What Is Extreme Calorie Counting?
“The average adult requires roughly 1200 calories for basic daily functions if they are not exercising,” says Pflugrath. “These calories are necessary for basic thinking, basic movement, and for your body organs to properly work.”
But those 1200 calories are rarely enough to function properly if you are expending even a tiny amount of energy during the day, which is why cutting below this number is considered extreme and can cause a host of major health problems.
Deirdre is one of the many collegiettes who have struggled with extreme calorie counting. She says that limiting her calories obsessively ended up being a “gateway” into a plethora of other eating issues.
“It started as something small - eliminating 200 calories at dinner or avoiding snacks that were over 150 calories - and before I realized what was happening, it evolved into an obsession,” she explains. “I refused to eat more than 900 calories ever and eventually tried changing my calorie intake daily (with calorie intakes of 200, 350, 800, 75, 625, 175, 900 as a usual week). It consumed my mind and from there things only got worse. It led me down a path of eating disorders and to this day, I still struggle to eat things when I don't know how many calories they have.”
Kathleen, another collegiette who has faced different eating issues, says she didn’t even realize that she was headed into dangerous territory when she first started restricting her calories in high school.
“As a freshman in high school, I was told by a family member that if I just kept running like I had been, I could lose weight and it would probably be fine,” she says. “Mind you, I was 120 pounds and 5' 5". I was healthy. At this point, I really didn't even think about counting calories. I just knew, or I thought I knew, that I should stop eating all together. I also began to work out more. During my lunch at school I would run laps around the track instead of eat, and then I would go home and go running again. I became really good at hiding it from people and I was really starting to see a difference in the way I was looking, not realizing entirely that I was ultimately hurting myself. After I began to see results, it became a control issue. I found that I had a lack of control over everything around me and the only thing I could truly control was my weight and what I was putting into my body, and so that is when my calorie counting became more intense.”
While many college women use calories as a way to track the healthiness (and unhealthiness) of what they eat, calorie counting can become obsessive and over-the-top when you begin to consume less than 1200 calories each day, as Kathleen and Deirdre both experienced.
What Leads to Extreme Calorie Counting?
“Extreme calorie counting and being too stringent with eating is a struggle for many college women, and it is usually control- and body image-related,” says Pflugrath.
Individuals may be more likely to have anorexia or to begin obsessively calorie counting if they are involved in a job or sport that stresses body size (like ballet, modeling or gymnastics), if they try to be perfect all of the time, never feel good enough or worry a lot, if they are dealing with stressful life events (like a divorce, moving to a new town or losing a loved one), or if other people in their family have an eating disorder as well.
Kathleen remembers restricting her calories in high school because she felt that she had no other way to stay slim.
“In high school, I joined cross country, and then the track team,” Kathleen says. “Being a part of these teams helped me because I could not run as fast as I needed to on empty – I had to eat. As soon as the off-season came, though, I went straight to cutting food out again because I had no way of burning the calories that I wanted to burn. So, I started counting them, too. I thought it would help me maintain what I had worked so hard for while I was on those teams. I thought I was going to be more attractive to my boyfriend, who thought I was nearly perfect and had no clue about my struggle. I thought, worst of all, that I would gain approval from the family member that initially said I needed to lose the weight.”
Deirdre remembers cutting calories because she assumed that it was the easiest way to lose weight. “I assumed that lowering my caloric intake would ultimately make me feel better about myself because I knew I'd lose weight,” she says. “I've had always maintained an average weight but I think I just wanted to be 10 pounds lighter and assumed that cutting calories was the easiest way to do it.”
Why Is Extreme Calorie Counting Dangerous?
As Pflugrath mentioned, approximately 1200 calories per day are required for basic daily functions (if you aren’t exercising). And when you limit yourself to less than 1200 calories, you are putting yourself at risk both emotionally and physically. Without enough calories, you will find yourself feeling exhausted, depressed and with hardly enough energy to go about your daily tasks.
Deirdre describes the side effects of extreme calorie counting as nothing short of miserable.
“Imagine being so hungry that you can't sleep, or so hungry that you can't concentrate on anything but the next time you will eat,” she says. “I got mean too, especially to my family, I was always snapping over the smallest things. Headaches were another effect. From morning to night my head pounded in the worst way. Headaches also went hand in hand with being so dizzy that I always needed to hold onto a railing, or the wall, just in case I started to fall.”
Kathleen also struggled to hide the negative side effects of her obsessive calorie counting from her friends and family.
“Once I started counting calories so obsessively, I became more and more obsessive about everything else,” she says. “Not just weight loss, but image in general. I wanted to be better. I wanted to be the best. And, as far as anyone could tell—I was. I was first place in the majority of my track and cross-country races, I took beautiful pictures, and I had a smile bigger than anyone could have ever thought possible. But, it was all an act - and this is where my physical problems began to really present themselves. I nearly passed out after my races because I was so hungry. I was wearing so much makeup to cover the bags under my eyes in all of my pictures, and I wore clothing that looked bigger so that people wouldn't begin to question me.”