I was 15 when I realized the true meaning of a calorie: evil, awful things that suck the life out of you. I was 15 when I understood that part of the transition from girl to woman was freaking out over the amount of calories consumed in a day, checking nutrition labels and going on diets. And I was 15 that it hit me that gaining weight was bad and losing it was good, regardless of your size.
I was 16 when I developed an eating disorder.
During my sophomore year health class, my teacher assigned us a project to determine whether we would gain or lose weight over the next year. To do so, we kept a log of our calorie intake for a full week. I discovered that I should expect to put on a substantial number of pounds. My teacher then asked the class to find ways to cut out foods and lower our daily intake (which he suggested should be 2,000 calories regardless of level of activity, size, etc.) in order to ensure we didn't gain weight.
Of course, my teacher didn't take into consideration our physical, mental and social wellbeing or any other aspects that go into our overall health. It was a black and white kind of lesson -- no one should ever gain weight. Fat was to be feared.
Homemade cookies don't have calories, right?
I decided to turn calorie counting into part of my daily routine, something to last much longer than one semester. I started labeling foods as "bad" and keeping a calorie log. I began measuring my cereal to make sure I was only getting the recommended serving size and avoiding going out to eat anywhere that didn't list calories on the menu.
To sum up, I became obsessed. If cutting down a hundred of calories a day was good, why not cut down even more?
Each week I would create a new goal. I started with 1,200 calories but soon started discovering new ways to slash calories like replacing milk with water in my cereal and eating salad without dressing. By the time I was at 900 calories a day, I could barely get through a few classes without getting dizzy in the hallways or snapping at friends. I was miserable and tired, but it was okay because I was losing weight and fast.
As most eating disorders do, mine snowballed out of control. I weighed myself multiple times a day, forming a sick relationship with my scale. I stopped getting my period and exercised relentlessly. I saw multiple psychologists and a nutritionist, but no one could pinpoint exactly what the root of my disease was.
While realistically I know it wasn't just one thing -- which never really is the case -- I do believe that a large part of my obsession with being thin came from calorie counting.
And I really don't think it's something people should do to try and lose weight. At least not young, impressionable girls.
I’ve heard too many teenagers complain about how many calories were in one cookie or how terrible a spoonful of peanut butter is. Instead of conversations being about how amazing that triple chocolate cake was, they’re about how the next day will be dedicated to working off all those extra calories. It’s depressing that a number takes all enjoyment out of eating.
So here's my proposal: Stop counting calories. I know it can help people with weight loss, but it also is one of the first signs of an eating disorder. Without proper guidance, it can spin out of control, and the truth is, there are other ways to monitor your eating, like making sure you eat a lot of vegetables and fruits and avoiding too much fast food. Or learning portion control. Or eating certain foods in moderation.
Being too rigid about your diet may not lead to anorexia, but it's likely to cause stress, obsessive thoughts and unnecessary drama. And now, with apps that help users track calories, so that you can literally record every single calorie by searching nutritional info for foods at supermarkets and restaurants, it's even easier for calorie counting to spiral out of control.
Why take the risk? Wouldn’t you rather pay attention to how your body feels and what it needs rather than being preoccupied with a stupid (and oftentimes inaccurate) number on the back of a package?
I'm not suggesting that everyone should start living in a fairytale, pretending that calories don't count or implying that having six candy bars and an entire pizza is a good habit to form, but worrying about whether lunch was 342 or 324 calories is emotionally draining and ineffective when trying to lose weight. It's just another way to feel not good enough.
So to any high schools who still assign projects like these, please stop. Young, insecure teenage girls already deal with enough pressures to be perfect. They're already told they're worthless by the media, society, and sometimes friends and boyfriends. Having a teacher at school -- the place they're supposed to be safe and secure at – imply that they're going to get fat and that they should be very scared and hyperaware of their fatness by implementing half-baked projects is irresponsible and plain old fucked up.
Maybe instead of encouraging calorie counting and weight watching, we can start promoting self-confidence and an awareness of the beauty of the body and all of its wonders. Then, instead of girls like me wishing her ribs stuck out just a bit more, they'll treat their bodies with respect and love.
I don't care if it makes me unpopular: Numbers, including calories and weight, aren't and never will be what determines good health.