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Calories - Enemy or Energy?

Note: Learn more information about the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program here or at

Calories became my enemy when I was a teenager and trying to lose weight. Foods that had a high caloric count were automatically bad, and I knew I was supposed to avoid them. Not that I always did, but that was the goal.

Nor am I alone in this. We are often taught that limiting calories is the way to lose weight, and as a result, I know lots of people who count calories, or have at one point, myself included.

In addition, the idea of calories being “bad” is almost impossible to avoid. For instance, you might have heard the idea that cookie crumbs don’t have calories (so you can go ahead and eat them, no matter how many). I also found this message on the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper: “Calories only exist if you count them.” If people were not trying to avoid high caloric intake, no one would even bother with these or similar phrases.

Unfortunately, what can get lost in all of this is what a calorie actually is: energy.

That reality didn’t truly come home to me until I was almost finished losing weight. Towards the end I was tired of the process and, for the first time, restricted myself on certain things, like not having any sugar. Also, at that point I was probably down to about 1000 calories per day. (I wasn’t generally counting, but out of curiosity I added it up at one point and was rather shocked at how little I was consuming.)

In practice that meant that I sometimes had very low energy and trouble focusing on anything but food. Even then, though, I didn’t consider taking in more calories. They were, after all, the enemy.

For some people, it’s even worse, in that calories become a mortal enemy. In Hunger Pains: The Modern Woman’s Tragic Quest for Thinness, Mary Pipher wrote about weight obsession, as well as eating disorders, and she noted: “To become thin, some women will even risk and lose their lives.” (p. 35)

Most who struggle with disordered eating don’t die, but they may still be casualties: though alive, they have no energy to truly live. What energy they have is instead focused on food, either limiting it, consuming it, fantasizing about it, or getting rid of it. As Pipher noted about anorexics: “They didn’t expect to have fun or find human interaction rewarding. Their lives had become relentless, grim encounters with scales and calorie charts.” (p. 65)

That’s why I appreciate the alternate approach in the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program. Since the goal is mindfulness, not weight loss, we don’t focus on calories. Instead, we talk about what calories provide us – energy – and where we spend that energy. Excess food might be stored as fat, but still, it’s all energy.

This helps people focus on the deeper goals of what they want to do, instead of what not to do. Do they want to put their energy toward food restriction, exercise, feeling guilty, or other ways of limiting emotions and actions? Or do they want to spend just some of it on food choices and enjoyment, and the rest on simply living and creating a vibrant life, without obsessing over weight?

I opt for the energy to live and enjoy my life, finding it a much happier and relaxed way of being. And from that viewpoint, a calorie is no longer my enemy but simply one of the essential building blocks toward creating a life I love.

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