To count or not to count, that is the question. When it comes to improving our eating patterns often people turn to calorie counting to better manage their food intake. Initially, this strategy can be eye-opening for becoming better aware of what is being ingested calorie-wise on a daily basis. Staying informed is important. However, I often meet people who have taken this strategy to the point of obsession with hitting a specific calorie number each day and are driving themselves nuts in the process.
Here are 3 signs that it’s time to loosen the reins on calorie counting:
1. You know the calorie count of calorie-negligent foods
Okay - unless you are a registered dietitian and do this for a living, knowing the calorie count of calorie-negligent foods (like a lettuce leaf) and factoring them into your daily intake means you have officially reached crazy town with your calorie counting. Obsessive calorie counting is typically a by-product of diet mentality and an urgency around weight loss goals but can result in a rigid approach to food intake. The kind of calories we ingest rather than just the number matter. For example, we may be foregoing a group of healthy foods like nuts and seeds due to the high caloric content, but these foods provide valuable nutrients and are actually health-supportive. In addition, obsessive calorie counting tends to negatively impact our ability to recognize and then honor our appetite cues. Tuning into our appetite cues through the practice of mindful eating is JUST as important as having knowledge about what we are eating. When we are only focused on the calorie count and ignoring our appetite cues, we more often undereat or overeat because we are not able to tune into our body’s fluctuating needs in the moment.
2. You are exercising solely to burn calories
If you are obsessed with calorie intake, odds are that you are using exercise as a means to an end to ‘burn calories’. Our eating patterns tend to mirror our exercise patterns, so we need to be careful with how we approach both food and exercise. When we use exercise as a way to compensate for our eating behavior, this sets up a pattern that places exercise into a ‘have to’ category versus a ‘want to’ category. The exercise of choice is typically focused on what will burn the most calories, so no pain/no gain exercise approaches are used to the extreme, which often act as a negative reinforcement for exercise adherence. Not to mention, we may injure ourselves in the process. Using exercise to burn calories is a slippery slope and can sometimes lead to an exercise and/or an eating disorder. Research shows that compulsive exercise usually precedes the onset of an eating disorder and is the last symptom to subside with eating disorder treatment. Finding an exercise you enjoy (or at least don’t hate) is going to better ensure exercise consistency, which is a better predictor of creating a healthier lifestyle and achieving a healthy weight.
3. You go through periods of overly restricting calories
This is the most common trap I see and is basically yo-yo dieting. We can do anything for a short period of time, like starving ourselves by eating too little or depriving ourselves of the foods we love. But every restriction and feeling of deprivation is usually followed by an equal and opposite binge or overeating on the very food(s) we are trying to desperately avoid. Diets have a 95% failure rate, so while we may hold out hope that we are in that exclusive 5% - the odds are against us. The restriction approach to eating is not only crazy-making, it simply doesn’t work long term, and in the short term, it usually wreaks havoc on our mental, emotional and physical well-being. The key here is to hop off the teeter totter of all or nothing with food and to cultivate a lifestyle approach to eating well.
If you recognize yourself in one of these signs of obsessive calorie-counting, it’s time to re-evaluate your approach and take it down a notch (or two) and to not lean so much on the numbers, but to also bring in the practice of tuning into your appetite cues. I often recommend these books as a resource for clients: The Joy of Half a Cookie by Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., and The Appetite Awareness Workbook by Linda Craighead, Ph.D. There is also an app for that…! I like the app, Am I Hungry by Michelle May, MD.
In the end, learning how to tune in to your appetite cues in addition to (or instead of) calorie counting will help to lessen the obsession with being perfect with the number, and to tune into your mind AND body with your eating patterns in order to better meet your health and wellness goals.