After dieting for years, it can be really difficult to transition away from the mindset of “good” and “bad” eating, into neutral territory where there are no rules about how, when, or how much to eat. Counting calories, carbs, fat grams, or anything else can serve as a comfort or crutch, because it helps us feel like we’re in control of our eating. In reality though, the number is what is in control, and our compliance with it (or lack thereof) creates judgement about ourselves, our worth, and our abilities.
Adhering to a strict daily numeric intake is detrimental for a number of reasons, especially because many of these calorie or macro goals create energy deficits in our bodies. Long term, this actually makes it more difficult for us to maintain our weight while also eating enough food. Dieting, with time, always leads to weight gain. (There’s research to prove this.)
But perhaps the biggest problem with counting calories is the fact that it interrupts our natural ability to self-regulate eating. Many women fear that if left to their own devices, their bodies would gain weight, change shape, and crave only “unhealthy” foods. Again, the research shows quite the opposite. Women who are skilled at identifying their body’s own signals actually maintain their weight long-term, and often at a lower number than their dieting counterparts, all while eating MORE food. While there isn’t any benefit to having a lower body weight, this illustrates the point that our bodies aren’t actually trying to behave contrary to our goals. We don’t need to fight against our bodies!
So, in my experience, (both personally and clinically,) a better way to self-monitor our eating habits isn’t by counting, but rather by checking in with ourselves.
I remember a time when I was deep in the world of dieting, but had been introduced to intuitive eating. I had dinner plans with a friend, and “saved up calories” that day by restricting my food throughout the morning and afternoon, so that I could “eat freely” at dinner and not worry about the richness of the meal. After the evening was over, I was pleased that I hadn’t overeaten or binged, which often was what happened after a day of restriction. Curious about the calories in what I’d eaten, I did some mental math about the calorie content of the food, and was upset after realizing I’d likely consumed more than my daily calorie goal.
Looking back on experiences like that make me sad sometimes. First of all, I’d sacrificed incredible amounts of mental energy avoiding food during the day. Second, I actually had successfully eaten according to my hunger cues that evening! Instead of feeling satisfied and enjoying life outside of the food, I felt frustrated and defeated. These feelings were totally undeserved. Food didn’t determine my worth, and regardless of the calorie content of my meal, it’s ALWAYS healthy to honor hunger cues. Our bodies are amazing, resilient, and have an incredible sense of internal wisdom. We just need to tap into it!
Eating without strict rules can feel scary, because the rules help us feel safe. However, they also create more problems for us (binge eating being an especially common one.) If you find yourself tempted to count calories or macros (etc) as a way of evaluating your eating, try checking in with yourself at meal and snack times instead. Ask yourself the following questions to help guide your food choices in terms of what, when, and how much to eat:
- What is my hunger level right now? If I eat now, will I be hungry enough to share in the next meal or snack? If I don’t eat now, will I have the energy I need to sustain me through the rest of my day?
- What food will taste satisfying right now? Which foods will provide my body with lasting energy until my next meal or snack?
- If I keep eating, will my body feel better or will it make me feel worse? If I stop eating now, will my body feel better or worse?
It may seem impossible right now, but when your body knows it can trust you, you will receive signals that say “Stop eating, I’ve had enough” or “Eat some vegetables” in addition to hunger signals and cravings for desserts.
It’s been a long journey, but I can honestly say that I’m at a point when I am able to recognize and honor my body’s signals to eat both cookies and kale. This wasn’t always true for me, so if that doesn’t describe you, there’s hope.