If you look closely you can see my reflection, quivering with both pedantic and puritanical indignation

Currently, it is Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar. Advent is the time during which Christians engage in spiritual preparation for Christmas. It is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter: A time for reflection, prayer and meditation on the coming feast. Advent calendars were meant to help in that preparation. Every day, you would open a window revealing another symbol from the Nativity story — an angel, or a star, or a shepherd — until finally the whole Nativity scene appeared on Christmas Day. There were no sweets or treats in the calendar. It wasn’t about that. It was about, as Christians often say, “the reason for the season”; it was about Jesus.

In Ireland and probably elsewhere, Christmas is no longer a Christian holiday for many people. It no longer has much, if anything, to do with Jesus. It is a cultural celebration of family, light and generosity at the darkest, coldest time of the year. Its central icon, if it has one, is Santa Claus, not Jesus. We count sleeps til Santa, not days til Jesus. (Side issue: Why is measuring time in ‘sleeps’ associated with little kids, when they’re the demographic by far most likely to sleep more than once in each 24-hour period? I don’t have kids, I don’t know. Do they wake up after a nap thinking, “Right, that’s another sleep out of the way. That’s three more to go. Bring on the Hatchimals, Beardo!”)

You might think think the decline in Christianity would lead to a decline in Advent calendars, but you would be wrong. People still buy Advent calendars, or, rather, they buy things that are referred to as Advent calendars, but have nothing to do with Advent. These new, pseudo-Advent calendars have sweets or chocolates behind each door. They’re mostly aimed at the human market, though I did find one for horses on Amazon too. It’s not just sweets though. You can get a protein bar one from My Protein and my local off-license was selling a craft beer one. Most of these calendars start on December 1st. This annoys the pedant in me, because Advent doesn’t necessarily start on the 1st of December. It starts (at least in the Catholic church, the one with which I am familiar) on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Hence the four candles on the Advent wreath — one more candle is lit each Sunday in Advent. Sometimes the first day of Advent might happen to be the 1st of December, but it can be at the end of November or any of the first three days in December. So my first objection to these pseudo-Advent calendars is just nitpickery.

I do have a more substantive objection though. I honestly do not care what religion anyone practices, but I do care about the overall well-being of the society of which I am part, and, to me, using the concept of Advent to sell sweets and alcohol does not seem like a hallmark of a healthy culture. In fact, it seems like a symptom of a society that is utterly lost in the endless insanity of consumer capitalism. Every spiritual tradition I’m aware of balances self-indulgence with self-denial, giving its adherents space for both celebration and reflection. No sane person wishes it could be Christmas every day. That would be bad for our health and tedious beyond belief. Nor does any sane person want every day to be a day of fasting and self-denial — that’s not good for anybody either. We all need balance. But big business doesn’t care what we need, only what it can convince us to buy. So we get ‘Advent calendars’ that, so very far from turning our minds to the meaning of Christmas, just prolong the over-indulgence.

I’m not trying to Scrooge anybody’s buzz here. I just think we should stay alert to the power of capitalism to lull us into tipsy, sugar-induced compliance with a culture and lifestyle that is unfulfilling even to those of us privileged enough to enjoy its ‘comforts’ and hideously unjust to everyone else. If you’re celebrating Christmas, I wish you a truly happy one — not just a merry one.  Meanwhile, as we near the end of Advent, I’ll give the last word to Patrick Kavanagh:


We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Do calories count?

Recently I saw this picture on Facebook:

I have no idea who Christina Dodd is. I suspect I don’t want to know…

Ah, calories, those evil little feckers, hiding in our food and our wardrobes, trying to make us fat. We’re taught to count them from a very young age, often with a view to taking in as few of them as possible and, preferably, somehow burning off even more of them than we take in. Many of never even learn what a calorie is, only that we’re supposed to avoid them as much as possible. We learn that ‘good’ food (i.e. diet food) has fewer calories than ‘bad’ food. I once heard a young woman ask, in tones of horrified incredulity, “Is there calories in FRUIT?” You can see where she was coming from: Fruit is good for you, and calories are baaaaad! How could there be calories in fruit?!

But, of course, there are calories in fruit, as there are in all foods. (In fact, for the most part it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if something has no calories in it, it’s not food.) So what is a calorie? Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy, just like an inch is a unit of distance. Like inches, calories are no longer widely used for scientific purposes. The SI unit of energy is the joule (J). However, in everyday language, many English-speakers (at least here in Ireland anyway) use the term ‘calorie’ when we are talking about a unit of energy in food. In fact, there is another layer of complexity here: Typically, nutrition labels give us the amount in kilocalories and kilojoules. A kilocalorie is 1000 calories, just like a kilometre is 1000 metres.

All of these terms are ways of of talking about the amount of energy in something. But what do we mean by ‘energy’ in this context? Back in school, I memorised the definition “Energy is the ability to do work.” The word ‘energy’ comes from the Greek ‘energeia’, which literally means ‘being at work’ (thanks, grad school Aristotle class!). It seems to me that, in the most general terms,  ‘work’ means causing something to change. So producing heat is ‘work’ in the sense that it makes the air around you warmer. But our conventional understanding of ‘work’ also comes under this definition: If, for example, you lift a bucket of water up off the ground, you’re doing work because you’re overcoming the force of gravity and making the bucket move in a way it wouldn’t do if it was left to its own buckety devices. The force of gravity is actively holding the bucket on the ground, so it takes work to overcome that force and change the situation. This work takes energy. For humans, like all animals, this energy is comes from food.

The calories on the nutrition label are telling us how much work the food will theoretically enable us to do. Different kinds of food have different amounts of energy in them, because they have different ratios of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Fats are the best at storing energy, so foods that are high in fat have a lot of energy packed into a small portion. Carbohydrates (including sugars) are also able to store quite a lot of energy, though they don’t manage to pack it in quite as densely as fats. So, for example, a strawberry might have only one tenth the amount of energy contained in a chocolate even if the two are exactly the same size, because the chocolate has much more fat in it.

But, wait!There’s more! We don’t all convert food into energy in the same way. For one thing, not all our digestive systems work at the same level of efficiency. Some of us are able to absorb more energy from our food than others. And, of the energy we do absorb, some of us are genetically predisposed to use it up quickly in short term work, while others are more inclined to store it away in our fat cells for future use.

Then there’s the fact that different bodies need different amounts of food intake just to keep ticking over, leaving aside any exertion. We often associate ‘burning calories’ with exercise, but the majority of the energy your body needs is just for staying alive. Even when we’re asleep, our bodies are still doing lots of work performing various jobs like breathing and repairing damaged cells, as well as generating heat, which different bodies also do at different rates. The amount of energy your body needs to do this basic ‘staying alive’ work is referred to as your ‘basal metabolic rate’ (BMR). It is difficult to measure an individual’s BMR accurately, but you can get a rough estimate of your BMR by using the Harris-Benedict equation, or one of the more recent variations of it. A version of the Harris-Benedict equation is often used as a basis for estimating how many calories a person needs to eat in order to maintain, increase or decrease her weight. But it only gives a very general guideline because not every body converts food into work at the same rate of efficiency. Two people of the same height and weight can have very different BMRs, for example, if one is more muscular than the other. This means that two outwardly similar people could eat the same diet and do the same exercise and yet end up experiencing quite different effects on their weight.

All this means that the calorie content listed on a nutritional label is really only a rough estimate of how much energy the food might give you, depending on how close you are to average in terms of how you absorb and use up energy from your food. It’s important to remember though, that while calorie content might give you an idea of the quantity of energy in food, it tells you absolutely nothing about quality. To listen to a lot of diet talk or food marketing, you could be forgiven for thinking that low-calorie is the same thing as ‘healthy’ when it comes to food. The way calories get demonised sometimes, you’d think if we all consumed nothing but Diet Coke we’d live forever. But that’s obviously rubbish. The way a lot of ‘diet’ foods are marketed seems to me analogous to the following scenario:

I’m in the market for a new car so I head to my nearest dealership.

Me: I need a new car.

Car Salesperson: How long do you want it be? Say, from headlights to brake lights. Four metres? Four and a half?

Me: Eh, that’s not my primary concern, I want fuel efficiency, comfort, safety features …

Salesperson: Cos we have some very short cars.

Me: Honestly, I’m really not that worried about how long the car is. I’m more concerned about …


Me, backing slowly away: Oooooh…kay..

I mean, the length of the car is not irrelevant. It is useful information. Especially since my parallel parking skills are not great.

Image from Reddit; presumably from the Yay Misogynist Stereotypes Subreddit. Again, pretty sure I don’t want to know…

But the length of the car is by no means the most important criterion on which to choose a car. Similarly, for me, knowing the calorie content of food is useful, but it is by no means the most important piece of information I want to know about any food I’m going to eat. Personally, I sometimes count calories as a quick and dirty way of estimating whether I am eating too much or too little in a given day. This can be handy if I’m eating out, or eating meals I wouldn’t normally eat for some reason. I don’t generally want to be eating too little or too much if I can help it. But it’s very difficult to get the quantities exactly right, and counting calories is only ever a rough guide.

On the other hand, if I focus on quality and make sure I’m getting a good balance of macro- and micro-nutrients, it’s much less likely that my quantities will be way off. To go back to my friend’s incredulous question, yes, there are calories in fruit. Fruit has a lot of sugar (in the form of fructose), and sugar is very high in energy, which is just another way of saying it has a lot of calories. But fruit is, on the whole, other things being equal, really good for you, not just for its vitamins and minerals but also for its sugar, its calories. We need those calories, not only to do what we think of as work, but even just to stay alive. Calories are not the enemy. They are not bad things in food that make you fat, and they are not imps living in your wardrobe making your clothes tighter. In fact, like weight or Body Mass Index or so many other concepts that get thrown around in discussions of fat and health, they’re not actually things at all. They’re just measurements of things. To get the most use out of a measurement, it helps to know what it is a measurement of and how that measurement fits in to your overall project. In terms of healthy eating, I happily admit that calories count, but with the caveat that there’s much more to healthy eating than counting calories.

Why I don’t weigh myself

About eight years ago, I gave up weighing myself. I was, at that time, very fat. I was in the grip of an eating disorder – addicted to eating in general and to certain foods in particular. I didn’t know this when I threw out the scales though. I just knew that I was sick of beating myself up for being fat. I had done that for years and it hadn’t made anything any better. It certainly hadn’t helped me lose weight; I just kept getting fatter. Worrying about my weight just seemed to make me more miserable, even when I was doing my best to be healthy. At that time, my best was limited, not least because I had serious mental health issues that were largely unaddressed, but I was nonetheless doing my best. I genuinely couldn’t do any more or any better. And here’s the thing: It was enough. Just enough, but still enough. I survived. I’m here to tell the tale. The small little actions, the tiny first steps were enough to get me moving in a happier direction. One of these steps was throwing out the scales. Since that small start, I have lost a lot of weight. In clothes sizes, I’ve gone from a 32 to a 16, so I … suppose I’m about half the size I was? (Seriously

Me around my top weight. More fatass; equally badass.

though, I doubt clothes sizes are anywhere near that logical or consistent.)


The standard way to tell this story is to valourise the new, thinner me and to show a kind of contemptuous pity for the old, fatter me. But I don’t see it that way. After all, I took the first, scariest steps when I was still very fat. It was size 32 me that had the guts to walk into the university rec centre and start learning how to lift weights surrounded by sporty-looking undergraduates. It was size 32 me who had to open up to others about how I was eating even though a huge part of me really believed I could not cope with the pain of living without excess food to comfort me. I was then and I am now a brave, strong and hardworking person. That has not changed. I didn’t become brave, strong or hardworking because I got thinner; instead, I got healthier because I already was those things, and I got thinner as a side effect of getting healthier.


This is not to say that everyone who is brave, strong and hardworking will be slim or lose weight. I believe I was what you might call ‘artificially’ fat because of my compulsive overeating. That means I’m quite different from those people who seem to be naturally fat, people who just happen to be bigger but whose eating is not disordered, and who are not depressed, unhealthy or miserable. In any case, whatever the reason for their size, fat people are as brave, strong and hardworking as anyone else. Character has nothing to do with weight one way or the other. I’m not saying I lost weight because of some kind of moral superiority. My point is that, in recovering from my eating disorder, I had to draw on character traits I already had, not just develop new ones. To put it another way, I had to start from where I was. And I had to start with respect and love for myself. Self-loathing and beating myself up had got me nowhere. Obsessively tracking my weight had kept me in the insane cycle of trying to diet, failing, gaining weight and hating myself more and more.

We’re taught that ‘the scales don’t lie.’ Of course they don’t. They’re inanimate objects. But they only give us a very small piece of the truth.  After years of trying and failing to get thin, I had come to treat the number on the scale as if it were a word spoken directly to me by God, a little mystical revelation right there on the bathroom floor, a precious insight into who I really was and whether or not I deserved to exist. I peered at the number like diviners poring over entrails or fortune tellers over tea leaves. But no matter how hard I looked, there really is only so much information I could get from a weighing scales. Scales just tell you (roughly) how much mass is in a thing. (Strictly speaking, pounds, stones and kilos aren’t measurements of weight. They’re measurements of mass, which is not the same thing at all.) Think about that old riddle: Which is heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? The answer (sorry, Limmy) is neither; a pound is a pound. It’s counterintuitive, because we know lead is much, much denser than feathers. But the weight or mass of something doesn’t say anything about its composition, its structure or its density. This is true of simple physical things like feathers and lead; it is even more profoundly true of human beings.

So I don’t worry too much about the scales and what they might have to say about me. And I don’t do ‘before and after’. I try, as best I can, to love, respect and nurture the person I was, the person I am and the person I will continue to be, regardless of my size. And I respect the hell out of any fat person going into the gym for the first time, or any eating disorder sufferer of any size who is ready to face up to the reality of their food behaviours. That takes courage no scale can weigh.