How to Stop Counting Calories
How do I stop counting and obsessing over the calories in my food? It's one of the questions I'm asked on a daily basis, and something I myself fought a mental battle with for many many years.
Now, I want to start off by saying that counting calories is NOT necessarily a bad thing. Maybe, you're just curious as to how much you're eating on a daily basis or it helps you stay accountable and motivated to reaching your goals and fuelling your body right...it's the mindset towards counting that makes a beneficial or very harmful and negative thing. If counting calories is making you obsess over the numbers in your food, feel restricted and deprived, feel anxious about food and feel like you have to track every single morsel of food that passes your lips - then it's time to break up with calorie counting.
Calories are not something that needs to be feared. They aren't the enemy, and they won't make you 'fat'. And a food with more calories isn't worse for you than a food with less calories. Calories are units of energy. They fuel the cells in our body and allow us to function, live, move, breathe, have energy and do all the things we love! Without them (or enough of them), not only do our bodies suffer and become weak, but we could literally waste away and die.
Sorry to be dramatic, but it's the truth.
Hundreds of apps and online calculators exist these days that allow us to track our calorie intake and give us a 'target' of what we 'should' eat. Most of the time, a very inaccurate one! While they may be helpful in some ways for some people, what I don't like about these apps is that they reduce food to a numerical value, and lead people into believing they have to stick to an unrealistically low number of calories a day in order to be healthy, which can potentially be detrimental to the body and mind. And our bodies were definitely not meant to be fuelled according to some numerical value, randomly generated by an app...
Think about it, when we were kids we didn't know anything about what calories were, or worry about eating too much. We simply ate when we were hungry and stopped when we were full. Optimally, this is how it should be. But I get that this is so much easier said than done with all the confusion, conflicting information and societal expectations and 'rules' of what, when and how much we should and shouldn't eat!!
Why can counting calories be misleading?
The calorie count of a food says literally nothing about that food except for it's macronutrient content. It doesn't tell you whether it's a whole, unprocessed food straight from the Earth, or something nourishing and homemade, or whether it's a highly processed and refined, packaged food-like product that has an ingredient list sounding like it's straight out of a chemistry textbook. When I used to pick foods purely based on what was lowest in calories, I would often go for something like a diet yoghurt or bar (full of artificial sugars, colours, flavours, thickeners and without any real nutrient content at all!) over a banana or handful of almonds, because the latter had more calories, fat or carbs. How backwards is that?
I've found that people who track their calories also tend to reach for more processed and packaged foods simply because they are easier to track! Whole foods and homemade foods don't come with a nutritional label after all, and take a lot more time and effort to weigh, measure and calculate, as opposed to simply reading a label...
What we should be focusing on is nourishing and fuelling our body with real, wholesome foods, and enough of them, instead of trying to achieve a certain numerical value.
FYI, calorie counts aren't even very accurate at all. Let's think about what a calorie even is to start with? It's measure by the amount of heat a food releases when it's combusted (ie. exploded) in a thick-walled machine made of steel, called a bomb calorimeter. Our bodies aren't machines. They don't explode food. We each digest, absorb, metabolise and process foods and nutrients in complex and slightly different ways depending on a huge range of factors including our genetics and microbiome. Different foods aren't even digested and absorbed fully, such as certain types of fibre and prebiotics! We extract less calories from whole, unprocessed foods like veggies, wholegrain and nuts (especially when they are raw!), than refined foods like cakes and breakfast cereals because our bodies have to work harder to digest and break them down.
Furthermore, even if we did all extract the exact same amount of energy from foods as each other, the calorie content of these foods varies hugely depending on things like the growing conditions (season, how much sunlight the food received, the soil), variety, biochemical structure and more. The nutritional panel information and calorie count found in databases have a huge variability of true accuracy!
Another important thing to think about is your own personal relationship with food in regards to calorie counting. Having to weigh, measure, track and count food can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for some, even lead to eating disorders or hinder recovery. Especially when situations arise when you suddenly can't track your food (such as eating at a restaurant with friends or when your Mum cooks you your favourite dinner). If calorie counting is making you feel stress and anxious, deprived and restricted, worn down, socially isolated or look at food with a negative mindset, then it's time to stop. Switch your focus from numbers to listening to your body and eating wholesome, balanced and nourishing meals instead, or seek the help of a qualified Nutritionist or Dietitian who can help guide you on the right path!
So when is it helpful?
Despite all these downsides, there can be positives to calorie counting too! Especially when it's used in short-term situations as a 'check-in' to help people become more aware of how much they are or aren't eating. I'll give you two examples:
My Dad is vegan and eats a pretty damn healthy plant based diet. He's a painter so has an active lifestyle and does daily yoga, with regular running and walking. The past few weeks, he noticed he gained a bit of fat around his midsection without making any diet changes and asked me for advice. I told him it was all the beer he's been drinking lately, but he said it wasn't that much, sooo I decided to track his calories for a day or two. Turns out, he would have been pretty spot on with his food intake to maintain a perfectly healthy weight BUT the amount of beer and wine he had throughout the day added an extra 300-800 (!!) calories to his intake. After this little shock at how much the alcohol added up to over the course of the week, he was suddenly very conscious of how much he drank and decided to reduce it to no more than 1-2 drinks per day. Mystery solved!
I come from a past of severe anorexia and ate very small quantities of food for many many years. Plant based whole foods also tend to be very high volume for not very many calories, therefore when I first came to the vegan lifestyle, even though I had already more than tripled my portion sizes, I was still drastically under eating, without even wanting to or realising. For me, tracking for a few days was a helpful way to become aware of juts how much MORE I needed to eat in order to provide my body with everything it needed. Fast forward a few years: My current goal is to gain muscle, which means I have to eat in a caloric surplus. Especially with training 6 days a week, this means my energy requirements are very high. Tracking my calories (very roughly!) helps me ensure that I am eating enough to fuel my body, recovery efficiently and continue gaining strength. And for that it's been very helpful!
Now, only YOU can tell whether counting calories is something beneficial or harmful for you. For the majority of people I would recommend moving away from counting and tracking calories, and instead learn to eat intuitively, with a focus on balanced, whole foods meals, or seeking professional help to do so. These numbers can so easily become an obsession that consumes our minds and severely impairs our ability to listen to our bodies and focus on what true health is. Food is SO much more than numbers and what/how much we eat in a day should be decided by our hunger levels, intuition and common sense, NOT some online calculator.
My tips on how to stop counting calories:
- Delete all calorie counting apps and get rid of measuring scales - This is essential if you want to stop counting, because if they're still there, the temptation to use them will just get too big! Not counting calories is so much easier when you aren't measuring and weighing everything, and even though it might be scary at first, trust that after such a long time of tracking your food, you KNOW how much you need without having to measure to the exact gram. And this step also helps you start seeing food as more than just numbers, and begin tuning into your intuition instead.
- Start one meal at a time - For some people it's easier to go to cold turkey, but for others it might be easier to start small. Start by not counting calories for one of your meals a day, or stop measuring your snacks. Then slowly, add in another meal and then another. This way you are easing away gently without creating too much anxiety. It also shows you that nothing bad happens when you stop tracking some of your meals, which helps empower and reassure you that you can do this (because you totally can!!).
- Just guess for a while - Do you feel like you already have a complete calorie database for every food you usually eat entirely in your head? That's ok. It will take a long time to unlearn some of these behaviours. Estimating instead of consciously going and weighing your food is a great way to move towards stopping completely and can provide reassurance while moving away from calorie tracking.
- Eat more homemade and unmeasured foods - Also challenge yourself to eat out and eat food that someone else has cooked. That way it's impossible for you to track or know exactly how many calories you are eating. It might be scary at first, but the only way to conquer fears is to face them head on until they are no longer a fear! Again, you will see that nothing bad happens when you don't know the numerical value of the beautiful food that is nourishing your body.
- Get real with yourself - Ask yourself, is calorie counting adding anything positive and beneficial to your life and helping you in any way? If the answer is no, stop. Like, right now. Life is WAY too short to spend time and energy weighing and measuring every morsel of food that goes into your mouth if it doesn't have a positive effect on your health and wellbeing. Imagine what you could achieve if put all that extra time, energy and head space towards instead?
- Seek professional help - If you are struggling, mentally or physically with calorie counting, or feel like you are so out of touch with your own body that you don't feel confident in knowing how much you need to eat without tracking everything, please reach out to a health professional to help guide you back on the right path. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness, in fact, it's one of strength and courage! You are not alone and you deserve all the help and support you need.
Thank you for reading this very very long post and I hope you found it somewhat helpful. This is an area I'm so so passionate about and I could probably go on talking forever! If you would like some more, personalised help and advice on this topic, please don't hesitate to reach out to me via email or DM on Instagram! xxx
Photos by the wonderful Rae Marie.