Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt so consumed with calorie counting that you start to no longer see food for food but as instead a number - calories, macros, points, etc. Instead of choosing foods because you love them or because you know they are going to taste good and be satisfying, you choose them because the “number” is appealing. Or maybe the calories in that food item are so low that you feel that the food item is “better” suited for your diet.
Maybe you’ve felt fearful of consuming a food after calorie counting. Would you have that fear if you hadn’t seen the number in the first place? Have you ever stopped reading about the actual food items on a restaurant board or on a menu because your eyes are darting to the number of calories instead? You open up the menu and instantly you are consumed with the number of calories instead of focusing on the beautiful descriptions of the food items themselves.
If you’re feeling consumed by counting calories, here’s some good news. With the right amount of support and guidance, you can challenge your mind to shift away from the calorie counting stronghold and free up space to focus on a million other things!
Ready to start? Let’s dive in...
Why Calorie Counting Does More Harm Than Good
1. You Ignore body Cues
“I ate lunch and then a few minutes later I was still hungry, so I drank a glass of water which helped for a little. But then I still felt hungry so I went for a walk until it passed.” Sound familiar?
What if you ignored other body cues? “I’m feeling cold…. but I shouldn’t because the thermostat says 68 so that should be warm enough". "I’ll just watch tv until I forget about being cold.” Or “Wow, I’m really tired but it’s only 8 pm and I usually go to bed at 10 pm… I’ll just find something to do until it’s actually time for bed.” Or, a personal favorite, “I really have to pee, but maybe I’ll just call a friend instead and hope that feeling goes away.”
HELLO! Your body is made to signal to your brain what you NEED. If you’re cold, grab another layer, if you’re hot, change into something cooler, if you’re tired, get some rest, if you have to pee, pee and if you’re hungry, EAT!
What are these cues anyway?
Counting calories relies on EXTERNAL cues (usually driven by dieting/diet culture) rather than your natural, INTERNAL cues which help you eat intuitively. External cues include counting and tracking calories, counting macros (grams of fat/carbs/sugar), portion sizes, dietary guidelines, and the clock.
Sure, some of this external information might be helpful to consider from time to time. For example, it might be helpful to learn what a balanced meal or plate looks like, or when you can fit in a meal or snack during a busy day. But taken too far, relying solely on external cues (like calories) can lead to a plethora of negative consequences, including increased stress around food intake.
Internal cues, on the other hand, include things like hunger, fullness, cravings, food preferences, and sensations of flavors, textures, colors, and smells. You develop internal cues at an early age. If you are allowed to be exposed to all foods, you'll naturally crave a variety. You might crave pizza, cookies, ice cream, and chips. You may also crave fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains. Because you aren't using external information to guide your choices, you learn to have a balance of all foods naturally, and your body knows exactly what it needs and how to guide you.
Somewhere along the way, diet culture pressures you to ignore these internal cues and use external information instead. But what if you continued listening?
When you use external cues, you are likely to become more anxious around food and social food events. Oftentimes, you might steer away from the foods you ENJOY by using external guidelines. You skip out on cookies that look or smell good, you don’t allow yourself that extra snack or second portion even if you are hungry.
Re-learning to follow internal cues can be difficult, but it can ultimately lead to a more balanced diet and a happier, healthier relationship with food and your body. A win/win if you ask me!
2. YOU WORRY THAT EATING ANY MORE THAN YOUR "CALORIE LIMIT" WILL LEAD TO WEIGHT GAIN
“If I eat more today than yesterday, I will gain weight!” Another common fear and barrier to intuitive eating that I often hear from my clients.
Weight fluctuations are NORMAL my friends! You may weigh a few pounds more or less, day to day depending on many factors other than what you eat (ie. fluids, hormones, stress, sleep). Your body is constantly seeking balance and will fight hard for stability, some days needing more and others less. Your body is made to regulate temperature, eating, fluids, and weight!
By limiting your intake to a certain number of calories every day, your body is unable to naturally regulate itself. Some days you need MORE than X amount of calories and some days you might need LESS. Varying intake is NORMAL. Your body knows when it needs more. Counting calories (or macros, or anything else) drowns out that innate wisdom and replaces it with worry.
CALORIE COUNTING TRUMPS SOCIAL SPONTENAEITY.
Do you find yourself avoiding social gatherings for fear that the food you may be offered will push you outside of your calorie limit? If you know you have a social event coming up, do you restrict all day, banking your calories so that you can consume them all in one sitting?
If you find yourself avoiding opportunities with family and friends because your calorie counting endeavors are causing you anxiety, it may be time to think about deleting your app and ditching your notebook. One of the MANY reasons we eat food is for enjoyment! Food is pleasurable and even more so when enjoyed with those you care about.
Remember that overall health is about so much more than physical health alone. You may have started counting calories in the name of health. However, when your concern about calorie counting starts to impede on your social life and your mental health, it's no longer supporting your health overall.
What To Do Instead of Calorie Counting
1. Track Your Feelings Instead of Counting Calories
If you’re a long-time calorie counter, you might not feel ready yet to let go of that tracking app. You may be finding it very hard to see anything more than calories when you think of food. In an effort to redirect your thoughts, try writing down how the foods make you feel instead.
The information you’ll gain from this in the long run is much more beneficial than a long list of calorie counts. It can serve as the starting point of a more supportive relationship with food. Becoming more aware of how you feel about food, and the emotional and physical impact of eating on your body and mind, will give you much more useful information to use in the future.
2. Give yourself compassion and ground using “5-4-3-2-1”
Breaking habits, especially calorie counting, can bring up a ton of anxiety and uncertainty. This is where grounding exercises can come in handy. Grounding techniques help reconnect you with the present and bring you out of an unwanted distressing emotion. They help separate you from the distress of your emotional state or situation.
Numbers will, in fact, pop up in your brain uninvited. This can be a challenge since you can't necessarily control your thoughts. What you can do, however, is control your response. Instead of beating yourself up about the situation or getting caught in a downward spiral of thoughts about calories, give yourself compassion. Try using the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise,” — where you identify 5 objects, 4 different sounds, 3 textures, 2 smells, and 1 taste.
By simply focusing your awareness on the present moment, you create space for your body to calm itself. By grounding into the present, you allow your body and brain to perceive that there isn’t an actual threat present. You can then return to enjoying your meal, making memories, and enjoying the people you are with.
3. Seek professional help to heal your relationship with food
You may have gotten really good at counting calories, and it seems impossible to turn that part of your brain "off."
Changing ingrained habits is hard work. AND no matter how difficult it may seem, it is possible to challenge and replace these negative thoughts. Remember: your body is WIRED to listen to your internal cues, so it is never too late to reconnect!
Our team is here to extend our services, comfort, and support to guide you through all the steps necessary to help you get there. We want to see you succeed as much as you want it for yourself! Comment below about your journey, questions, or if you have tried any of these tips that have ultimately worked for you! We always love hearing from you.