“I am aiming for seventeen hundred calories a day,” my sixteen-year-old son said to me a few days ago, as he came down the stairs, looking for a t-shirt to throw on his lanky five foot eleven frame. Housebound and bored, this COVID-19 epidemic has driven him off his Xbox and into some fitness kick. Silver linings.
“Why are you concerned about that?” I said, feeling immediately uneasy that he was going down this road. I have always harbored a fear that my food and body issues have rubbed off on my boys.
“I’m gonna get ripped for the summer,” he said with a gleam in his eye, flexing his already enviable six-pack abs.
“Well, regardless, that is not a sufficient number of calories,“ I said, trying to remain neutral. I wanted to give fact-based nutrition education so he wouldn’t rely on some fitness app or whacky Utube video.
“What do you mean?” My son asked, genuinely confused.
I went on to explain to him how Basal Metabolic Rate works and how much energy a body his age to needs to merely function; To keep his heart beating, his blood pumping, his nervous system clicking and after some simple math calculations, I could see his wheels spinning.
“That is a lot of calories,” he said, his eyes widening with the possibility he could eat a box of Pop-Tarts and still be "ripped.” I should have added “healthy” into my lecture.
“I wonder how much a bowl of cereal is?” he said, wandering around the kitchen, picking up a box of Honey Nut Cheerios from the pantry.
“A hundred and forty calories per cup with milk,” I blurted out, automatically catching both of us a little off guard.
“And the chicken we had for dinner, how many calories in that? He asked, I sensed he was half challenging me and half information seeking.
“One hundred and thirty per three ounces and you had about twice that, so let’s say three hundred,” I said without pause, secretly pleased with myself. For once, my child was impressed with something coming out of my mouth.
“And a banana?” he said, spying the fruit basket, keeping our game going.
One hundred calories. Check mate.
I’m happy report, that based on the mixing bowl size of Golden Grahams that just walked past me, his calorie curiosity hasn’t stuck.
Despite the lightness of our exchange, my ability to recall the numbers came so naturally, I scared myself. Even though I have not engaged in obsessive calorie counting for over a year, when presented, the topic triggered an automatic response that results from a lifelong habit, like biting fingernails or smoking cigarettes.
I had spent decades adjusting and manipulating my caloric intake depending on my energy output, keeping my body at what I believed to be my fighting weight, the weight my body felt good. My exercise routine was so demanding I could justify, on occasion, eating a small number of my favorites like tootsie rolls, Sun Chips, and low-fat ice cream. I felt I had earned those little treats.
Until the melanoma slowed me down.
Although I insisted on continuing to walk hills, play tennis, and go to the gym, due to the restricted mobility of my leg, I was unable to exercise at the intensity I had come to expect of myself. Like the engine of a small boat on an angry sea, my anxious energy was churning yet going nowhere.
It wasn’t enough movement to justify eating the amount of food in which I had become accustomed. I had lost the “wiggle room” to enjoy a little extra food on occasion, like half a homemade brownie after a long tennis match or a slice of chewy sourdough bread at my favorite Italian restaurant. I felt guilty, indulgent and lacking the self-control I had so readily come to rely on. I became laser focused on getting that control back. I knew exactly what I had to do.