So, just for shits and giggles, I decided to plug my stats into this nutritional “daily needs calculator.

32-year-old woman, 62 inches tall, 170 lbs.*, somewhat active lifestyle including 30 mins. of hatha yoga and 30 minutes of walking daily. (Note: the activity numbers are a fairly conservative estimate. Most days, I do at least an hour of yoga, but some days, I do none. The walking varies between 10 minutes and 90 minutes.)

So the first thing it tells me is that I have a BMI of 31.1, though it politely neglects to mention that this means I am OBESE!!!!!! And it does, at least, acknowledge that BMI by itself doesn’t necessarily mean squat. Still, I’m girding for the part where it tells me I need to lose weight, and that I need to do it by living on green tea and fresh oxygen.

Instead, it tells me that my body needs — are you sitting down? — 2498 calories a day.

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, but in my head, it’s like they just told me that to achieve optimum health,** I need to eat an entire chocolate cake for breakfast with french fries dipped in mayonnaise on the side.

‘Cause, see, when I was obsessively counting calories, I was allowed anywhere from 1200-1700. On Jenny Craig, they start you at 1700 if you’re actually fat, then have you work your way down to 1200. (And after losing 65 lbs. on that, I went even lower to maintain for a while.) On Weight Watchers, my points range was, I believe, 24-30. Now, they claim there’s a complex mathematical equation behind the points system, but it’s pretty much 1 point = 50 calories. So, 1200-1500 calories a day.

And the thing is, for all the research I’ve done into fat and health, for all I talk constantly about how fucked up dieting is, for all I knew 1200 calories was obscenely low and 1700 couldn’t be much better, I still HAD NO IDEA my body might ever, under any circumstances, require more than 2000 calories a day. When that number came back, I nearly peed myself: 2500 CALORIES??

And even though I suspect I actually do eat just about 2500 calories a day, it turns out the brainwashing never really leaves you. ‘Cause those programs — especially Weight Watchers — are not “diets,” remember? They’re lifestyle changes. You are supposed to eat like this for the rest of your life. So basically, every day I’ve eaten more than 1700 calories — i.e., every day since mid-2003 — I’ve assumed on some level that I was eating “too much.” (I just didn’t give a rat’s ass if I was eating “too much” anymore.) I mean, I entertained the possibility that I needed more energy than that — since, you know, my body demands more — but again, I never imagined my daily needs could be more than 2000 calories. I’m 5’2″. My bones are teeny tiny. I’ve lived on less than 1200 calories a day, and I didn’t feel like I was starving!


Last weekend, I was out with The Cynical Girl and Gemellen, and we got to talking about weight. We all said what we weighed, and I was floored, because I would have pegged both of them for literally 20 lbs. less than their actual weights. And then I got pissed off, because why don’t we know this about each other? Why don’t I have any friggin’ clue what other women weigh? Well, probably because the only women who talk about their weight are actresses, and they’re all shaving off at least 20 lbs. (not to mention 5 years off their age). Even the most skeletal are probably not actually 5’7″ and 115 lbs., but those are the kind of numbers that seep into my consciousness.

Consider also that when I was 20 lbs. lighter than I am now and dating online, if I put that I weighed 150, I’d get very few responses. If I put that I weighed 145, I’d get plenty. 150 was the cut-off number for the vast majority of guys — including many who would say in their profile that they’d date women up to 7 feet tall, but only up to 150 lbs. (and some who were interested in 7-footers who weighed less than 130). Obviously, I wanted nothing to do with those guys, but seeing how fucking many of them there were was always a kick in the gut. People have absolutely no idea what real human beings weigh.

And even half-assed fat activists, apparently, have no idea what real human beings’ caloric needs are. I mean, one online calculator isn’t the be-all and end-all, and I’d have to submit to a more detailed analysis if I really wanted to know how many calories I theoretically require, which I don’t. But I’m pretty damned sure it’d end up being more than 1700.

It’s a bloody wonder I couldn’t maintain that “lifestyle change,” huh?

*Note: in the interest of total honesty, I should point out I don’t own a scale, have no intention of ever owning one again, and thus have no idea what I actually weigh. But comparing my body now to my weight(s)when I looked pretty much like this during my obsessed-with-numbers days, my best guess is that I’m somewhere between 165 and 180.

**Update: I should clarify that the calculator doesn’t say anything about “optimum health” — that was me getting all fancy with the writerly hyperbole. (See also: entire chocolate cake and fries dipped in mayonnaise.) What the calculator does is estimate “the number of Calories that you burn during exercise and daily living.” That’s why the fatter you are, the higher the number. So it’s not that my body needs 2500 calories a day precisely, but that I’m burning about 2500 calories a day just by being me, which is equally mindblowing.

30 thoughts on “Numbers

  1. Doesn’t that just curl your hair…knowing that we’ve basically starved our bodies so we could “look good”? As much as I dislike Susan Powter, when I read her book in my dieting days, she was the one to point out the fact that a person needed far more calories to be able to function than we are led to believe. No wonder our society is full of grouchy people…they are all starving to death:)!!

  2. OMFG.

    No wonder I’ve never had any fucking energy. No wonder I….

    Oh, those fucking fuckers!

    I’m so angry I could spit nails.

    I’ve never truly dieted. Hell, I’ve only half-assedly dieted a few times in my entire life. And yet, I still realize that I have spent my entire adult life carefully eating “fatty appropriate” foods during the day, and then wondering why I’m freakin’ starving come bedtime. Well gosh, probably because I need SIX THOUSAND more calories per day than I thought I did. Hell, I didn’t think I needed this many calories when I was pregnant. With TWINS!

    I’m so fucking sick of the fat hatred. So goddamn sick of it. It kills us. It maims us. It destroys our lives.

    Those wretched sexist ASSHOLES!

    (Pardon all the caps, but my GOD I’m angry right now. Just… enraged. Seriously.)

  3. Oh god, I’m so mad I’m stupid. That’s six hundred calories. Not six thousand. Apologies for the dumb.

  4. If you really want a fun thought experiment, figure out what would happen in ten years if you underestimated your caloric needs by 100 calories per day. And what would happen if you overestimated them by 100 calories per day. (If, in theory 1 lb = 3500 calories). How did you ever get along without that diet calculator?

  5. Well, fuck me running. Like, OMFG SERIOUSLY. Because I was going to go looking for something like this tonight – I’ve been having a lot of trouble eating more than 1000 calories a day lately and I need a range to shoot for so I don’t fall back under due to food laziness (maybe this is TMI, I don’t know right because I am just so freaked out) and apparently I need to eat between 2700 and 3100 calories a day to maintain good health and I am so freaked out right now that I think I need to go off in a corner and cry for every person who ever told me that if I just ate 1500 calories a day I would lose weight and feel great. I feel like throwing up. And crying some more because that is an unimaginable amount of food to me.

  6. And, holy jesus fuck, this explains why I actually lost weight on Weight Watchers (which I quit because it was just encouraging me to have an unhealthy mindset/obsession with food – I was eating SO MUCH MORE than I do on any given day.

    I am floored and pissed and, OMG, I might actually be hungry as well.

  7. This makes me so angry, too.

    Isn’t 1200 calories where the WHO says starvation starts? But it’s ok for fatties because they deserve it and should be thin at any cost.

    Thanks to an unfortunate part of my upbringing that surrounded me with those little pocket calorie counter books, diets clipped from magazines, and everything else diet, combined with a really good memory for trivia, I have a little voice in the back of my head that says “That’s 243 calories you’re eating there.” whenever I eat. Or think I might need something to eat.

    It is so, so hard to escape the feelings of guilt and wrongdoing when I actually eat “normally”. I could eat an entirely reasonable 2000 calories and still wind up with the demons in my head telling me how disgusting and gluttonous I am and I’d be thin now if I ate only 1000. If 2000’s good, then 1000 must be better, right? “Eat less, exercise more, lifestyle changes, blah blah blah”.

    So fucking sick of it, too. Stupefyingly angry.

  8. Sorry to double post, but I forgot to add:

    You’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you that the caloric requirements calculator only applies to people who have an “appropriate” body fat percentage, and you’re supposed to eat according to what you “should” weigh. Hah. Like anyone really knows that. (The subtext of all that being that fat people are freaks who need special rules to keep them in line.)

  9. I suspect by “maintain good health” this calculator assumes you maintain your current size. So basically, its saying you must be eating 2,500 calories a day to be the size you weigh. Which in your case might be about right. Its about what I eat a day, too. The calculator, however, thinks I must be eating 4,000 calories a day to be a somewhat active 29yo, 69in, 245lb man who walks for an average of 45 minutes a day and hikes for an average of 15 minutes a day. Both are based on my activity last summer, but even if I did none of that, it’d still think I ate 1,000 calories more a day than I do. See, this is the kind of mathametical reduction of weight that justifies the people who call us liars when we refuse to admit to stuffing ourselves night and day.

  10. I think the wheels of my brain just fell off.

    2000 calories a day was my absolute maximum ever and that was when I was working out at least 2 hours a day. And *even then,* I’d try to stop myself more in the 1800 range. Now, even though I’m not technically counting anymore, I have that 2000 calorie ceiling always in my head.

    And this?? This says I get 2400 – 2600 a day? To maintain? I can’t comprehend that. But wow. I bet I’d be so much nicer if I ate that much every day.

  11. Mine reported a requirement of about 3000, and to think that I just felt guilty about drinking a glass of cranberry juice…

  12. I suspect by “maintain good health” this calculator assumes you maintain your current size. So basically, its saying you must be eating 2,500 calories a day to be the size you weigh.

    Yeah, I assume the same, BStu. I was just kind of amazed that it didn’t go, “WOOP! WOOP! OBESITY! 1200 CALORIES A DAY FOR YOU!”

  13. Intriguing post! I also don’t own a scale, so I entered the upper and lower end of what I think my range is. At 67 inches and 140, I get about 2600 calories a day–but at 150, I get another hundred. I have no idea why. The difference in BMI was drastic, and don’t even ask me what to do with the chart at the bottom of the page. The whole thing made my my head spin.
    Those numbers are just so abstract; calories and nutritional data never seem to relate to anything concrete to me. So I just eat what makes me feel good.
    I thought about that a lot after the “Skinny people might be obese too!” silliness in the news. Science/Simon Says everyone get out the calipers and measure again! I thought about how nice it would be if we were taught to be attentive to our bodies, how to notice our own responses to food intake and exercise and make an informed decision about how to live. Secretly obese skinny people might *notice* that they weren’t healthy if society didn’t pat them for being skinny, and healthy people with above average BMI might simply enjoy being healthy if there weren’t so many imaginary numbers to suggest otherwise.

  14. I am floored by the numbers everyone received. But, how’s this for a kick in the teeth…wait for it… 8655!?!?!
    I spend my day with a lot of fitness professionals who all tell me i don’t eat enough but somehow i don’t think this is what they had in mind. and it def isn’t what the medical establishment with their hypo-caloric diet rhetoric has in mind. I just can’t take the conflicting messages any more.

  15. Remember, what the calculator is probably saying is that must surely be eating 8,700 calories a day to maintain your weight with your current lifestyle. I think this is more assumpsion rather than prescription because to some, fat is just a product of math. This is why a lot of people “know” we must be eating vast quantities of food or being completely sedentary. Because the ways we actually live our lives just don’t make mathematical sense and they can’t admit that their math is just wrong.

  16. Yeah, exactly, BStu. I think 8700 calories is an indication of precisely how fucked up the thermodynamics approach to weight analysis is.

    I was really unclear about what this thing suggests in my original post, in part because I didn’t think too hard about it. I still think they’re fascinating numbers, but maybe for different reasons than I first thought. Thanks for bringing the reality checks, BStu.

  17. My so-called “maintenance allowance” is 3200. No frigging way in Bast’s green litterbox do I eat that much in a day, ever. Maybe on Thanksgiving. Maybe if I go to Vegas and eat at buffets all day, which happens about once every five years. Otherwise…puh-lease.

    I probably used to drink a lot more calories than I do now, having formerly been a big consumer of sweetened drinks, which I cut way back on for the sake of my PCOS. (If I consume too much sugar and starch unbalanced by fat or protein while sitting at a desk or lying around, I get super-drowsy.)

    And I probably eat less now too, because I used to be married to a big eater and now I’m dating someone who has a pretty small appetite (not a restrained eater, just someone who naturally fills up pretty quickly), and I probably got into more of a habit of asking myself whether I was really hungry for more food or whether I was just used to eating more because my XH ate more.

    None of that has made any difference at all in my weight. Not a pound, not an ounce. Nada. I burp less and don’t fall asleep on my keyboard, that’s about it.

  18. I burp less and don’t fall asleep on my keyboard

    Hmm. That might be a diet I could benefit from, actually.

  19. No one would really notice that unless they were of a size where they got a nonsensical response. Nothing on the site makes it clear that its really just a caloric maintainance calculator, so if the result seemed within reality, there would be no way to tell that others would get insane suggestions. I mean, I thought my 4,000 was crazy and then someone busts out 8,700. Its scary because so many people have unwavering faith in fat as a mathematical construct. So many fat hostile individuals really do think its that simple. If we protest, they assume our bodies prove us to be liars because they refuse to accept that the formulas just don’t work. It is amazing for me to see what they think my body equals. It says a lot about why so many feel so justified in making sweeping generalizations.

  20. Wow. My results were 3226 calories. Wow.

    Right now I’m eating 1400-1800 a day. Makes me think maybe that’s not quite enough.

  21. The amount of calories I must be eating is pretty big too. I don’t count calories well, though so I have no idea if I’m actually eating that much or if it’s less.

    I think what’s interesting is that it matters. I am a fat woman. Why must I justify how much or what I am eating? Why must I feel badly about putting food in my mouth?

  22. Somewhere in _The Beauty Myth_, there’s a mention that there are a lot of cultures where women get about 2/3 food as much as men–and it’s explicitly framed as male privilege.

    Coincidence or conspiracy?

  23. My DH recently read an interesting book, I skimmed part of it too. It was about this starvation experiment they did during WW2 to discover the scientific consequences of people starving, like they did in Europe after WW1 and thought would probably happen at the end of WW2. It was sort of an anti-communist thing, like the government thought that if Europe starved, they’d all turn communist.

    But, I digress. The interesting point is that I think the lowest number of calories the volunteers of this experiment were put on was 1100 a day. This is just 100 calories short of the 1200 figure mentioned. That’s, what, like a can of sugared soda? Though the volunteers were all men, who tend to have higher needs than women, just because they’re usually bigger and have more muscles.

    At these starvation levels, the volunteers, in addition to the expected metabolic consequences, suffered from obsession with food to the exclusion of all other thoughts, were disturbed by thoughts and dreams about cannabalism, and one volunteer cut off his own fingers with an ax during the course of the experiment. To some extent, they were almost driven crazy by lack of food.

    And to think that women do this to themselves all the time. By choice.

    I’ve always been too lazy to count calories. I’ve no idea how many I eat in a day nor what I “should” be eating. I know that in the chaos of moving, I’ve been eating more restaurant and takeout meals than I should and not enough nutritious vegetables and I kind of feel bad about that. But it always seemed to me to be a miserable existence to have to track numbers for every bit of something that passes into my mouth. The closest I’ve ever come to calorie counting is the one diet I’ve done in my life, which was a low carb/good carb kind of thing called the Schwarzbein principle. I was counting carbs, but let me tell you, eating sandwiches made with one slice of Ezekial bread got old real fast.

  24. Thanks for reminding me of this. In grad school 4 or 5 years ago, I went to the nutritionist who did the same calculation for me, saying I needed @ 2400 calories. Like you, it blew my mind. Her response was that my body needed to maintain and that my focus should be (1) making better choices about what I was eating, i.e., more fruits and veggies; and (2) incorporating more exercise in my life. That advice didn’t take then, but maybe it will now!

  25. I realize I’m very late to the party here (and although I love this blog, I’m relatively new to it and a first-time commenter), but aren’t we all kind of buying into… something… here by playing this game of “Mine says X, and I eat Y, which is 500 calories less!” “Well, mine says X and I eat Z, which is 800 calories less!” Like we’re only OK as fat people if we’re on starvation rations and denying ourselves to an “appropriate” degree.

    Myself, I’m on Weight Watchers and I can earn 10 activity points by jogging/walking for an hour as long as my heart rate stays in a prescribed zone. I figured it out with their patented formula based on my weight, so it’s all “scientific” and stuff. My dirty secret is that I have never decreased my daily points from 30, even though I think my current weight should put me at 24 or 26. So, more dirty secrets: on a day I exercise, that puts my prescribed total at 40 and I am usually within 2-3 points over or under that. On a day I don’t exercise, I might go over my points allowance by as many as 5-10. I also use up my entire 35-point weekly allowance on the weekend, often plus a fair bit more. Even though I usually eat all my activity points, I’m usually anywhere from at my points allowance to 70 or even 100 points over it, total for a given week (average maybe 20-50 over). And I do lose weight. I could never admit that to the people in my meeting because some of them are fanatical about sticking to their points (and still gain or lose to about the degree I do, though most are a lot smaller than me) and I’m pretty sure they would kill me if they knew. I see this on the internet too; almost everyone who uses those intake calculators absolutely scoffs at the amount and apparently eats much less than the estimate, whereas for me I think it would be pretty true to life.

    I’m not sure what the point of that was (certainly not to laud WW… I am still not sure I’m doing the right thing by dieting in the first place and am very conflicted about the whole issue, and I sort of believe that I will probably gain the weight back eventually once I lose the resolve I currently have), except to try and add a data point that different people’s bodies respond differently to food intake/exercise and not all of us gain on 1200 calorie/day rations. Or maybe to express sympathy for everyone who eats less than I do and still can’t lose. My psyche is fragile enough but at least I’ve always been able to believe that if I *did* get my compulsive eating under control, I’d lose weight accordingly. I like to think I’d handle it OK if that weren’t true, but I’m not sure. I feel guilty about how “lucky” I seem to be, but angry that I feel guilty. How screwed up is that?

    My other observation is that in the past, I have found it WAY EASY to rack up 3,000 calories in a day without realizing it, even when I feel like I’m eating moderately. I swear I’m not doubting what anyone here says they eat; I know all of you are smart and I totally believe you. I’m just throwing it out there that in my personal case, I really do tend to eat more than I think I am.

    I don’t know what any of this says, I just wanted to add my perspective and mainly to make the point about how I hate it when we feel we need to punish ourselves to a prescribed extent by restricting and exercising before we can feel OK about being ourselves. It’s nobody’s business whether I “eat right” (whatever that means) or exercise in the first place, and I have really enjoyed Kate’s writing on that topic.

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