Calorie Purgatory

Welcome to the church of excess. It’s not so much that we’re devout. It’s just that we devour. Everything.  This isn’t an old church. It’s new. As much as that, at 46, I remember a time when hunger was common. Not because my family was poor; it’s just that things were different when I was young. If you’ve read any of my blog, you’ll understand that I view the eighties as a powerful decade of change. In the eighties, gyms were haunts frequented by fringe lunatics. Exercise was still experimental; jogging was for perverts. That’s how I saw it. Old men in too-tight shiny shorts. Sweatbands and body odour. The linchpin of a new dawn. When normal people were beginning to care about their figures. Transitioning to the nineties brought acceptance of an otherwise ridiculous pastime. The notion that men and women could grunt together in public spaces. In gyms. In dance studios. It was a brave new world. And it was necessary. By Buddha’s wise, tubby belly, it was vital.

This era brought another change. Calorific excess. Before I tread farther, it’s important to draw a distinction. There is evidence aplenty that we ate more in a domestic sense in the 50’s and 60’s. Manual labour was the dominant form of employment. Calories were vital for hard-working bodies. But these meals were home-cooked. Plenty of fats and carbs, dollops of hell into which any personal trainer would now crush your face to teach you a lesson. But that was then. Calorie expenditure was high in comparison. It didn’t matter that every mealtime you ate lard on a stick and ploughed through fields of starch. Our mums and dads, grandfathers and grandmothers; they worked hard. Damn hard. They needed food. Badly.

But those damn eighties. The cosmic herald of change. Electronics were booming. Automation was beginning to take over. When the Luddites rebelled against the evil cotton machinery, they couldn’t have foreseen how bad things would become. What was once a chore of crank-turning and box-lifting became button-pushing and QC stamping (and even that was supplanted by robotics). Manual work faded to the periphery of construction and low-tech warehouses. At the same time, what had once been regarded as a rare treat—the confectionary delight of sweets—became a marketing monster that, to this day, knows no bounds. A reverse survival metric occurred. Calorie requirements dropped but we began to consume more. And by more, I mean more shit. The staple diet of the 50’s and 60’s: meats, starch and buckets of greens, disappeared from our collective minds. Beige colours, hues of orange and yellow crept into every crevice of culinary expediency. Examine a fast-food menu. Where’s the green? Yeah, the Subway logo is green but the food is orange and brown. What’s the colour of a burger bun? Orange. A fry? Orange. A chicken nugget? Orange. Hell, even our potato-derivative crisps tend to take on an orange hue. Do you know Whatsits? They look like fluffy space-carrots and taste like a savoury sock. And if it doesn’t taste like that, it’s MSG-mageddon. MSG: monosodium glutamate. It’s what makes everything taste like heaven. If heaven is sugary salt.

These new foods, hitherto unknown in the days of our grandparents, brought an abundance of calories. It’s a sobering realisation that we in the west speak of hunger pangs when all we want is another nibble of chocolate. Whatever your foody vice, it’s excess, and the hunger you feel isn’t hunger. It’s conditioned greed. We don’t know hunger. This is an unwelcome statement but I have to say it: in the west, poverty and obesity have high correlations. In 3rd world countries, poverty and starvation bind as one. What can be common to both is malnutrition. Obesity and malnourishment aren’t the odd couple you might believe. Healthy, nutritional food isn’t likely to make you obese. High-sugar, high-fat products will. The beige stuff.

But beige is not the only colour of food to be found in the bowels of calorie purgatory. Shiny and bright, the crunchy fruits of confectionary hell pack a wallop of sugar. It’s a two-pronged attack on more than your waistline. It’s an all-out assault on your health. On the one hand, you have the power of beige; those foodstuffs associated with meals. Burgers, nuggets, all manners of crispy coated deliciousness. These are the insurgents. They’ve replaced what was once green and good. Cheaper, constructed of reclaimed animal parts, these things offer little by way of nutrition. But the shiny rainbows of sugar are the devil (and there’s brown in that spectrum too). Given the choice, looking down the barrel of a health-nut’s gun, I’d always go beige before going rainbow. Sweets, chocolate, cakes—and unfortunately, I’d throw ice-cream into that pot—are a classic western disease. They offer nothing. Nothing. Sugary Soma for the masses.

To be clear, I’m not a food fascist. My plate is more often beige than not. I’m not a hypocrite. I’m a willing accomplice to 21st century apathy. But, in my defence, I still exercise to a degree. I know how physiological systems tick. I sometimes eat healthy food. And if not, I understand the calorie weight of my food. I don’t tabulate spreadsheets of nutrition, that’s excessive. I just know my enemy (me, mostly).

Irrespective of your nutritional downfall, those foods, beige or bright, have a cost. Calories are energy. We all know that. But what is that cost? Pounds of fat? Well, yes. But, and this is a big but (pun intended) there’s another way to look at calories. If exercise or activity is redemption, then this is purgatory. A physical cost to your excess. I’d thought of using tables to illustrate but I prefer to shock through the medium of prose. So, let’s get started.

It’s difficult to give a precise number. But walking one mile will expend approximately 80 calories (plus or minus 20) for a weight range of 120-180lbs. For arguments sake, lets’ call it a round 100 calories for 140 lbs. While this may be high for some, it’s better to aim high and lose, than hit low and gain weight. So, one mile is 100 calories. Now multiply. You eat a 500 calorie 6” subway (easy), that’s a five-mile plod. A two-hour stroll. You have the time for that? But then, a 6” sub is damn tasty (all that MSG). The nibbles cometh. You buy a little cutesy muffin. Strawberry sprinkles to satisfy one of your pretend five-a-day pieces of fruit (it’s okay, I still count the hops in beer as vegetables). That’s another 300 calories. What you class as a small lunch can power an eight-mile amble. That’s almost a quarter of your waking hours spent walking. I mean, you could park your car four miles from the Subway. That’d do it. That would be the calorie purgatory for that cheeky little lunch. But I’m sure as hell you’ll not be doing that.

I’ll take one for the team here. Beer. One can of wonderful craft beer. It doesn’t matter it’s full of pretend vegetables and made from water mixed with cereal. It’s still got calories. Probably 100-150. I’ve had two today. Have I walked them off yet? Don’t be silly. I’m too busy writing this.

You can apply this approach of penitence to all junk calories. They all provide energy but far more than we need. For reference, fitness and training aside, the 26 miles of a marathon will have an immediate calorie cost of about 2600 calories (weight dependent). Other physiological factors will burn through even more for energy recovery and cellular repair but you see the point; you see the numbers. If I order a takeaway pizza, it will likely have enough calories to power a full marathon. When do I burn them off? I won’t. That’s the rub. That is calorie purgatory. You become indebted to the overlords of consumption. All that beige at mealtime. Those sprinkles of candy-coloured sweetness. They come to you with a heavy price. Literally, for many of us.

There is good news though. As long as you have the willpower of the Dalai Lama, you can refuse to bow before the rampant consumerism of the food industry. You can avoid the best-tasting foods the chemical industry has ever created. Drink water, not beer and wine. Chow down on kale and sprouts, not crisps and Maltesers. Unshackle yourself from the devil of delicacy that is 50% fat, 50% sugar. Eat starch. Colour thy plate green with leaves and other tasteless plants…

Don’t bother. Life’s too short. I have a better plan. Eat what you enjoy but understand the cost. Have your own reckoning with calorie purgatory. Mitigate your bad choices with your own redemption. Perhaps eat less beige, tone it down a little. Try some green on your plate. Start easy, lettuce is mostly water and isn’t anywhere as evil as cabbage. Broccoli’s good but takes some time to befriend. I’m proud that I can now eat those Bonzai-esque mini-trees. Might even admit I quite enjoy them. Sprouts though, they can go straight to hell. Just make your choices. Understand them. Pay for them in a way you can tolerate. Calorie purgatory need not be eternal. The devil’s in the choices you make. Remember, no matter what you tell yourself, it is your choice.

One final thing. It’s like the Matrix. You have two choices, Neo. If you take the little green fart-ball, you don’t need to go down that rabbit hole. If you decide to take the beige ball of crispy-coated yumminess, you are going to calorie hell.  

I’m Glad I’m Not Eighteen

In 1992, an excellent year for heavy-metal, techno and alternative rock, I can’t recall being happy. Not really, not like I am now. Back then, I had two working legs, an awesome head of hair, and dressed like a plaid warrior straight out of Seattle (even though I came from a nowhere, wannabe town that served as a sleeping bag for a proper city with a real identity). I’m happy now. I lost that beautiful head of hair—a mane so lustrous I could defeat dragons and dandruff with it. I’m mostly bald, a head reminiscent of an awkward potato. Still, no more hair wax, no more follicle anxiety. I was fit as a fiddle. I could run forever, jump over houses, and climb mountains. I was immortal. Now, I’m quite sure I’m not. I have a leg-brace. I’ve had a hernia. Pretty sure I have another. I’m still happier inhabiting this shell of youth. You’re probably sad reading this (I know my mum is). Well buck up, bucko—I’m not sad. I grew old. I grew up, mostly.

Happy perspective time. I’m 46, going on 3000. I can still bench more than most eighteen-year-olds. I’m more agile on three limbs than most are on four. I could do a plank until gravity gave up—for the record, planks are useless. I imagine the plank was devised by a failed personal trainer with an undiagnosed psychosis and a hatred for people with back pain. If you love planking: stop it now. It’s pointless. It’s the exercise equivalent of belly button fluff. A comedy distraction at bedtime. It’s always grey-blue, why? So, I’m not bummed I lost my hair, my leg, my abdominal resilience. No, not at all. I’m over all that. It’s 2020, and I’m not eighteen. I couldn’t be happier.

Why? Because when I found fitness, social media wasn’t even born.

I have this blog as a means to an end. And mark my words, one day I will meet that end. That sounds terminal. Suppose I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Let me rephrase. One day, my awesomeness will work out for me. Yeah, that’s better. But social media—that’s a bum rush. If I was eighteen now, surrounded by Instagram, Facebook, Tik-Tok, and god knows what else there is to inflict trauma on a young mind, I’d never make it past twenty. And yeah, I know, a lot of people will come in screaming to defend the great value of social media. How it connects you. How it makes you feel relevant in a huge world. Yet at every new turn, it appears to be all-consuming in the lives of younger (and older) people. A digital zombification of reality. Social media isn’t your friend—it’s a brain-melting industry.

In my industry, one from which I feel more and more alienated, the perversion of social media culture has destroyed what it is to understand health and fitness. When I was fourteen years-old, something other than social media changed my life. One single man influenced me. He gave no speech. Promoted no product, at least, of which I was aware. Better yet—he was an adopted Canadian (I have a soft spot for that country). He was Ben Johnson. Before Lance Armstrong, he was the most famous drug cheat of all time. But before I knew that, he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. Problem was, I was a skinny white kid. I figured I could work on the muscles—in truth the skin colour meant nothing. He was simply my hero. To some extent, he still has to be. I was mesmerised by his build, his performance. How he destroyed Carl Lewis and the rest. Ben wasn’t clean, but then, that race is considered the dirtiest 100m in Olympic history. You can Google it; I’m wary of lawyers.

This is a difficult point to make. My hero is a cheat. But I know that. I know his performance wasn’t all natural. I mean, I sort of knew. There were rumours. His build, his crazed, bloodshot/yellow eyes. He was practically leaking dope all over the tracks. The reality is, Ben Johnson is responsible for me getting a weight bench. He’s why, thirty-two years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve progressed from a folding bench, to a smith, a power rack, and finally, a lever gym. The current set-up helps with a bad back and crumbling wrists. I’ve been benching since I was 16 years-old. I am permitted to fall apart.

I lifted weights because of a dream. And I educated myself with books. There was no internet in 1988. Not unless you were a spy, or a covert nuclear specialist. And I wasn’t. What was learned was scientific. What was practiced was proper technique. It was as it was meant to be. What we have now is different. I’ve seen it; heard it from gym members. I see them doing something ‘unusual’ and ask what’s up. It’s my job to guide people down the righteous path of technique. Oftentimes, I need to suggest something other than the weird thing they’re doing. I inject some humour, if that fails, I appeal to reason. But sometimes, at some point, they’ll flash up their phone and say they’re following Handsome Anger-Chuck. He’s an Insta dude, huge and rippled like a mars bar balloon. He’s also clearly, to my educated eye, on drugs. But the gym member doesn’t think so. They flash up another influencer, or some half-wit personal trainer, called Sheila Sugarcheeks. She’s just as bad as Handsome. Both, demented caricatures of what you could achieve using natural methods. I’m not impressed by Sheila. I say so. Another scroll and another nightmare from shadowy fitness hell is staring out from the screen. Not one of these people is real. They never got that shape from their anaemic routine (the secrets of which you can buy, obviously). They’re social media billboards, glossy myths of what you can never be. And the awful part is, no matter what I do, I cannot influence the gym member. They’re sucked into that social media vortex of scroll and believe. Look, here’s Handsome Anger-Chuck squatting a whale. Wonder at Sheila Sugarcheeks deadlifting in a bikini. No, god no. Please, save me.

But that’s the reality of fitness and social media today. Most people are too lazy to research anything. They fall into the rut of believing what that false prophet of fitness says. Never once do they question why their workouts don’t appear to work. Tragically, I’ve seen what happens when the easily influenced follow the influencer. I’ve had those drug discussions. And even when it never gets that far, that intense, I see the heartbreak of failure. The petite woman who questions why she can’t look just like Sheila (who happens to be a six-foot-tall Amazonian). The guy at fifty-five who also questions why he can’t look like Sheila. I suggest other routes for him. But you see the deal? They want to be what they can’t because these personalities promise a lie.

When I was young, Ben Johnson shattered some of my dreams. But I knew what I could do, how far I could go. My idol was broken but that was okay. It meant I knew what was realistic, how I’d never be like him. You don’t get that brutal honesty on social media. Not from those that promote themselves as impossible figurines of heavenly perfection. Nifty AI filters distort things even more, lighting tricks and devious angles push the limits of preening PR. Fitness is a maze of misinformation, marketing and media celebrity. The truth, the reality, is hard to find.

For the younger generation, social media is everywhere. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real thing. You need to follow Sheila, or Handsome, otherwise you’re a loo-hoo-ser. Peer pressure and the constant need to be seen to be perfect is poison. That’s if you follow social media personalities and hang on their words.  I don’t. I’m too old for fashion, too past it for social media gurus. I’m happy now. Looking back, I see I got the best years of fitness. Before social media turned healthy bodies into unhealthy profits. I was influenced long before that circus came to town; learned my truths from my hero cheat. This is for you. Thanks Ben.