As a non-diet dietitian who loves food, you won't be surprised to hear that I rarely talk calories or kilojoules with my clients – unless its to point out they need more. There are so many flaws with the general idea of counting calories, including:
- calorie counting doesn't take into account the type or quality of food you're eating (and it matters.)
- calorie content (calculated in food laboratories by bomb calorimetry or, more commonly these days, by indirect calorie estimation) reported on packaged food labels can be off by as much as 20% due to variations in manufacturing, season, and suppliers.
- similarly, the calorie content of whole foods is wildly unpredictable. Two similar-sized Fuji apples can have vastly different calorie contents due to the soil and climate they're grown in, the time of season they're harvested, how they've been handled after picking, and how they're prepared.
- calorie counting grossly over-simplifies the way body weight is determined and encourages subscription to the "just ensure calories in is less than calories out" mentality towards weight control. With this polarised lens, we forget the many other factors that influence body weight just as much if not far more than food and activity, including genetics, stress, sleep deprivation, hormonal imbalances, environmental toxicity, etc
- calorie counting is far more difficult and inaccurate than people think, whether in regards to calculating food intake or calories used in exercise - under or over reporting is common and human
- calorie counting does not factor in the immense individual variation in metabolic rate. BMR calculators can be off by 20% or more, in which case, is it really worth calculating?
- calorie counting is also complicated by variations in individuals' muscle mass, amount and type of physical and mental activity, and many other totally random and unpredictable genetic factors that we may not even be aware of, let alone have the capacity to plug into a caloric requirements calculator.
Then of course there's the elephant in the room: that weight loss dieting - whether by calorie counting and food restriction or some other method - does not work.
But myths abound over how much women should be eating. In conversations with women with weight concern, I notice a lot of magic calorie numbers being thrown around when it comes to how many daily calories they think they should be eating: 800? 1200? 1500? 1800?
And just how much more do you need to eat when pregnant or breastfeeding - "because this celebrity trainer says it's x" (P.S. she's terribly, dangerously wrong.)
So just this once, let's talk frankly about calories.
If you really want (or need) to count calories…
Contrary to popular opinion that women need significantly less food than men, a moderately active 30 year-old woman's daily caloric needs roughly range between 2250 to 2500 calories per day - only 250 calories less than a moderately active man's.
How do you know if you're meeting your daily caloric needs? You can get a very rough idea using a calculator like this one - just keep in mind how grossly inaccurate the logorhythms can be, and the other pitfalls of calorie counting I mentioned earlier.
*** And please ignore the advice on this particular website to use your ideal body weight in the calculator "if you are aiming to lose weight". If you've been reading my stuff for long enough you'll know that shit is neither healthy, fun, nor actually sustainable in the long term. ***
Then come the diets...
This is half of what a woman exercising this much actually needs to maintain fertility and health.
Once the desired weight is lost, to "maintain weight loss" (a near biological impossibility when weight has been unnaturally forced to dip below a person's natural set point weight), Bridges allows your caloric allowance to increase... to a measly 1500 calories a day.
She then advises that you must revert back to 1400 daily calories or less if you start to gain weight again (which you inevitably will - it's a diet FFS).
In India, one of the poorest countries in the world, the very poorest women eat 1400 calories a day - 200 more than women doing the 12WBT program. Keep in mind, research shows that with an intake below 1700 calories a day you can say goodbye to your sex drive. Michelle, that's pretty cruel don't you think? To help women "become the best version of themselves" only to find that this "sexy new version" is sexless.
Pregnant or breastfeeding?
If you're breastfeeding, consuming less than 1500-1800 calories per day (most women should stay at the highest end of or well above this range) may put your milk supply at risk, as may a sudden drop in caloric intake.
For me personally, I am moderately active. I'm 31. I am breastfeeding a 21-month old toddler. And I'm in the second trimester of my second pregnancy. (Breastfeeding whilst pregnant is totally safe, in case anyone has concerns). Currently, my daily caloric needs are around 3200 calories a day.
Michelle bridges' advice to pregnant women is dangerous AF
Um, 1700 calories is barely half of my actual requirements as a breastfeeding and pregnant woman, not to mention it's generally inadequate for a moderately active woman who's never been pregnant. Michelle, that is beyond irresponsible. That kind of advice is bloody dangerous.
Far from this program helping me to "enjoy and active and healthy pregnancy" as the 12WBT website proclaims, at that low a calorie intake I would be putting my unborn child at risk of poor development, premature birth, birth defects, low birth weight for age, respiratory distress, feeding difficulties, and other perinatal complications.
Then there's the risks of disordered dieting (and the starvation-induced bingeing that too often accompanies it) posed to the mother: poor nutrition, dehydration, cardiac irregularities, gestational diabetes, severe depression during pregnancy, premature births, labour complications, difficulties nursing, postpartum depression, nutritional deficiencies...
...and increased risk of developing an eating disorder after giving birth, when DHEA - a hormone released during pregnancy that counteracts cortisol which has neurotoxic effects that can increase eating disorder (ED) symptoms (DHEA found in high concentrations in ED patients).
Like puberty, pregnancy is one of the riskiest times for disordered eating and eating disorders in a woman’s life. You've probably heard of the term “pregorexia” and it's true that many women suffer from body image distress and eating disorders during pregnancy.
However, postpartum is an even riskier time to fall into a disordered eating (dieting) or an eating disorder. And to compound that, as dietitian Lindsey Stenovec says in this excellent blog, "... we get, by far, the least amount of care, screening and medical attention during the postpartum time." And of course there's no shortage of salespeople hungry to profit off of your anxiety over "losing that baby weight".
When a famous celebrity trainer with a massive following tells pregnant and breastfeeding women that 1700 calories a day is all she needs, she is not only endangering the health of mother and baby; she's also hitting women at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives for lapsing into disordered eating.
Other popular diets vs. wWII death camp rations
It's beyond the scope of this article for me to comment on the many pitfalls of that diet, but observe that even on the "non-fasting days", a moderately active woman would not be getting what she requires for optimal health and fertility - she would be at risk of malnutrition and a lowered metabolism. Then there's the "fasting" days.
In the Lodz ghetto World War II in 1941, besieged Jews were allotted starvation rations of 500-1200 calories a day. At Treblinka death camp, 900 calories was scientifically determined to be the minimum necessary to sustain human functioning. This is 100 calories more than the hCG diet, which is sadly endorsed as being doctor "prescribed and monitored" here in Australia.
The 21-day hCG program costs in the vicinity of $800+, with the drops required for maintenance $90 for one month's supply.
Don't diet. Especially if you're pregnant or nursing
Dieting is not only unsustainable and risky; it wreaks havoc with your fertility, your sex drive, and your health. Check this blog out for an in depth exploration of the way dieting destroys sex drive and what you can do about it.
Instead of focusing on calories, I and a growing number of other non-diet practitioners educate people on ways to increase nutrient density, practicality and enjoyment of food. Rather than focusing on restriction - which is what we do when we think "weight loss", I encourage you to focus on what you need to feel energised, satisfied and nourished - to focus on health, not weight.
For you, and for your current or future babies.