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“How many discretionary calories can I have?” is the wrong question

Posted by on Apr 14, 2011 in Blog Posts | 22 comments

“Uh-oh, I think I just exceeded my daily discretionary calorie limit!”

We are stuck in a control model of feeding and eating; calorie counts, points (BTW Weight Watchers failure rate is around 93% from some estimates-they don’t actually publish data…)

And then I see this graph sourced from the MyPyramid discretionary calorie recommendations. (Original link from USDA post no longer active. Updated resource 2015. Text from original USDA, discretionary calories same.)

How many discretionary calories can I have?
The discretionary calories allowance is based on estimated calorie needs by age/sex group. Physical activity increases calorie needs, so those who are more physically active need more total calories and have a larger discretionary calorie allowance. The discretionary calorie allowance is part of total estimated calorie needs, not in addition to total calorie needs. The chart gives a general guide.

Age and sex
Not physically active*
Physically active**
Children 2-3 years old
1000 calories
1000-1400 calories
165 to 170
Children 4-8 years old
1200-1400 calories
1400-1800 calories
170 to 195
Girls 9-13 years old
1600 calories
1600-2200 calories
130 to 290
Boys 9-13 years old
1800 calories
1800-2600 calories
195 to 410
Girls 14-18 years old
1800 calories
2000-2400 calories
265 to 360

The original post was written by a doctor  about how she lets her children have “170” discretionary calories every day. It struck me how tedious and time-consuming that kind of thinking can be.
This kind of feeding denies the wisdom of internal regulation and turns it all into tidy equations, that when you think about it are totally impractical in “real” life. If your 3 year-old runs around for 30 minutes, she can have an extra 5 calories? Hey, two more sprinkles on that 1/8 cup of low-fat frozen yogurt! (Or whatever it is…)

It’s not how children eat. They eat lots some days, little others. Lots one meal, less the next. This kind of rigid reductionism fights physiology, expects adherence to rigid portions and introduces pressure into feeding. It also, I imagine, leads to apathy for parents who find the notion of counting calories overwhelming. The number crunchers are not better than our bodies at figuring this out.

It makes me sad for parents who want to do the “right thing” and think this is it.  I think especially of the parent who has struggled with an eating disorder who might be given this handout by a pediatrician or parent educator, or the parent of the child growing well at either the high or low end of the growth curve…

This kind of lack of trust in our childrens’ bodies distorts feeding, and undermines the trust we have to have in them to feed well.

What do you think? What if the child wants more and begins to sneak or lie so he can still get the 170 calories at home? Join the discussion on facebook.

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  1. Restless Native

    I can tell you after growing up in a family where the thin people ate a lot and the heavy people picked at food, after refeeding a child from malnutrition/starvation syndrome, after buying groceries and cooking on a budget through two kids’ normal growth including pubertys, and after developing some hormonal/thyroid issues of my own: calories in and calories out isn’t the last word on anything.

  2. Debra

    Are people seriously counting calories for their kids? I am 39 and want to lose 10-15 pounds and can’t even manage to stop and track everything myself. theer is just so much more to life than being pedantic about food (oh i ate 100 extra calories so now i “owe myself” a 15 min jog to counter that intake????).

    As a mom of 2 girls I don’t even want them to be aware of calories except to understand that calories = energy so they need to eat in order to FUEL their bodies to keep swimming, doing gymnastics, dancing and cartwheeling on my lawn! I never use the word diet in our house, just about being healthy (and my 7 1/2 year old has been on a self imposed restrictive eating pattern for 4 years now and i still don’t control her intake / force the issue no matter how much i wish i could just “make” her eat different foods!). If you know you are not feeding your kids fast food every day and they are offered mostly healthy foods + treats without forbidding foods they may just have a shot at growing up without a complex about what they eat.

  3. Lisa

    Hey Katja, you’re awesome, the blog is awesome. You are plenty coherent 🙂

    Pretty much agree with everything you said. Munter and Hirshmann (they wrote Overcoming Overeating) used a great analogy about our cultural obsession with food input/output. They used the analogy of elimination – basically peeing! They asked us to imagine if we were as obsessed about when we pee, exactly how much we pee, comparing our pee amounts to others’, etc… etc… as we are about our food intake. With peeing, we just trust that our bodies (and our children’s bodies) know what they are doing and only getting concerned when we see extremes – like if someone isn’t peeing at all, or peeing copious amounts.

    Not the most elegant of analogies, but I have used it and I think it works.

  4. Alexie

    I don’t have kids, but I feel personally offended by the mere SUGGESTION of treating food that way. Food isn’t just some fuel that gets measured into the body. It is, among many other things, a way that people bond with one another, an expression of culture, an expression of love, a chance to experience the pleasures of the flesh… many, many things. Reducing all of that down to counting calories for CHILDREN is just offensive.

  5. wriggles

    It’s true about trust and its so liberating too. Just that alone actually elevated my mood unexpectedly on a day to day basis. I didn’t realise before how much difference it would make not to be stressed out endlessly around food. I had no idea how much just that stress alone was dragging me down.

    Clearly people do develop problems with their eating, but if that basis of stability was there they’d probably be easier to identify and treat as they’d be less overall disturbance to contend with.

    Every child really deserves to be able to gain and keep that sense of rapport with themselves and their eating.

    • katja

      It IS so liberating! I’ve been there as a mom, and as an eater. I wasn’t too “disordered” before, but even going from pretty good eater to truly tuned in to internal hunger freed a ton of energy. As a parent, you feed so often, that the concern/anxiety starts to take everything over. It pervades and fouls the relationship as a whole when feeding isn’t going well. It’s a huge reason I do what I do. I can’t tell you what a rush I get when clients/readers tell me their lives are better partly because of what I do…

  6. Twistie

    Even adults don’t need/want the same amount of food every day. A couple days ago I was ravenous and ate lots of food. Mr. Twistie got dinner from a local Mexican place we love and the meal I usually eat half of and have the leftovers for lunch the next day? Demolished. I ate every single bite. And that after a bigger than usual breakfast and hearty lunch.

    Yesterday I wasn’t so hungry. Breakfast was a single slice of toast with marmalade and black coffee, lunch was small, and I had a bowl of soup and a glass of Ovaltine (in whole milk, MWHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!) for dinner. I just wasn’t that hungry.

    Both days I listened to my body, ate what seemed good of the options available, and felt utterly satisfied. I figure it all balances out in the longrun. Why spend my life panicking over whether I’m eating ‘too many’ calories one day and ‘not enough’ the next? It’s only when signs of a significant pattern of bingeing or starving starts to emerge that we should intervene.

    There were days when I was little when I didn’t hold still for lunch, and Mom didn’t worry. She knew I would eat later when I was hungrier or the food appealed more to me. and since I was just as nutty for spinach as for chocolate, she knew I was going to get plenty of what my body needed to grow and be strong.

    Most of the time nature really does know best. It’s time we trusted that.

    • katja

      I totally hear you. Some days I’m really hungry, others not so much, some meals I really want the meat, others the salad hits the spot. “Mom didn’t worry…” isn’t that nice! It’s such a gift for the mother and child!
      (Love the evil laughter!!)

  7. Betsy

    The last thing I want to do is teach my kids to count calories. I want them to listen to their bodies, eat when they’re hungry, enjoy a wide range of foods, and stop when they’re full. It amazes me every time they leave half a piece of cake uneaten because “my body is full, mom”. I so wish my mind and body still worked like that!

    • katja

      it’s inspiring, isn’t it!? I improved my trust of my body watching my child leave ice-cream or candy. I didn’t have any major history of trauma around dieting, body issues. I do think almost anyone can relearn to “hear” those internal cues, but it takes lots of time and patience and yes, even some discipline. There are some great resources, and I’ve worked with clients and can make referrals too if you’re interested in learning more about your eating …

    • Heidi

      One of the great gifts to my own trust in my body has been watching my son know his limits so precisely – it allows me to have faith that I, too, can eventually relearn how to recognize those signals in myself.

      I hope he doesn’t learn the word “calorie” for a long, long time.

  8. Gretchen

    Just came from a Moms Club meeting in which they had a “pediatric dietician” come to speak. In actuality she was a dietician at a local fitness club with no specialized training except through parents sending their children through the fitness club’s personal training services.

    I ignored most of it, except had to speak out when she recommended only skim milk to help prevent obesity. Even in children under 2 years old.

    By the way, she was really pushing special fish oil pills that help with everything from attention deficit disorder to lactose intolerance. And, by the way, they sell at the fitness club…

    Thank you for your website!

    • katja

      complain to the Moms Club. Not OK. Ergh. That makes me crazy. Good for you for standing up to that!

      • Gretchen

        Oh yeah. Already did. Also pointed people towards your website and Ellyn Satter’s books & website! I’m happy to report that I do not think any of the other mothers believed what she was saying.

    • Sam

      This is so frustrating to hear, but I’m glad you spoke up. As an RD, I am very bothered when I hear stories like this about the information other RDs are presenting, especially to parents desperate for nutrition info. The good news is that not all RDs have a dieting message. Depending on your area, if I could help locate another RD to speak to your group, let me know. If I’m nearby, I’ll gladly come!

  9. Mary Worthington

    I am thankful for your blog. It keeps me sane. The entire world of healthy eating & feeding as it is dictated by society,advertising, peer pressure, and ridiculous limits on health insurance coverage for nutritional education and counseling has me so frustrated!

    I sought out nurtional counseling at an outpatient clinic of our local children’s hospital as my 14 year old daughter’s insulin levels were elevated. I struggled with an eating disorder as a teen and college student and fight hard not to project my issues on to my daughter. I have worked to establish a healthy attitude about food in our house. The education and mentoring she was provided by the RD was fabulous. Great role modeling, great encouragment and sound education. The services provided – guess what? – Not covered by insurance. Ridiculous. $310 dollars later. I will pay that for my child’s health and knowledge. But the stats on childhood obesity don’t jive with what the health insurance companies will cover. I know I am not really not staying on topic, but I just needed to vent! There is so much misinformation out there! Why can’t our expensive insurance policies provide our kids with good preventative health and wellness info!!!

    • katja

      I am so thrilled you got such great advice. I would highly recommend you ad her name to the list of providers on the HAES network Typical that it’s not covered. What I do is not covered, but it’s prevention, all the way. So, two visits with me to turn around your picky eater? Maybe $200-250 (with RD analysis) a year in feeding therapy? $9,000… That, BTW is covered by insurance. (Now, many in feeding therapy need it clearly, others with no underlying medical or neurological issues got there because of distorted feeding practices that weren’t caught or addressed early enough.)


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