This post may contain affiliate links. You can read my affiliate policy here.
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that ‘Do I deserve to eat’ it’s the wrong question to ask. Eating is not something you can deserve. Eating is something necessary for our survival. What we eat and when we eat should always be determined by what serves us. By what is the best for us both in the moment and long term. What and when should we eat to make our lives better?
Do I Deserve to Eat: Calories In Versus Calories Out
We are taught that weight management is all about calories in versus calories out. And this is, in a very abstract and scientific way, absolutely true. The problem, however, is when we start looking at how many calories we burn as a measure to decide if we deserve to eat.
There are three big problems with this:
Problem 1: ‘Do I Deserve to Eat?’
We all deserve to eat. What many of us have been doing is counting how many calories we’ve burned in a day and used that as a measurement for if we deserve to eat or not. This is psychologically a dangerous way to think about food, and what makes things worse, the data we use to make that decision is highly inaccurate.
Problem 2: We Can’t Accurately Measure Calories in Food
Do you know how scientists come up with the number of calories that we read on the food labels?
Let’s start from the beginning: 1 kcal (the measure for calories we use today) is a measure of energy. It’s the amount of energy that it takes to raise the temperature of 1 kg water from 0 to 1°C.
Originally, the number of calories in a certain foods was measured by completely burning food whilst it was surrounded by water and then they measured the rise in temperature in the water. This gave the scientists the total amount of energy in a certain food.
The problem with this method, however, is that humans don’t absorb all the energy in food. Some of it goes straight through us or are lost to heat.
The Atwater Method
Wilbur Atwater looked to refine the way we measure calories in food to take into account the fact that we don’t absorb all energy. So what did he do?
You guessed it. He burned the waste to see how much energy was left after the food passed through a person. The difference he figured, was the amount of energy a person actually took up from different types of food. (Source)
Atwater’s process has been refined slightly since, but this is the general principle that’s still used to determine the number of calories we read on labels:
How much energy does it take to burn the raw food before a person eats it minus how much energy it takes to burn it when it comes out the other end.
Problem with How We Determine Calories in Food
Are you starting to see the problem with determining how many calories there are in a specific food?
Consider the following:
- Some calories are lost by heat and by urine. This is not accounted for.
- Scientist have found that some foods cannot be calculated with this method including almonds.
- All ingrediencies have been measured raw, if something is processed or cooked, the energy value may change significantly.
- This method does not take into account the digestive system and how we can process foods differently, both as individuals and depending on how the food is prepared.
On top of all this, the FDA allows for a 20% margin of error of all food labels.
Do you still think that the food label tells you how many calories you are actually getting from the foods you eat?
Problem 3: We Can’t Accurately Measure the Calories Burned
There are scientific methods to measure calories burned quite effectively but for most of us, just relying on our fitness tracker, we are at the mercy of the formula used in the app.
The Harris-Benedict Formula
The Harris-Benedict Formula is the most commonly accepted formula to calculate how many calories someone burns. This formula estimates this based on hight, weight and age, and then multipliedwith the average activity level.
In a fitness tracker, you usually enter these factors and that calculates your Basic Metabolic Rate, and the app then adds on estimated calories burned from your activity.
Can you already spot a problem? If you’ve set your general activity level at anything other than completely sedentary, the most fitness trackers are actually counting your activity twice!!
Problems with Measuring Calories Out
There are a number of factors that determines the number of factors only some of which are taken into account in the formula:
- Age (the formula does take into account that we burn less calories as we get older)
- Sex (again, accounted for the fact that men burn more calories than women)
- Amount of daily activity (often counted twice)
- Body composition (if you have more muscles you will burn more calories – not accounted for)
- Body size (Smaller people burn less energy even when they rest. This is accounted for)
- Thermogenesis (How much energy the body uses to break down food – not accounted for)
- Pregnancy (Pregnant women burn more calories – not usually accounted for)
- Breast Feeding (Same as with pregnancy)
So how inaccurate is this formula, really?
Luckily for us, scientists have tested the accuracy of The Harris-Benedict Formula as well as that of other commonly used formulas used for determining calories burned, and their results are quite shocking:
The formula that was the MOST accurate was only 35.7% accurate!
How Do I Know if I Deserve to Eat?
So what now? We are being bombarded every day, from everything from magazines to healthcare providers, that weight and health management is as easy as calories in versus calories out.
And by looking at our fitness trackers and food logs we can know when we’ve been good. We know if we’ve moved enough that we deserve to eat more that day. We’ve been good girls! Done our homework. Been mindful. Done as we’re told.
And all this time, the information we’ve used to make this decision has been inaccurate. Highly inaccurate. Possibly completely wrong.
So what should we do instead? How can replace our calorie tracking without completely ruining our health journey?
There isn’t a quick fix, but it’s a good opportunity to start listening to your body instead of an app.
Start by asking yourself:
- Will I enjoy eating this?
- How much of it will I enjoy?
- Will I enjoy it more now or later?
- How will I feel after eating this?
- Will this nourish me and give me energy?
- Does it fit in with my long-term health goals?
If you tend to think in terms of deserving or not deserving to eat, be careful with the last question. Your health goals should be just that, healthy. You might want to practise the first five questions first if this is something you struggle with.
Tracking Can Still Support Your Health-Goals
Does this all feel a bit, well, woolly? You want to have a schedule, track your progress, know you’re improving, moving in the right direction? Not to worry! There are healthy ways of tracking progress without ever asking yourself ‘Do I Deserve to Eat?’.
Have you ever heard the saying that we value what we measure? Well, there is a lot of truth to that!
Is your goal to have a kick-ass body and you measure your progress by the weight on the scale? Weight can be one point of measure but if your definition of a kick-ass body is a toned body with some muscles added to it, using the scale alone can be counterproductive. As muscles weigh more than fat, the kick-ass body you planned for may end up looking more like a stick as loosing muscle mass will be more rewarded by the scale than gaining muscle!
Consider what your actual goals are and how you can best measure them, tracking what you value.
You Deserve to Eat AND Reach Your Goals
You should have a life you enjoy, and deprivation, dieting and feelings of being undeserving should not be a part of your best life.
Be kind to yourself.
Practice habits that make you feel good.
That takes you in the direction of your goal.
That supports the life you want to live.
A life that you would be proud for your daughter (actual or imaginary) to adapt as her own.
You deserve to eat.
You deserve to be happy.