When Counting Calories Becomes Harmful, Instead of Helpful

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This is an example of an app to track calories and macronutrients. Download with caution and read on to learn why.

For anyone that has been reading my blog since I started posting regularly, I tend to take moderate approach to eating and diets. That is, I don’t advocate for elimination diets or encourage people to worry about every morsel that goes into one’s mouth. I write this way because I feel moderation and mindfulness are the two keys to having a good relationship with food while staying healthy. I know from experience that for many people, myself included, going on a restricted diet or being obsessed with calories often is just that—an obsession. I’ve known for a while that I’ve wanted to write about this issue from my own perspective, so I’m going to dedicate this entry to my experiences with calorie counting. Some of you reading may disagree with my own personal feelings on the matter because calorie counting is a legitimate way to lose weight (assuming there is an actual deficit of calories burned vs. consumed). I’m not disagreeing with the laws of thermodynamics, rather I am writing this for people who have counted calories and feel obsessive about it, and for people who have suffered from disordered eating and want to break free of their obsessions with food and calories.

In my experience, once you get into the habit of counting calories and start to get obsessive about it, it can become more destructive than it is helpful. Food becomes only about calories and a lot of judgment can occur based on whether you were “good” or “bad” that day, depending on whether you stayed under your calorie allowance. The pleasure of food is often reduced or eliminated once you begin to see food as calories, which are unwanted to any dieter aiming to lose weight. This is a very destructive mindset to get into, because food is fuel. It can also backfire heavily and lead you to eat in rebellion, because as soon as you eat the forbidden food or go above your allotted calories for the day, you might feel like a failure and simply give up on attempts to be healthier. In a worst case scenario, when this goes on repeatedly it can lead to restricting/compensation eating disorders or binge eating disorder.  Sure, on a “good” day of eating, you may feel powerful and in control, but on a “bad” day of eating, you may feel like an utter failure. This disordered way of viewing food can be avoided by using a different method other than calorie counting to achieve health and weight loss (if desired).

If you feel the need to lose weight, first you need to look at your habits of how you gained weight. Was it a decrease in activity? Increase in junk food?  A combination of both? Once you pin point the definite contributors, you may also want to take a look at what was going on during the period of weight change. Were you under stress for a particular reason? Did you use food to cope with the stress? If so, there are many ways to reduce stress that do not involve food (Listed at the end of this entry are some resources for reducing stress). The next step is to figure out what foods you are likely to overeat. Sweet, salty, high-fat foods are usually everyone’s weakness, which isn’t to say you should completely eliminate them from your diet, but if you keep a steady supply of junk food in your kitchen, you might want to reconsider and only have small portions available or only treat yourself to such foods as a special occasion.

Another change you can make instead of calorie counting is to become a mindful eater. I wrote a post about mindful eating earlier in October, but I will restate the importance of mindfulness with regards to food and eating. Being present during a meal or eating experience is essential for people who eat on autopilot, as well as those who view food solely as calories. It is difficult to truly enjoy a meal when you’re distracted or anxiously calculating the calories in each bite. It is also difficult to gauge your hunger and fullness when you’re not in the present moment. Being mindful allows you to consult your stomach (ask yourself if you are hungry/full/something in between) and your brain (decide what food choice would be both healthy and satisfying) without having to stress out about macronutrient minutia. As you become more in touch with yourself using mindfulness techniques, you’ll probably eat less due to not being distracted or anxious.  Food is also a lot more satisfying, and thus you may require less of it to feel satisfied, when you are actually paying attention to all the sensations that eating involves.

Some of you, especially dieters who’ve relied on counting calories for a long time, may find it difficult to get out of the calorie counting habit and I can definitely relate. I find it very difficult to NOT count calories because I’ve been a calorie counter since my early teens. My wish for anyone that feels obsessive about calorie counting is to get out of that habit as soon as possible by being mindful and using food as fuel. If calorie counting is working for you or you have a detail-oriented mindset and don’t judge yourself for minor food indiscretions, then keep doing what’s working. For anyone that suspects their relationship with food has taken a destructive turn, please visit the following link for a self-assessment to determine whether you may have an eating disorder.

http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/online-eating-disorder-screening

You can also find additional resources on the National Eating Disorder Association website.

Here are some tips for stress relief without using food:

  • Get out of the house/out of the area where junk food is present. Take a ride or walk around your neighborhood.
  • Paint, draw, make beaded jewelry…or take a trip to the nearest art supply store and buy the materials for all of the above!
  • Make an inspirational collage (not using model’s bodies that you wish to attain) but instead, fill it with words of encouragement and pictures of scenery you enjoy. My favorite magazines to use for collages are Outside and Travel + Leisure.
  • Text or call a friend.
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Give yourself a manicure.
  • Get a massage
  • Go to an animal shelter and hug some furry friends
  • Go outside and take pictures
  • Do yoga. Instead of judging yourself for any flexibility limitations, enjoy the way it feels as your body stretches.
  • Organize your closet
  • Listen to music and do one or more of the above

Eating disorders go beyond issues related to food and dieting. Although this post was specifically about calorie counting and its relationship with eating disorders, not everyone with an eating disorder is focused on calories specifically and not everyone who counts calories has an eating disorder. In my experience, calorie counting has not been a positive thing for me to focus on and I know many others in the eating disorders and dietetic communities also agree that obsessive calorie monitoring can lead to a distorted relationship with food.

-Jess

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4 thoughts on “When Counting Calories Becomes Harmful, Instead of Helpful

  1. feedmecolor says:

    Very well said Jess! For anyone who is starting to feel obsessive with calorie counts, I would suggest trying a meal exchange program. A lot of diabetics use this plan as well as others who are managing their weight. I try to post healthy recipes that highlight these exchanges to make meal planning easier for myself. I hope others find it useful as well. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jessie says:

      I agree, a meal exchange way of eating is a great way to bring moderation and healthful eating into balance! Plus, I feel like once you get the hang of what a healthy, balanced, day of eating looks like it becomes less stressful to eat healthy.

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