By BodyMatters therapist Sarah McMahon
If you have ever engaged in calorie counting you will know that breaking calorie counting is a terrifically difficult challenge, simply because all the information on calories that you have spent so long accumulating is very hard to forget! Calorie counting changes our experience of eating, altering it from being a delicious experience that makes you healthier and happier to a guilty pleasure where the essence of food and the quality of the experience is reduced to a mere number.
Making the commitment to stop calorie counting is often wrought with ambivalence because there are so many reasons why calorie counting seems beneficial. However in my opinion the disadavantages of calorie counting are abundantly greater.
The pros and cons of calorie counting
- Provides education and feedback on food consumed
- Keeps us accountable
- Motivates exercise
- Reduces anxiety
- Removes “guess work”
- Makes us more aware of portion size
In conclusion, at best counting calories could be a good servant- but it is a terrible master.
- Can easily become obsessive
- Increases body shame & body consciousness
- Forgets the fact that no calories are created equal. 100 cals of oreos does not have the same qualities as 100 cals of tomatoes, in terms of every factor- nutrition, volume, impact on the metabolism, flavour etc
- Is not an exact science, particularly if we cook or eat out
- Reduces everything to a number
- Permits us to “eat anything” so long as its within the calorie count (eek this is dangerous!! Think about people who develop addictions to diet soft drinks)
- Alters our capacity to eat intuitively
- Becomes a deciding factor in food choices: A number enters our mind before even contemplating what we feel like or what our bodies need
- Leads to moralising about food (ie simplying food to “good food”/ “bad food”)
- Is very time consuming
- Can be very eating disordered and can increase likelihood of ED behaviour, such as restricting, compensating and binge eating
- Removes enjoyment of food- and increases fear and resentment about eating
- Removes food decisions from being based on hunger and satiety
- Forgets other vital nutritional information such as vitamins, minerals and fibre is far more important
- Is antisocial
- Undermines ‘body trust’ and the realty that our bodies have the capacity to metabolise food without us ‘stage-managing’ this experience
- Calorie count information is based on estimates and is likely to differ significant from what we actually inges
- In simple terms, when you calorie count, food = number of calories = failure, and shares the addictive and dangerous experience that weighing ourselves can have. So what might begin as us trying to control our food intake can ultimately result in our food intake controlling us.
What other things pros and cons can you identify?
So how can you stop?
Instead of calorie counting, challenge yourself to stop looking at labels. What would happen if you ate what you wanted without considering how many calories are in it? How likely is it that your worst fears around eating “forbidden food” – probably fear of weight gain- will become true? Perhaps this is something you could undertake as an experiment? Perhaps you could trial it for a day? After all, stopping calorie counting is certainly an important part of achieving health. After all, the healthiest foods usually don’t have labels!
There are two key principles you can apply to reduce calorie counting:
- Focus on the nutritional density of food. Find foods that are full of nutrients. Our body uses all of the vitamins within the food. Focus on eating real food. It is much more satisfying!
- Focus on the quality of the eating experience. Enjoy the experience eating. Focus on the various elements of food. What does your body feel like eating? How hungry are you? What tastes do you feel like- sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savoury? What does your mouth feel like- something hot or cold, something spicy or sour, something crunchy or smooth? What sort of smells do you want to experience- sweet, salty, sour, bitter?
Engaging either or both of these tools is known as introducing a “competing response”, which is a key element in any habit reversal. Typically a competing response is any behaviours that:
- can be continued for several minutes- so as long as the urge continues
- can be completed as frequently as necessary
- are incompatible with your habit
- do not interfere with other activities
Competing responses also serve to make us more aware of the problematic behavior without engaging in it.
Before you chose a competing response you need to make a decision that you do want to stop calorie counting. This is the third thing you must do if you want to stop calorie counting. Comprise your own list of pros/ cons of calorie counting.
Best wishes with it!!