Here’s why I stopped counting calories and what I started doing instead. Read on!
My calorie-counting habits blossomed into regularity in high school
Unsatisfied with the reflection I saw in dance class, I always felt like I had 5-10 lbs to lose to finally have the long, lithe body I wanted. I aimed for 1200-1300 calories on average (not enough for a teenage girl who exercised 3-5 hours a day) because that’s what Women’s Health and similar magazines prescribed for losing weight.
I’d spend a lot of time on websites like LiveStrong, CalorieKing and myfitnesspal…
I began to memorize the content of the foods I ate, and still remember some obscure food items, like how a Blowpop is 60 calories and that two tablespoons of feta cheese is about 45 calories. I’d go through phases of diligently counting and tracking my calories: normally Monday through Thursday, until I’d eat one thing that “threw me off,” (my high school had soft serve ice cream machines, and vanilla combined with coffee always beckoned me), stop tracking, eat kind of shitty, and then “get back on my game” the next Monday. Each Monday I repeated the same self-delusion – “THIS time, I’ll eat perfectly and track my food perfectly and lose the weight I want.” (Of course, looking back, I know I didn’t have 5 lbs to lose.)
In college, I finally did lose 5-10lbs by meticulously tracking my calories. The summer after freshman year, I exercised a ton, ate too little, and came back to school looking significantly different. Three separate ballet teachers complimented the way I had “transformed” and “elongated” my body. It was all sooo great – if I overlooked the minor detail that I was drowning in misery. I constantly counted calories while walking to and from class, wrote them down in a tiny notebook when I had a moment of privacy, and bargained with myself about whether I’d allow 2 tablespoons of feta or a full, gigantic, quarter cup of feta cheese on my salad. Logging more than 1800 calories made me mad at myself and anxious.
Even after this obsessive period, a year or two after college, the ritual of counting my food evolved into different methods. Sometimes I counted “treats” and only allowed myself a certain number of them a week. Sometimes I counted salads, and told myself to eat at least two a day. Sometimes it was counting to zero – a vegan phase in which anything was allowed EXCEPT any animal products. Now armed with an iPhone, and I experimented with a few different calorie tracking apps. The number at the top of the screen overrode my natural hunger signals (eating more to hit my limit even if i wasn’t hungry or stopping eating if i hit my limit even though i was hungry still).
Although my eating rules changed over time – the constant was counting and the riding the emotional roller coaster that the counting subsequently induced.
I didn’t trust my body’s signals and learned to override them or negotiate with them in my mind.
Why I stopped counting calories and what I do instead
When a big breakup coincided with my first choreographic residency, I stumbled into eating more intuitively. I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to punish myself with food, and just started to eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full. To be clear, this period in my life was incredibly difficult – it was not a single moment where I realized “wow – I’ve totally solved ALL of my food issues!”. But – I watched my behavior change, and eventually, I watched my mind change. I liked this new way of eating, this new way of thinking about eating, and how much simpler life felt. I’m grateful that I took the time to cultivate listening to myself more carefully – because my life is much more joyful and much less anxious than it had been before.
My eating is so different now (in fact, when describing my dinner to my sister on the phone last week, she exclaimed – “you ate a burger?!”) and I am so much happier for it. I never count anything, because I know that FOR ME, it ignites a spiral of self-flagellation. No food is off-limits, ever. I listen to what my body tells me it wants – instead of trying to shrink it with arbitrary rules. Some days, I want fruit, coffee and yogurt for breakfast, a gigantic salad for lunch, and fish, rice, and wine with dinner. Other days, I eat pancakes that Ben has made, have a veggie burger with fries, and white pasta with cheese and a couple of beers. But most days are a mix of these two. I rarely eat completely “clean” or completely “junky” because I’m no longer swinging from one extreme to the other. And if I happen to be eating something particularly delicious and overeat – I remind myself that IT’S OK and there is NO NEED for panic. (And in complete honesty, there are still some days that I still panic and feel bad about myself – but they the exception, not the rule.) I My body won’t change from eating too much at one meal – and only by listening, NOT punishing, will my body take care of itself.
*Disclaimer – I realize that tracking/counting works for some people, and my intent with this post is not to discourage tracking, but to encourage finding the method of eating that makes you feel both happiest and healthiest. *