wisdom about food. The wisdom and intuition that tells us what we really want or how hungry/full we really are. A serving size has no idea how hungry you really are. You may be significantly undercutting your body’s needs if you’re trying to eat by numbers on a piece of cardboard.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”You may be drastically undereating if you’re only sticking to the numbers on a piece of cardboard ” quote=”You may be drastically undereating if you’re only sticking to the numbers on a piece of cardboard “]

Internal Wisdom (Intuitive Eating)

Secondly, no diet out there knows what foods your body wants or needs. You may not even know in the beginning of your journey if you’ve been following food rules for so many years. You may think you want a salad for every meal because you’re accustomed to thinking that way. But, is that truly what you want?

Counting calories (diet mentality) is an external influence, not an intuitive sign of wisdom. It touts that you can only abide by eating a certain amount of calories each day, no matter the circumstances. If you’re sick and you need more energy to heal, you need more calories. Diets don’t know that. Or, if you exercise or have a tough workout, you need more energy to recover. Or, what about if you’re stressed, carrying a baby all day, or on your feet at work? Furthermore, some days you’re just HUNGRIER than others without rhyme or reason.

When you learn to eat intuitively, you accept that each day is different. You make choices based on what food is available, or what you want. Not by what rules say you can and can’t have.

Diets and rules don’t know or understand these individual human needs, because they are focused on society and populations. But you are not a population, you are an individual with specific needs. Some days you need more carbohydrates, or fats, and/or proteins. Or sugar or fiber. Your body will tell you once you learn to trust it and give it unconditional permission. Again, diets and rules can’t know what you need because they’re treating you like a robot on paper.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”#Diets and #foodrules miss out on individual needs because they are focused on society and populations. #Dietculture is not teaching you how to tune in to what YOUR body needs #intuitiveeating ” quote=”#Diets and #foodrules miss out on individual needs because they are focused on society and populations. #Dietculture is not teaching you how to tune in to what YOUR body needs “]

It usually takes some time to get back in touch with your hunger cues, let go of the diet mentality and forget the food rules you’ve lived by for so many years. The act of intuitive eating is an integrated attunement of mind, body and food, and it definitely takes time and practice to get to this point.

I’d love to hear from you,

How do you know when you need more of a certain food? What signs does your body give? For example for me, I know I need more carbohydrates if I just can’t focus. I’ll keep snacking and think of a different thing to eat. Even if I have sufficient protein and fiber for satiation, I need the carbohydrates for satisfaction and brain power. (Literally, they fuel your brain so this makes sense).

List some of the food rules that aren’t doing anything for you. Let’s just throw them out (like, not eating after a certain time or only eating at a certain time, no sugar before noon, etc.)

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  1. It’s scary trying to recover, but I am more afraid of not recovering. I just KNOW that my lack of focus is my bodies way of telling me…CARB up momma! Thank you for this post. It’s so helpful to me as I work on myself and try to lose the rigidity of ED.

  2. I absolutely love what you said- serving size doesn’t know how hungry you are! I just discovered this blog it is amazing.

  3. Wow this is good. I find when I just keep thinking about food and my energy to do things is lagging, I need a combo of fats and carbs. I can’t just do fats, because surprisingly it doesn’t satisfy me, but mix that with carbs, and it feels so good.

    I’m still working on this intuitive eating mindset. I do kind of ‘think’ of calories in my head, and I would love to be at the point of intuitive eating where I don’t judge the amount I’m eating day by day, because each day is so different. Thank you. These posts are ALWAYS a huge huge blessing; I can not say how much they mean.

    1. That’s a great knowledge of interoceptive awareness, Emily! Carbs + fats are so much more satisfying 🙂

  4. I feel like I can’t tell signs for when I need a certain food. I’m still learning those signs which is normal

    The food rule that I truly don’t understand is no carbs with dinner or after 8pm. Considering I threw some cookies in the oven at like 9 pm last night, I clearly don’t do that haha.

    1. These rules fail to recognize that our bodies literally run on carbohydrates and they are necessary for survival.