Are you realizing calorie counting doesn’t work, and ready to let go of it, for good?
Calorie counting is the quintessential ‘dieting tool’. Most of my clients have tried calorie counting at one point or another. And time and time again I hear the same sentiments, finally realizing it doesn’t work, and only causes more stress with food –
“It only causes me to think about food MORE”
“It stresses me out and I don’t trust my body now”
“I eat the same thing every day because it’s safe and I know the calories. I’ve lost any freedom or fun when it comes to food.”
“I feel guilty if I’m more hungry one day, and won’t even go out to eat anymore out of fear of going over my calories.”
“I can’t enjoy even eating out with my friends because I’m so concerned about the calories and logging it.”
“No, I won’t allow myself to eat that. It has too many calories.”
Whether you struggle with a diagnosed Eating Disorder, or have chronically yo-yo dieted, or even just tried a short-term bout of calorie counting and realized it wasn’t for you, there is hope to drop it – for good!
First off, let’s chat – why don’t I recommend counting calories?
Most people have heard the age-old ‘calories in vs. calories’ out myth. That if only we take in less calories than we burn, we can lose weight. So people turn to calorie-counting apps like My Fitness Pal to get in shape. So what’s the problem? For one, it can be a gateway to disordered eating or even a full blown eating disorder. Calorie counting is dieting, and according to the National Eating Disorder Association, 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders¹.
Sure, most people could lose weight if they cut calories, but only in the short-term, and most often it then leads to quick weight re-gain, or even gaining more weight than BEFORE you cut calories! Dieting slows the metabolism, especially the more you undereat. Especially with calorie counting apps that easily miscalculate your calorie needs, the more you undereat, the more your metabolism will slow to compensate. If you’re not eating enough to support a healthy metabolism, your Resting Metabolic Rate will be lower and you will burn fewer calories at rest. Undereating can also cause hormone imbalances, which can cause water retention and fat storage, especially when you (ultimately, because it’s unsustainable), start eating more again.
Bodies are just too smart, and mechanisms occur when you cut calories to try to get you to eat more. The body essentially views dieting as a famine – so it wants you to eat more! Which in turn sets you up for weight regain and a “failed” diet. This occurs 95% of the time – it isn’t your fault, its biology!
Here are some of my main tips to drop the obsessive calorie mindset:
- Get rid of the tools. Delete the calorie counting apps, throw away your food scale, and avoid scouring over food labels. Any ‘tool’ that reinforces calorie counting will only make it harder to change your mindset. Unfollow diet-y social media accounts. Set boundaries around diet & calorie talk with friends, coworkers, and family members. The more you use the ‘tools’ for calorie counting, the more you’re reinforcing those thoughts and behaviors.
- Start to tune in to your body. Working with an RD is recommended for this, especially if you have a history of trauma. The goal is to learn how to tune into your body’s cues, such as energy levels, hunger, fullness, satisfaction, and how different foods make your body feel. When we have our blinders on and are solely thinking about calories or how a food may affect the way our bodies LOOK, we completely get disconnected from thinking about how our bodies FEEL. Start by tuning into what hunger feels like for you, and honor it. The more you feed your body regularly, when it needs it, the more you can gain body trust.
- Write down your motivations. Realize that calorie counting is a waste of time. What is it taking away from you? Time? Energy? Satisfaction with food? Freedom? Joy? Friendships?
- Work on fully understanding/processing why calorie counting doesn’t work, so you can let it go. I could write another whole post on this, but here are a few reminders: 1. We aren’t robots and our energy needs differ from day to day. We can’t expect to eat the exact same amount of food and hit an exact calorie goal day to day. 2. The FDA allows a margin of error up to 20% on food labels. This means that if something says it has 300 calories, it really could be anywhere from 200-400. Plus, all bodies process food differently based on genes, metabolisms, and even the gut microbiome! 3. The old myth calories in vs. calories out is just outdated. It isn’t true, and our bodies are way too complex to be dialed down to solely a simple math equation. It completely negates all the processes, hormones, metabolism, gut microbiome, and psychology at play in the human body.
- Start to think of foods in terms of carbs, fat, protein, fiber, nutrients – instead of just numbers. This is a place I often start with my clients, working on getting adequate intake first and foremost (if we aren’t eating enough, we’re more likely to think of food rigidly), but also focusing on balancing meals with carbs, protein, fat, and fiber. I also encourage you to think about food in terms of “everyday foods” (nutrient-packed foods like whole grain, fats, protein, fruits, veggies, etc.) and “fun foods” (ice cream, donuts, pizza, queso) – to help your brain understand that foods serve different purposes, and all foods fit, no matter their calories. All in all, pizza simply is a mix of carbs, protein, and fat, and is still fuel for our bodies!
- Start to focus on the sensory qualities of food – if your brain is focused on binary terms like “good” or “bad”, especially based solely off calories, practice re-training your brain to think about food differently. What food are you in the mood for? What foods makes your body feel good? Try thinking in terms like: warm, cool, sticky, crunchy, soft, refreshing, energizing, satisfying, filling, delicious, comforting, light, airy, dense.
- Add in more whole foods that don’t have a food label, and take food out of its container that does have a label. Adding in foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, protein, etc. , especially from a bulk session that doesn’t have a label, adds more fiber, color, and nutrients to your diet, but it also improves your gut microbiome, and helps you let go of the calorie mindset when you focus on foods that make your body feel good. Next, try adding in new foods that you don’t know the calorie amount of, and maybe consider taking them out of their box and adding to a clear container, like these. This can be a great if you have an automatic habit of checking the food label.
- If you’re really struggling with the calorie mindset, challenge yourself to order something out at a restaurant (one that does not provide the calorie information readily), and/or have someone cook for you and plate your food. Doing this over and over again can help give you exposures to eating instances where you don’t know the calories, and your brain can learn that it’s not a threat and you can get through it. Bonus points if you have supportive people you’re eating with!
- Choose foods that you ACTUALLY want, not based on the calorie content. Satisfaction plays a huge role in our eating behaviors. Take icecream for example – you may need an ENTIRE pint of “diet icecream” to feel satisfied, but only a few bites of the real ice cream. Satisfaction and pleasure in food actually can help us feel content and like we’ve had enough – so we actually need less of it. If you’re constantly choosing diet or low-cal versions of foods, you’re likely not going to be satisfied, and end up needing more of it or mood food in general.
- Try cooking from cookbooks that don’t have nutritional info. This helps ensure you don’t get triggered into old habits by seeing all the nutrition info on the recipe page. I have a few linked on my resources page if you need some ideas!
So, what to do instead of counting calories?
- Fuel your body with a balance of carbs, protein, fat, and fiber.
- Aim to fill your plate with a variety of food groups and colors.
- Tune in to your hunger, fullness, & satisfaction levels. What does that food feel like for you? Would you eat it again? Do you feel more or less energized after eating it? More or less bloated? More or less satisfied?
- Work on managing your stress. Sometimes we turn to calorie counting as a way to distract ourselves or “control” when we feel like something else is out of control in our lives. Therapy can be a great tool for everyone!
- Move your body in joyful ways that’s sustainable. Tune in to how different activies make your body feel, rather than calories burned.
- Focus on balancing your blood sugar by eating regular meals and snacks roughly every 3-4 hours or so. Balanced blood sugar helps with energy, metabolism, mood, & more.
- Get quality sleep. With inadequate sleep, our hunger hormones increase and our satiety hormones decrease, so it’s easy to feel insatiable after a few nights of not sleeping well!
- Learn more about HAES (Health At Every Size) and Intuitive Eating
- Get 1:1 support by a non-diet Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
- Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3), 209-219.