Here’s why we need to stop talking about the calorie deficit.
We know weights don’t make girls bulky. And we know cutting carbs won’t make you skinny. We know protein builds muscle. We have access to a wealth of information that is constantly hyperbolised into the dreaded blanket statement: caloric deficit.
I get it.
To lose weight you need a calorie deficit. No fad diet, no corners cut. Yet the amount of times I scroll through my newsfeed to see these words plastered over captions like they are gold dust.
We need to stop catering the fitness industry to society’s obsession with women being smaller. Because our new generation is armed with scientific fact, with respectable sources, with “health,” and they are fighting a losing battle.
We have replaced “skinny” teas with science, but this only validates the toxic narrative that health is defined by our weight. Balance is preached as if it begins and ends with your ratio of protein to carbs; no mention of balance between mental and physical health.
Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Around 75% of those affected by an eating disorder are female. In a world with such a fractious relationship with food, calorie counting is no longer a tool for health purposes. It’s a weapon.
At 15, where past generations had the sixth-formers to compare themselves to, I had fitness models. We’d sit at break sharing pictures of thigh gaps, demonising hip dips. We battled not only acne and bullies, but body dysmorphia from a constant drip feed of photo-shopped, unregulated images masquerading as fitness.
As parents still signed off text messages with their names, and only used Instagram to post pictures of last night’s dinner, we had a whole new playground of mirror selfies and DMs. Girl’s swing-sets and slides were replaced with soft-pornographic images of girls with tiny waists and rounded hips captioned #fitness.
As I grew up, the murkiness of this underworld became clearer. I unfollowed most of these accounts and replaced them with people I admired, people who loved exercise and who spoke of balance. They spoke out against fad diets and armed us with facts about nutrition and exercise.
From them, I learnt about my metabolism. I knew all about NEAT; if I wanted to lose weight but not slow my metabolism, I needed to keep up my Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, meaning I needed to walk everywhere, and keep moving. I knew I needed protein, to be able to train hard and recover, and to stay full.
Most importantly, I knew about calories, and my plate would look like a pie chart of numbers in my head. I saw vegetables as safe. Because I could eat them and my plate would look abundant but my calories would be barely dented. I knew the calories in the cheese I wouldn’t put on my pasta and in the butter I’d scrape off my toast.
It’s no longer the fitness models in bikinis with photoshopped waists dictating to us, it’s the health professionals and knowledgable trainers. And it’s the role models who talk of performance, strength and science. And the influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers, who are in it for the right reasons.
Knowledge is power, and these role models have power over young minds.
They arm young people with the knowledge, the weapon, and the history of drip fed “fitspo” pulls the trigger. We are left defenceless in a world that tells us not only to take up less space, but exactly how to do it “healthily.”
Search online about the dangers of a caloric deficit, and you won’t see much in the sphere of mental health. This normalisation of restriction has built a culture of self-hate. In my generation, anxiety is more common than a cold, self-hate is shared like faith, and though I digress, it is not a crisis that is occurring in isolation from this industry.
We validate our need for this knowledge with fear-mongering around the rise of obesity, and its countless health risks. And to this I ask you, can we rebuild our broken relationship with food by giving it numerical value?
At 21, I’ve fallen in and out of love with fitness more times than I can count. From rowing training eight times a week with school, to hating my body in all of its different sizes along the way, I’ve settled into a regime of strength training as a newly qualified personal trainer. I follow the respectable trainers, I’ve ditched the fitspo. I preach self love, and I don’t count calories. And yet daily, my brain can’t help but estimate whether I’m in a deficit, and celebrate when I fall into one.
I’ve been indoctrinated because my mind was so vulnerable when I first faced the myriad of half-truths that is Instagram. These posts preaching the calorie deficit as the only scientifically proven way to lose weight may not be to blame; but we need to recognise that they do not exist in isolation from the toxic diet-culture that demands the need for this weight loss in the first place.
I am one of the first adults born of the Insta-era and this is a call to arms. Calorie counting is a weapon more times over than it is a tool. It is a double-edged sword, masquerading as a tool of health. And yet profiting by fuelling the toxic narrative that women must take up less space.