Calorie counting is one of my favorite topics to discuss. I’ve written a little about my experience with calorie counting apps (like myfitnesspal) back in 2013 (you can read that blog post here.) I’ve decided to revisit the topic of calorie counting because May is Mental Health Awareness Month and for some, calorie counting can turn into an obsession, leading to anxiety, depression, and symptoms of eating disorders.
Counting calorie intake isn’t all bad. For some, tracking calorie intake can be helpful, especially to those who are beginning to change their diets and want to see where the bulk of their calories comes from. Counting calories can be a good strategy for those who are just learning about nutrition, as the calorie is the most basic element of a nutrition fact label.
For others, calorie counting can be associated with needing control over something. Dieting can be a way to achieve a goal so rigidly that other aspects of life are ignored. I myself have an interesting history with counting calories. I first started counting calories when I was 15 and decided to go on a diet. I didn’t have a clue how many calories I should be eating, so I just settled on 1,500 as my daily goal. Weeks passed and I lost weight, but I continued to drop my calorie count each month, until I was eating around 200 calories a day. I dropped down to just below 90 lbs in several months (I’m 5’6″). Obviously, I was suffering from a severe eating disorder; counting calories wasn’t the cause, but it definitely became a part of my obsession to change my body in hopes of achieving happiness.
When I decided to get help, counting calories was actually a component of my treatment. I was encouraged to record everything I ate and how much in order to meet a certain amount of calories to gain weight each week. But I didn’t gain much weight for a while and I didn’t feel like I was recovering. I was still obsessed with calories! I started to become really frustrated and depressed and eventually my weight went up, up, up and it felt completely out of my control despite recording everything I was eating. My disordered eating lasted years.
It took me a really long time to realize that any external influence over our eating, whether it’s tracking calories, eating a certain amount of food to gain or lose weight, eating huge portions to build muscles, eating tiny portions to get thin, etc. can be obsessive and can be the opposite of what health is. My mental health improved when I began to listen to my own body. My total health (emotional, mental, physical, etc.) improved when I stopped looking to others to tell me what’s best for my body. After much time, I realized the same can be applied to life in general. No one can tell you what’s best for you, because no one is you! I became so fixated on what was outside of me, that I learned to completely ignore my own hunger, fullness, wants, needs, likes, and dislikes.
So, what changed? Like I said, I learned to listen to myself. No calorie listing could ever tell me how hungry I was during lunch and how much I should actually eat to comfortably satiate my hunger. I would be lying if I wrote that I am completely free of counting calories. Every now and then I record what I eat just to get a basic feel of how many calories I’m eating. Sometimes I ask my friends how many calories do they think is in our meals while eating out. I then realize how annoying I must sound and resolve to become less fixated on calories and to just enjoy my food. I’ve found that it can be helpful to record how hungry and full you are before and after a meal instead of recording the calorie amounts in food, so I sometimes do that in place of writing down exact calories and macronutrients. Sometimes I write down what I eat without recording calories. Most days I do have a basic knowledge of (roughly) how many calories without needing to record every single calorie, which is what became so obsessive for me.
No calorie counts here, but I do like to know how I’m eating. Side note: On this particular Saturday, I was really feelin Whole Foods
I no longer struggle with an eating disorder, nor do I struggle with my weight. I accept myself fully, despite knowing that I’m flawed. I sometimes feel fat, I don’t let my thoughts control what I do on my “fat days”. Some days I know I eat a ton, I don’t step on the scale and berate myself afterwards, which I used to do after I went above my “calorie limit” defined by apps and calorie trackers. To me, that is huge progress!
Letting go of obsessively counting calories wasn’t the “cure” but letting go of constantly trying to meet an external value of what I should eat was. You may not have the same opinion of calorie counting. Perhaps counting calories has been immensely helpful in losing or gaining weight. For myself, I don’t mind having a rough estimate, but relying on my own eating intuition has been far more helpful.
My experience isn’t unique. As a nutritionist and student of nutrition, many of my peers have learned to let go of rigid calorie counting. It helps that as nutritionists, we have a great amount of knowledge of food and nutrients and can be healthy eaters without having to know the exact calorie amounts in our food (to be honest, we pretty much know how many calories are in a lot of foods out of sheer habit). When I’m counseling someone or sharing a recipe with someone who is just learning about healthy eating, I sometimes do share how many calories are in a certain food or recipe, especially if it’s a healthier version of a higher calorie recipe. I also encourage people to get familiar with what a calorie is, but to aim to eat the most nutrient-dense foods instead of focusing exclusively on calorie amounts. Above all, I encourage people to eat mindfully, while educating people on eating fruits, vegetables, and smaller portions of sweets and treats. So, what are your thoughts on calorie counting? Do you use fitness/food tracking apps, and if so what are your experiences? Has calorie counting ever been obsessive for you? Feel free to comment, get in touch via facebook or instagram @ vitaminvalentine, or shoot me an email. I love hearing from other nutritionists, nutrition students, and nutrition enthusiasts.