Taint by Numbers

How old are you? How tall are you? How much do you earn? How much did your car cost? What grade did you get? How many steps did you take today? How much do you weight? How many calories are in that?

As humans we assign value to things. It’s been a practice as long as we have been counting. How else can we make sure trades are equal or know who is more successful? Humans need resources to survive and we often define success based off of this. Those with more resources have a better chance of surviving and providing for their offspring. Nowadays In modern societies these “resources” are most commonly money.

But somewhere along the line, the numbers took over. Somewhere along the way our brains took a wrong turn and lead us Tumbling towards a dangerous obsession. Throw in biological predisposition and the right environmental triggers and you have a recipe for mental illness.

You could write novels on the societal implications of money (and our fixation with other numbers for that matter) but I’m going to focus on the numbers central to most eating disorder – calories and weight.

Do you think people in the Middle Ages counted calories? Do you think our caveman ancestors even knew what a calorie was?! No.

This is kind of ridiculous to think of. (I will do more research into the evolutionary psychology theories here and maybe update more). But it’s just crazy to think. As we evolved, our brains did too – And now, In developed nations, most often with access to sufficient resources, our brains don’t solely have to focus on surviving. Our complex modern society introduces us to diet culture and unrealistic beauty standards, where Our values are all again tied to numbers.

A calorie is a unit of energy. Try saying that and see what happens.

20 low energy dinner ideas” – sounds weird right? Well for good reason.

My impression Is that the our fixation on calories and diet culture arises in part, from a twisted cocktail of societal misinformation – fuelled by the ability to easily share anything you want to on the internet (not unlike Im doing myself…) , unforgiving circumstances, and low priority status.

The sobering result being both obesity and eating disorders prevalent at rates never seen before.

  • Up to 70 million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders. (NEDA).
  • (Both articles are interesting reads by the way!)
  • Society influences us to a degree many of us don’t recognize (I didn’t until I started studying social psychology more in depth). Our beliefs, our behaviours and our values, to name a few, are all shaped by the society to which we belong. Social influence is inextricably linked to the human condition since we are social beings by nature. We accept many messages that we aren’t conscious of. Fortunately, simply by thinking about the ways society might have played a role in shaping our beliefs, we can reduce our biases and consider whether the way we behave actually aligns with our values.
  • For example. I suffer from an eating disorder. One of the biggest eye opening conversations for me went something like the following.
  • “I feel so fat”.
  • “If you couldn’t feel fat, what else would you say you’re feeling?”
  • “I feel ugly. Worthless.”
  • “Why is being fat synonymous with being ugly or worthless for you?”
  • “Well…I guess it isn’t!”.
  • The etiology of eating disorders, like all other mental illnesses, is not entirely understood. But We do know however that while they are not entirely societally-caused, they do have significant social roots.
  • It’s interesting that a fixation on weight is how feelings of low self esteem, anxiety, and depression are often manifest in eating disorders. While someone suffering from an eating disorder doesn’t always have weight loss as their principal goal, I believe the nature of the disorders symptomatology is largely a reflection of our society.
  • In counselling for my eating disorder I was recently told that “in recovery, it’s almost necessary to get frustrated about society. We need to get a bit angry”
  • • Angry that many unhealthy behaviours displayed by eating disorder patients are condoned by the diet industry and supported by society. (Calorie restriction, excessive exercise, deviation away from appreciating the social and cultural value food has etc etc.)
  • • Angry about the unrealistic beauty standards that we, and others, embrace without realizing.
  • • Angry about the discrimination and marginalization that people in larger and differently-abled bodies face.
  • • Frustrated that so many women (and men) are dissatisfied with themselves and their bodies.
  • • Angry that this is how the beauty and diet industries make money.
  • • Angry that we are conditioned to spend so much time and energy focusing on our appearances rather than destroying these chains holding us back.
  • (This article discusses the effect of western ideals, culture, and attitudes in the development of eating disorders.)
  • So the salience of “calories”, and “weight loss” leads itself to what I’ve been referring to as “Diet culture”. The good news – There are ways that we can focus on nutrition and at the same time the enjoyment and satisfaction without having to go into the digit details at all. After all, that’s what our ancestors did for years and it’s what our bodies expect.

To many this may sound weird.

To your body, this would be “normal”.

We are born knowing to cry for food when we are hungry. As infants we know when we are tired and need to sleep. Unfortunately, as time goes on, culture infiltrates and sends us altogether conflicting messages.

Ex: “Hunger is something you should suppress”

Ex: “Resting when you’re tired is weak”

Let’s talks calorie counting – I hate to say it but the algorithms we know about “intake versus outtake” may work in a small way, but there are so many confounding factors we can’t account for. Your hormones change, your activity changes, you grow, you age, you get stressed, tired, sick, you build muscle, you lose weight etc etc. We get so caught up in the numbers of it all we lose sight of everything that nourishing your body is beyond calories. I can promise you, that a healthy body does not care about 5 extra calories in a stick of gum.

No app or diet plan is going to be able to tell you what you need better than your body. The problem is, that many of us are more in tuned to our cell phones or social media accounts than we are to our bodies.

Regaining the ability to listen to your biology is hard. It can take months. Even years. But there is strong evidence suggesting that people who practice this form of “normal” or “intuitive” eating have more stable weight throughout their lives as well as being able to enjoy food with less stress.

I am no dietician. Not even close. I support the idea intuitive eating because it’s what I have been taught in recovery, and what seems to me to be more consistently supported by the literature.

While I’m not qualified to teach you about intuitive eating, I can tell you that 97% of diets don’t work. I can show you some psych research surrounding dieting and why this is the case. I’m also fully aware of the consequences of steering in the wrong direction in terms of nutrition.

The reason there are diet “fads” should tell you something about their validity in itself… One second smoothies are a “quick and nutritious breakfast”, the next they’re “too high in sugar“. There are both low fat and high fat diets at the same time trying to tell you they’ll change your life. From a biological, cultural, evolutionary, and historical perspective, the most consistent finding is that a “balanced” diet, is best. So yes, including carbohydrates, including protein, and including fat. Your body needs all of these things.

Intuitive eating promotes a healthy relationship with food, nourishing yourself and maintaining a weight that is natural for you, or in your body’s “set point”, but also doesn’t discount the fact that food has such an important social aspect as well as being a source of pleasure and enjoyment.

(If you’re curious to know more – intuitiveeating.org, trustyourbodyproject, colleenreichmann)

Although eating disorders are beyond just what you know. Growing up as an athlete, having had several nutritionists (and as a child of two doctors) I objectively knew how to “properly nourish” a body. But the sick brain takes over. And it’s a slippery slope for those who may be predisposed to be constantly inundated with forlackofabetterword triggering information in the form of diet culture.

The numbers can take over. It’s how we set our “objective” definitions. It’s how we like to feel like we have control and that we understand everything. They fuel comparison and restriction and drive us farther and farther away from listening to our bodies and towards a relatively meaningless number on a label.

So forgive yourself. It’s hard to be satisfied in a society that prospers on our discontent. Unhappiness makes companies money. It’s not your fault your diet didn’t work.

Be aware. Watch out for your and your loved-ones habits. Reflect on your actions and beliefs. Why are you choosing a salad? Do you genuinely want fresh veggies? Or would you really prefer something else? There’s room for both.

If you weren’t worrying about appearance and diet, what would you choose to devote your energy on?

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