My Thoughts About Calorie Counting

I’ve mentioned before on the blog how I’ve never been a fan of my belly. Way back when (I can say that now since I’ve been out of high school for four years now, right? 😉 ), I dieted. I lost weight in my early high school years, and while I was able to maintain that weight loss, it set me up for self-criticism.

I was new to the health game. I listened to the advice I got online and in books without really thinking twice. I thought I needed to eat 1,500 calories or less because that’s what all the big name mags and websites told me. I followed the likes of the Special K Diet, the Flat Belly Diet, and random magazine diets. In the process, I learned that I needed to count calories to keep the weight from coming back.

Sounds like a great mindset for a 17-year-old to have, huh?

Back then, I was eating and exercising to look good, not necessarily for my health. I had the wrong idea, as so many young women do. As I absorbed more and more information, my attitude changed from “look good” to “look, feel, and be good.” I realized that I could combat health problems later in life by eating well. Still, for a few years, the “look good” attitude was always nagging at me. You know what it was saying? Calorie count. Calorie count. You’ll be thin. It’s the only way!

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 9.01.36 AM

Calorie counting led me down an obsessive road. I think it’s extremely sad that I was only a teenager, and I thought it was necessary to control what I was eating so thoroughly. That mindset combined with the dieting led me to eat certain foods because I knew how many calories they were, and I could track them without writing it down. Granted, I would eat other things, too, but I would feel stressed because I didn’t know if I was over that oh-so-low prescribed limit.

Not surprisingly, healthy living blogs helped me come to my senses, specifically those written by RDs. I discovered that my body actually needed more calories than I was eating (I believe those years of calorie counting led to metabolic damage), and perhaps that was why I had random cravings for carbs. Carbs weren’t the devil, they were just what my body needed. My body was craving extra calories, and in the past year and a half or so, I truly started to listen.

I don’t count calories anymore, in the strict sense. I probably never will again. I know what it does to my head – not good things. I’m one of the people out there who can easily fall down that rabbit hole. That’s not to say I don’t ballpark how much I’m eating. I think that’s a habit ingrained in me, but now I use it to know when I’m not eating enough rather than when I eat too much. Even though french fries still stress me out sometimes (hey, I’m human), I feel much freer about eating thanks to dropping the calorie counting.

As much as I love to talk about food and health, there can be a point when it becomes a fixation rather than an interest. I’ll be the first to tell you I still flirt with that line. But thanks to letting go of my calorie counting and restriction, I’m slowly learning how to simply eat for nourishment (okay, okay, and sometimes for fun).

Thanks, Amanda, for hosting.

**As a final note, I want to say that I know that calorie counting can be a good thing for weight loss. I’ve seen tons of success stories and people who can treat calorie counting separately from restriction. It just wasn’t the right thing for me. 

Questions of the Day:
>> What are your thoughts about calorie counting?
>> Have you ever calorie counted?

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42 comments

  1. I have an obsessive personality, so I know that if I ever started calorie counting, I wouldn’t be able to toe the line and give myself a break. I think a lot of us fall into that category. I’ve never done it because, french fries, but can definitely see its benefits if you are trying to lose weight (and NEED to lose weight) as well as its pitfalls if you are like me and tend to go too far with things in general.

    1. Haha yes, french fries. Oh and cake. And ice cream. Agreed, though, if there is a need to like losing an extensive amount of weight or gaining weight then it can be helpful, you just have to look at the whole picture not just simply calories!

  2. Wonderful post Ang. You know I had a history with calorie counting too. It’s like 2014 was the year a lightbulb went off in my head because after two years of it, I just stopped. It wasn’t easy and some days a “calorie thought” still comes to mind but I quickly push it out with my love of health and nourishing my body. Happy for you too!

    1. Thank you! A big lightbulb went off in my head to in this past year. Even last year around my half-marathon time I was still paying more attention to calories than I wanted to be. Still having those thoughts sometimes is natural, since we basically trained ourselves to do it.

  3. Woohooo! I feel I had pretty similar thoughts to you in the past too, calories can be great to educate people when you literally know nothing about what’s in your food but past that I think it can come too much. I remember standing in the queue for coffee shops and completely freaking out because I didn’t know ‘what number’ each drink had, and only cooking simple, boring meals because the maths was easier… how is that living?

    Eat to nourish your body (and occasionally your soul) and it all figures itself out over time. That said, I am struggling a bit at the moment but I think it’s all part of a process and years of obsession can be hard to undo quickly. That’s what I keep telling myself anyway!

    Nice work 🙂

    1. Yep it takes a long time to undo the calorie counting mindset. It’ll come in time. There’s so much more to food than simply calories, too, which is why I’m not sure calorie counting is all it’s cracked up to be. There’s a huge diff between a 400 calorie McDonald’s burger and a 400 calorie salad!

  4. When I first began eating healthy I didn’t realize how much less this was making my calorie count, so my doctor suggested a food diary and seeing how much I really was eating, so like you it was a way to get my calorie count back up, I did feel a little obsessive about it though, I have also played with my macro counting, but this was such a learning experience and really helped me to further my knowledge when it came to nutrition! I think it can totally be a terrible thing to get into, but I also feel it is important in a sense to learn what your macros are and what these do for us, because even if you don’t like protein related foods, protein is still super important for us 🙂 Loved that line you said about talking about fitness and nutrition is great but it can become a fixation 🙂 couldn’t agree more!

    1. I’ve tried figuring out macro counting before and it was way too confusing for me. Not math minded haha! I definitely make sure I get all the essential groups (fat, protein, carbs) at every meal and nowadays that’s about as far as it goes.

  5. Glad you figured out what’s right for you! I think almost every female has had some sort of experience with calorie counting…I think I finally got my health priorities straight when I stopped worrying about it so much. I think it’s harder for people who don’t enjoy healthy food, but I do so there’s no reason I need to worry about dieting or some twisted misconception of “health”. I eat what I want, when I want it and that’s just what works for me. I don’t think we’re born to let food consume our every thoughts!

    1. I will be the first to say I think about food more than the average joe but it’s true – food is there for fun but ultimately it should be easy to figure out because it’s also a necessity that our bodies know more about than we do!

  6. I’ve definitely been down that rabbit hole, and it lead me to a really dark place. I would spend HOURS a day coming up with meal plans and plugging things into calculators and journals. Ugh. What a waste of a good life. I gave up calorie counting for good when I was recovering from my eating disorder, and while it was terrifying “not to know,” it was also one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done and there’s no way I’d ever go back.

  7. I only track my food in MyFitnessPal to ensure that I’m not going way off course. I’m a bigtime snacker and will snack if I feel like it rather than when I’m hungry… Then I tend to lose track of how much I’ve eaten. I’m not strict and often go a bit over my “goal”

  8. I’m always interested to read how different people feel about calorie counting – it has worked for me, at some points in my life, as a tool – it helped me realise how little I was eating in fact, and what nutrients I was skipping. I’m not currently using it because I’m happy with how much I’m eating, which varies almost daily anyway, but I realise that it can be used as a smart tool – in the right hands! The important thing is to not get obsessive about it I guess 😉

    1. Right! Especially when we are dealing with our general health, it’s important to not get too obsessive because then we are over-thinking what could really be a simple thing that we just have to listen to our bodies for.

  9. Agree! It takes up way too much energy + time to calorie count (and I’ve done it too!). Sometimes, I work with people to journal their hunger/fullness or how they feel before/after meals instead of tracking calories, though.

  10. I went through the 1200 calories/day phase for FAR too long and I’ve definitely done some damage to my body. I stopped counting calories almost a year ago and I’m so much happier and healthier. Learning to listen to my body has been amazing. Although I may have gained a bit of weight, I know i’m fitter now than I was then and I’m by far happier as well.

    1. I’m honestly not good with numbers, anyway! That’s why I can’t have any kind of math career 😉 But yeah, I’ve found that I’m way happier and less stressed when I don’t track my calories. It’s a good feeling.

  11. It’s interesting to hear everyone’s stories with calorie counting – it seems like most people don’t really have the greatest things to say about it, myself included. Right now I will track a few times a week so that I have a general idea of where I’m at (to make sure I’m eating enough), but i’m thinking that I don’t even need that anymore – my hunger signals are pretty reflexive of what I need right now. Calorie counting is so time consuming – I prefer spending my time doing something more productive.

    1. Right, you hit the nail on the head there. You had a definitive reason to track your intake, and that’s where the difference lies. By a certain point we should intuitively know if we are meeting our needs! Our body gives us those signals.

  12. I track what I eat, but try not to pay too much attention to the calories. I’m using it more to check what I eat with how my body feels on specific days. Yesderday I was at a work function and ate over twice my calorie ‘allowance’. I don’t have an obsessive personality and for those who don’t i do think it can be a helpful tool for those needing to lose weight. For others, like you said, it can start a very poor mindset.

    1. Yes, I think if you have a lot of weight to lose, calorie counting can be very beneficial. I just don’t see it as a prolonged practice, though. I think tracking food in and of itself can be good (if you need to watch for allergens or something), but even then with my personality I know it could go too far.

  13. Totally agree with you here – even at the end too that there is fine line that counting calories does work for weight loss but at the same time all these 1200-1500 calorie meal plans that tout big weight loss while increasing your exercise by like 20 it a set up for disaster and create that metabolic damage. I know I have done that to my body and have been healing that for a long time, and its true no wonder I craved so much junk – I literally just needed more calories.

    1. Yep I felt the same way. My body wanted any form of carbs it could get, no matter the source. Not fun! I’ve been working on healing it for a long time, too. Even after my half-marathon last year I realized my metabolism wasn’t at its best.

  14. I started calorie counting the summer after I graduated high school (2009) and I’m still really struggling to stop. I feel like it initially helped me lose weight, but as you said, it became an obsession and I wasn’t eating enough, or what my body needed. It’s such a hard thing to stop doing and I really hope I can get to where you are soon!!

  15. Me and calorie counting share a history that’d exhaust the span of a comment and would probably make for its own post. Long story short, though, I’ve had similar experiences like you and am now at a point where I still know the numbers – they’re too damn hard to erase from my brain – but don’t fuss about every morsel anymore. If anything counting roughly helps me ensure I’m eating enough though my appetite is a pretty good signal there already. We’re all just to different to thrive on the same set amount of calories so counting to stay within an arbitrary number proclaimed by a magazine or diet plan is pointless.

    1. Yes! The numbers out there are based on some science but truly are arbitrary. I mean, Michael Phelps and other intense athletes are proof of that. HUGE number of calories in, way over the “prescribed” limits because it’s in relation to activity and body type.

  16. Stoked to hear this is something of the past with you- I can relate to and trying to complete my post on it- it’s hard to write out your thoughts coherently!

    My obsessive personality made me fall pray to this, but also lack of education- I thought losing weight = instant 6 pack and muscles. um, no. No no no.

    Can’t wait to go to Mad Mex with you in a few short months. After meeting the parentals of course.

    1. WAIT WHAT. Are you coming to Pittsburgh?!?!
      I’m on the same page with you there, I always thought weight loss was the key to health. Durrr nope. how much I’ve learned since those early days is astounding, and I still am learning.

  17. You know basically all about this and me. I probably did some serious metabolic damage – I kind of blame the fact I’m constantly hungry on the fact that my body was working on 700-1200 calories a day for the better part of 2012. Def a deep dark path, calorie counting. I kind of figure out the number in my head every day but if I’m over what I want to be at, oh well, there isn’t anything I can do to retroactively go back and change it. Besides, 100 calories of an avocado is way different than 100 calories of a cookie or a piece of white bread.

  18. Oh man oh man did I fall into the calorie counting track. That brought upon SO many problems. It really ruined so much for me. I’m now getting my life back in order, but man.. I wish I never counted calories.

    1. That’s similar to how I feel: it can bring on a lootttt of problems that you end up regretting and having to spend time working through (and we all make choices that bring us to moments like that) but it sucks that we put so much stress on food and numbers when it should be something simple.

  19. I am guilty of the rabbit hole as well, and will never count calories again. It didn’t get me to a horrible spot with my health, but to a point where my boyfriend and mom saw how much it was controlling me. It was probably one of the hardest things to go through and grow from, but I know it has led me to the beautiful place that I am in now. I eat what I want and listen to my cravings. Meat? Probably need protein. Carbs? Carb it up! I have to give credit to HLBs + my CrossFit coach for where I am now. =)

    1. Yep I think that HLBs can be a double-edged sword, they can either pull you out of that path or put you deeper into it. I’m glad you’ve found happiness now, that’s what life is all about! 🙂

  20. I love this, Ang. I went down this track a couple years ago and know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. It’s in my nature to do things 100% or not at all, so this is something I could and would obsess over. Good for you for getting past it and listening to what your body really needs. I know that no matter how much anyone tries to achieve the “perfect body” — whether or not it’s through counting calories — she won’t be able to, because it will never be enough. That’s tough to remember and I definitely have to remind myself every day. Love you!

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