My boot camp class is running a “summer shape-up” program that asks participants—among other things—to track their daily calorie intake. I don’t think I’m willing to track my calories—I wouldn’t call that “dieting” per se, but I think it might cause some of the same negative effects as dieting: obsession, denial, etc.
But when my boot camp instructor sent all of us a calorie calculator that determines how many calories we should eat a day, I couldn’t resist taking a look at the thing.
Recently I had a “discussion” with a friend named Miley about how many calories we should all get a day. Miley told me she was trying to stick to 1500 calories a day to lose weight, and she happily admitted that she considered that dieting—because it would be difficult to stick with those kind of numbers over the long haul.
Miley was unhappy because she wasn’t losing weight, and I told her I thought she was getting TOO FEW calories because, when we reduce calories that much, our bodies freak out and start storing calories rather than burning them. This is what started our debate—and my research—about how many calories are appropriate for a healthy and active adult woman.
When I looked at the calorie calculator shared by my boot camp instructor told me that I needed 2500 calories a day to maintain my present weight. That seemed about right to me, but I was also frustrated because the options for my activity level didn’t really fit my life. The choices were as follows:
Sedentary: At work—you work in an office. At home—you’re usually sitting, reading, typing or working at a computer. Exercise—you don’t exercise regularly.
Light Activity: At work—you walk a lot. At home—you keep yourself busy and move a lot. Exercise—you participate in light exercise or take long walks.
Moderate Activity: At work—you are very active much of the day. At home—you rarely sit and do heavy housework or gardening. Exercise—you exercise several times a week and push yourself pretty hard.
Very Active: At work—you hold a labor-intensive job such as construction worker or bicycle messenger. At home—you are very active with heavy lifting and other rigorous activities. Exercise—you participate in physical sports such as jogging or mountain-biking each day.
But I don’t really fit into any of these categories.
I exercise every day for at least forty-five minutes, which puts me in the “very active” category, but I don’t “hold a labor-intensive job such as construction worker or bicycle messenger” or do “heavy lifting and other rigorous activities” at home. So I can’t really be considered “very active” according to the definition above.
But the “moderate activity” category is for people who only “exercise several times a week” and “do heavy housework or gardening” at home. I exercise more than several times a week, but thankfully I also almost never do heavy housework at home.
This left me feeling unsure about this calculator, so I decided to try a different one.
***AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY***
The calorie calculator at the American Cancer Society website gives me better choices for designating my activity level:
Sedentary: Activities of daily living only (dressing, cooking, walking to and from the car, etc.). No purposeful exercise.
Light Activity: Activities of daily living, plus the equivalent of walking 2 miles (or about 4,000 steps) per day.
Moderate Activity: Activities of daily living, plus activities like brisk walking (15-20 minutes per mile), dancing, skating, leisurely bicycling, golfing, doubles tennis, mowing the lawn, or yoga 3-5 days per week.
Heavy Activity: Activities of daily living, plus moderate exercise or vigorous exercise (jogging, running, swimming, singles tennis, soccer, basketball, digging, carpentry) most days of the week.
Exceptional Activity: Activities of daily living, plus intensive training for an exercise event like a marathon, triathlon, century bike ride, etc.
I chose “Heavy Activity,” and this calculator told me me I need 4100 calories a day to maintain my current weight.
Call me crazy, but that doesn’t seem right.
Even if I change my activity level to “moderate activity,” the American Cancer Society says I need almost 3500 calories a day.
Confused, I went to a third calorie counter—this one at Fitness Magazine—that had bascially the same categories as the American Cancer Society:
I chose “heavy” activity here, and this calculator told me I needed almost 2900 calories a day.
To recap, the CalorieCount.com calculator told me I needed 2500 calories per day, the American Cancer Society calculator told me I needed 4100 calories per day, and the Fitness Magazine calculator told me I needed 2900 calories per day.
Which brings me to my point—how can we possibly consider these calculators reliable if they all give us such vastly different information?
And if we know that these calculators are just making educated guesses—and wildly different ones at that—then shouldn’t we also know that caloric intake is much less important than good old fashioned healthy living? And by healthy living I mean eating until you feel satisfied, sticking to mostly whole foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep and water, and exercising every day.
I’ve long believed—in fact, this blog was created because of this belief—that our American obsession with dieting is one of the leading causes of the obesity epidemic. For it’s only when we obsess about our diet and deny ourselves regular cravings that we eat too much. If we listen to our bodies and eat when we are truly hungry—rather than just when we want to feed our emotions—and stop when we start to feel full, it’s pretty unusual to take in too many calories. And the variations in these so-called calorie counters prove just that to me: the more we try to turn eating into a controlled science, the more unhealthy—mentally and physically—we will be.