CICO and Other Half-Truths.

Calories-in-calories-out is far from a perfect system.

Photo by Ronit Shaked on Unsplash

Someone I follow online just posted a then-and-now picture of themselves celebrating that they had lost 20 pounds during quarantine. Hold for applause.

To her this was a radical transformation. One that left her with wisdom worth sharing. It was this presumed wisdom that stopped me in my tracks — or my scroll if we’re being literal.

The poster started by stating that she was uncomfortable sharing her photos — though she never elaborated on why, which might have been interesting. She spoke about the challenges of the pandemic and how she’d used this time to invest in herself. The poster then implored everyone reading her post to make one healthy choice a day. She said that change is a waterfall. It was all quite lovely until she capped it with: CICO works, period.

Then she plugged her trainer. As one does.

CICO is a method for weight loss, it’s an acronym for calories-in-calories-out. Let me begin this piece by saying that there is nothing wrong with changing or desiring to change your body. It’s your body. Whatever you feel is best for it, is best for it. However, that comes with a major caveat: Do no harm.

Posts like this one are harmful.

I get how I’m gonna lose a few of you here, those who think that the poster was just trying to share a personal victory with her friends and wonder what the big deal is. I’d like for you all to imagine seeing that post, or some version of it, every day of your life. Imagine seeing it as someone further than twenty pounds away from society’s ideal version of them. Make it fifty. Make it a hundred. Two hundred. Make it any number, but add struggling through an eating disorder during a pandemic into that metric.

Account for the weight of the world we live in, and our society which prioritizes some bodies over others. Which makes it okay to mock fat people as they go about their days. To take pictures of them in the gym working out so you can laugh with your buddies later at their expense. To protest their inclusion in fitness campaigns because taking a picture of a fat person working out is somehow “glorifying obesity”. To make oinking sounds at them on the streets, or when they’re standing in line at the grocery store or bank.

Maybe after adding up all those factors you can imagine how one person’s before-and-after image doesn’t simply represent their individual choice to change their bodies in a way that works for them. It carries the weight of all that our society associates with that change.

A shrinking body is always presented as healthier, more moral, and just better all around than a larger one. Despite the fact that it’s often not the case.

This one post isn’t a big deal. Not in itself. It’s a snowflake in an avalanche of pressure that descends upon people in fat bodies, everyday and constantly. An avalanche that tells fat people that their bodies are wrong. That their bodies are proof of their bad character and bad choices.

This poster wasn’t only speaking for herself when she made that post. She was speaking on behalf of a fatphobic and fat hating system that tells people, regardless of their individual circumstances that if they would just count their calories then they could be thin and healthy and worthy.

Its so fucking simple isn’t it?

I’m sitting here in this fat body to let everyone know that it is never that simple.

As someone who has lost and gained large amounts of weight believing that CICO works I can tell you 100 hundred percent that it does. But for how long? Under what circumstances? And for who?

Those are the questions left unanswered by CICO diehards. Questions that, had they been answered when asked, might have saved me a lot of time.

The first time I lost over fifty pounds I was 14 or 15 and determined not to be fat throughout highschool. One day at the library I stumbled onto a calorie counter online. It was a simple widget that calculated exactly how many calories I needed to eat to lose a certain amount of weight by a certain time. Though the app said that it was unsafe to go below 1200 calories a day, it would spit out results in the negatives if the user put in a short enough time frame.

I remember typing in my goals: 185lbs to 135lbs in 5 months. Instantly a slew of numbers popped up. The calculator gave me 21 weeks of descending intakes, with roughly 850 calories suggested for the first week and something like 500 for the last. It also showed how much I would/should weigh at the end of each week if I followed the plan exactly. I looked at those numbers on the screen like they were the holy grail.

I scribbled those figures into my notebook and began recording every single thing I ate in a day beside them. I would record my weight each morning and evening before bed, and put those numbers in as well. The scale was my best friend and warden. I’d often return to it throughout the day just for fun. To see how a glass of water or snack sized bag of chips might be impacting my weightloss journey.

What I told myself was just for fun those days could more accurately be labelled compulsive behavior.

Everything around food had to be laboriously planned and accounted for. Baking cookies with friends stopped being a group activity and turned into me, alone in the kitchen. Painstakingly measuring ingredients and crafting perfect tablespoons of batter — each with the same amount of chocolate chips onto a cookie sheet — so that I would be able to adequately track my caloric intake during a sleepover. Eating two cookies for 175 calories and sneaking away to scribble into a notebook as my slender friends traded eye rolls over my strange behavior.

But I didn’t care. They couldn’t understand what I was doing. What this meant to me. I was finally taking care of myself. Making healthy decisions.

I continued saying that I was taking care of myself, despite the fact that everything I ate came out of a plastic package or was labelled “Instant”, precooked and serving size. Cooking, tracking individual ingredients, required more math than my teenage brain wanted to deal with and I ate a lot of sugary snack food because I was only interested in one figure on the nutrition label. As a result my anxiety shot up. I had a lot of trouble sleeping at night, so I started falling asleep in class. My skin broke out frequently and painfully. I remember telling myself this was all temporary. That I could eat more and better when I hit my goal weight. I told myself I was making healthy decisions even when I stopped drinking water, to keep the number on the scale from jumping around, and started getting dizzy in gym class.

No jumping jacks for me please. I’m too weak from all these healthy decisions I’m making.

Of course, I kept all this on the down-low. Nobody knew I was counting calories, not even my closest friends or my mother. It would’ve been hard to miss how much attention I was paying to my food, and how often I refused it, but I went to great lengths not to be conspicuous with my little book of numbers and I refused to say the word diet.

I already felt like enough of a failure in my fat body. Being a fat girl on a diet, would have been mortifying. Dieting seemed to me like something skinny girls did, or said they did, to get attention. If anything I was trying to be less visible, to get less attention. I hated every comment about my body. Especially ones that noted its changes. Every compliment about my weight loss or weight gain made me feel so on display. I didn’t want anyone noticing my body at all. I hoped being thinner would help everyone look past it.

What I wanted most of all was to just lose all the weight and move away. Start my life over in a place where no one had ever known me as fat at all.

That’s the amount of shame I felt in my adolescent body. It’s the same shame that rears its head when someone online starts telling me how easy and accessible thin is. Now that I know more I can counter that shame with awareness. An awareness which, if I’m honest, comes with quite a bit of anger. I can see and smell the snake oil, even if the salesman sounds sincere.

Because although CICO works, it never works for long.

It never works because it doesn’t get to the root of disordered eating. It doesn’t acknowledge poverty or food deserts. Or nutrition at all. It doesn’t address the emotional component of food, the cultural components, or eating as a coping method.

I learned to comfort myself with food early in life. It’s the first place I turn when my life feels chaotic — like during a pandemic, for example. Food makes me feel safe. Calorie counting never did anything to challenge that association or help me process my emotions. I just channelled the same nervous energy that used to drive me to overeat into restriction. I was, in effect, doing the same thing. Taking emotional and environmental stress out on my body. I starved my body to feel in control.

However, unlike when I overate, the world congratulated me for restricting, because we equate thin bodies with healthy bodies even when those bodies are crying out for help and care.

Optimistically, if I am able to starve myself for months I will lose weight. But because I’m still the same person — in the same geographic, social, and financial landscape as I was pre restriction — if I haven’t done anything to change the relationship I have with food I will almost certainly regain the weight. Even if I do establish new tools to cope with stress because food was the first tool I used it will always be on the table, forgive the pun.

Additionally, because fat cells take literally years to leave the body after the weight is lost I will regain the weight I lost before incredibly quickly.

That’s right, you don’t actually lose fat when you lose weight, the fat cells just shrink and stay in your body for years. So as soon as you loosen the reins on restriction and finally let yourself have a bit of what you’ve been denying yourself for months, those fat cells plump right back up. Very likely, you’ll gain more weight on top of what you lost, as your body struggles to ensure it can survive the next time you try to starve yourself to death.

Now months later, you’re fat again, or fatter, and you are also furious at yourself for gaining back the weight. So you restrict again. Lose the weight, relax for a moment, then gain it back. Now that’s your life. A vicious cycle that wreaks havoc on your body and does way more harm than that innocent spare tire around your waist ever would have done if you just said screw CICO and left it the hell alone. If, instead of feeling obligated to change your body you’d first tried to accept it and treat it well from the very beginning.

If anyone in your life had presented that as a viable option instead of insisting you shrink.

Leigh, you might ask, how could you know all this? You aren’t a nutritionist!

I would counter that by saying that most fat women over twenty-five have consumed enough (lol) information about nutrition to have earned a freakin PHD on the subject.

My body has played test subject to CICO several times over. I’ve lost over fifty pounds counting calories on three separate occasions. Once during my early teens (around 15), once during my late teens (18), and once in my early twenties (21).

Now, at 26 I am fatter than ever. Because CICO doesn’t actually work. Not long term. Not on people with more to lose than twenty pounds or with histories of disordered eating.

I can recognize that this pandemic is a unique situation, so is this election. Those factors actually offer even more of a reason to be wary of easy fix diets.

2020 has transformed our lives radically in a very short amount of time. Some of us have more time than ever to try new things and experiment with lifestyle changes. Especially those like our poster who don’t have children to homeschool and who haven’t yet returned to work. I’m not saying that her situation isn’t stressful, of course it is, but it is also new. Certain stressors have been alleviated as others have shifted into the foreground. The only things most of us feel some modicum of control over these days are our own bodies. The desire to exert control turns toxic and abusive really quickly. Especially with CICO, the urge to push your caloric intake lower and lower grows in tandem with lack of control in other places.

The best thing to do now is to be gentle with yourself. I’m not saying you shouldn’t experiment, but try adding things into your life instead of cutting things out. Give yourself more of what you know is good, instead of cutting out what has been arbitrarily labelled bad. It’s always a good idea to add more greens to your diet or to take that dance class. Those actions are rooted in healthfulness. CICO is rooted in our desire to conform to society’s expectation of what our bodies should look like — it doesn’t care if it leaves you healthy or dying, it just wants you thin.

When I think of our poster’s “big reveal” what becomes clearest to me is that not much about her changed, physically. The soft round of her belly had shifted slightly, what was pronounced became a suggestion, and the muscles in her legs seemed a bit more defined as she stood in the second frame flexing a calf. The biggest change between each image was the way she held herself.

In the first picture, the before, you couldn’t see her face. Her blonde hair shielded her features as she minded a sauce pan on the stove. She was definitely smiling in that second picture though. Looking right into the camera with a wide grin and perfect posture, shoulders back in contrapposto.

Tall and strong in the knowledge that this version of herself was better than the other.

How sad is that? How sad that we have been so brainwashed into thinking that 20 pounds lost could make a person better?

Is she kinder now? Gentler? Braver? Smarter? Or healthier? Losing 20 pounds, or any amount of weight, doesn’t confirm any of that.

Nonetheless, when we see these posts we are triggered into making all of those assumptions. Assumptions that are informed by the way our society views thinness in opposition with fatness.

While thats nothing new to any of us seasoned fatties, I think of the girl me who spent so much time hiding away in libraries looking for ways to change her prefectly fine body. How seductive it was to feel like I’d found the answer to so many of my problems. How it was very likely I stumbled onto that page after seeing a post just like the one on my feed that inspired this essay.

I wish I could time travel back to that moment and tell the girl that I was the entire truth, that CICO works only temporarily, and at the expense of so much.

But I cannot time travel. And ultimately, I have to be greatful for the journey that led me to the woman I am today. A woman who is fat, and kinder and gentler and braver for it. | Freelance Editor | Essayist | Culture Analyst | Pronouns: she/they

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