Today I’m going to answer another question that often gets asked as women want to have less struggle in their lives with food: Should I count calories to manage my weight?
If someone came to me and their goal was to lose weight quickly and they had a normal relationship with food, then yes, I would recommend calorie counting as the easiest and most reliable way to reach their fast weight loss goal (in this scenario, I’m going to define “fast” as safe [.5 lbs – 1lb a week], consistent, and doable).
But the majority of people looking to lose weight don’t actually have a normal relationship with food or their body and to them I can’t recommend calorie counting, for reasons I will outline below. In real practice, I don’t recommend calorie counting to my clients (or to anyone who feels overwhelmed by food) and that is because I believe calorie counting conflicts with their long term goals. Most of the women I’ve worked with are trying to learn how to have less stress and worry around food and they are learning to trust their bodies to tell them what to eat. Calorie counting prevents them from doing that and for me to support goals of just weight loss can set these types of women up for a long painful struggle that is way too familiar to me. I’d like to prevent others from having to spend so many years beating themselves up physically and emotionally the way I did.
I lost 90 lbs between 2003 – 2007 by strict calorie counting and lots of punishing exercise. This was still in the low fat days so I also cut fat way down in order to keep my calories low. This meant I ate lots of refined foods just because they were low calorie and I almost always felt hungry. I had been “fat” for as long as I could remember and felt so proud that I finally found the self-discipline to stick to something that was working. The reason it took 4 years to lose the weight was because every so often I’d go off of calorie counting (because it was exhausting to have to calculate and track every single day) and decide that I could handle eating on my own without it. And each time I did that it resulted in a bit of weight gain. I’d drop 25 lbs, gain 10, drop 15 lbs, gain 7 back, drop another 25 lbs etc. When I finally hit my low weight (about 137 lbs), I was thrilled and was determined to maintain it.
I tried to maintain it by running, a lot and of course continued calorie counting. Eventually I injured myself and couldn’t run anymore and had to do less vigorous exercise. I also took a desk job that meant I was less active than normal 5 days a week. And then I decided again, that my food issues were totally fine now and I could stop calorie counting – because REALLY WHO CAN DO THIS FOREVER?? IT’S MAKING ME FEEL INSANE.
And the yo-yo-ing started again. But it was going in the opposite direction.
Instead of gaining a little weight and then losing more than that again and again, I started to gain back lots of weight. Between 2008 and 2013 I gained 60 lbs of that 90 lb loss back. It’s not like I shut my eyes and just “gave up” on weight loss during this period – I was constantly and actively looking and thinking of ways I could lose the weight again. I’d go back to calorie counting for a bit, drop a few pounds, feel better and then let go of calorie counting again. I was so burnt out on calorie counting that I couldn’t sustain doing it for more than long enough to just drop a couple of pounds.
It was a rough couple of years. I felt terrible about my body and ashamed, sad, embarrassed about myself. Even though I still weighed less than when I started this journey, I felt even worse than I had felt at my heaviest weight. I felt like I was wearing a sign on my body that said “I’m a failure!” to everyone who had known me while I was losing weight.
Calorie counting does work. It can absolutely help you lose weight and it’s a far safer method of losing weight (especially if you choose to eat whole foods) than taking pills, powders, shakes or having to resort to surgeries. It can be done in a way that isn’t extreme (by eating just a 100 or 200 less calories each day than you normally would) and leads to slow weight loss, rather than in a way that is dangerous (such as eating under 1200 calories a day).
It works – But, again, I wouldn’t recommend it if you have any issues eating “normally.
Calorie counting is a tool that reinforces the need to listen to something else other than our bodies. I used it as a guide to tell me when to stop eating, when I had enough, when I must be full. Serving sizes didn’t matter because I had my calorie count to guide me. Fullness signals in my body didn’t register because the calories I ate told me I hadn’t had enough. Whether or not I was hungry didn’t matter, if it was 7pm and I had only had 800 calories so far, that meant I could eat a massive dinner. Even when I was hungry, if I had eaten a certain number of calories, I had to ignore my hunger signals and stick to my calorie goals.
All physical sensations, trust and knowing in my body went out the window for 10 years. Calorie counting got me more lost in my body than I was at the outset of my weight loss journey.
I weighed 225 in college because I had trouble listening to my body in the first place. I had gained so much weight because I used food as comfort instead of dealing with feelings I didn’t want to feel. And then when I found calorie counting, it was GREAT because it made it possible for me to both lose weight (my biggest aspiration at this point in life) and continue numbing and distrusting my body. I could ignore everything my body told me because calorie counting would lead me to where I wanted to be.
None of this would be a problem if calorie counting every day for the rest of my life was possible or reasonable. Well, technically it’s possible, but it’s not something I’m willing or really emotionally able to do. Even though I still have calorie counts for everything under the sun still memorized in my brain (can’t shake it no matter how hard I try!), the act of tallying up every bite I eat and the emotional imprint it has on me if it’s a “good” or “bad” number is exhausting on a deep soul level. It saps my energy, my creativity and my focus. There’s so much more interesting and important sh*t for me to do than that.
Because I couldn’t and wouldn’t calorie count for the rest of my life, when I stopped it became glaringly obvious that I didn’t know how to eat in a way that my body needed. I had lost touch with all intuitive knowledge my body had and because of that every meal was a gargantuan battle between should and shouldn’t, want and need, desire and punishment. I was so f*%king confused!
I’ve had to spend the last 3.5 years reteaching myself how and how much to eat, how to listen to my body, how to trust what it tells me and how to know if a food I’m eating is adding value to my life. All because I clutched too tightly to a tool like calorie counting. It’s still a learning process and I still make some goofs and poor decisions sometimes but I am so crazily happy that my choices are now based on the trust I have built with my own body and it’s needs now, instead of trusting an external tool.
Should you count calories to manage your weight?
My answer is it’s ok only if you don’t have any issues with food. If you already only eat when you are hungry. If you only eat to fuel your body (and minimally for fun). If you already know when you’ve had enough to eat based on signals inside your body, then you can probably use calorie counting for the short term to lose a few pounds. But before you do, ask yourself this:
Why do you need to lose weight in the first place?
Why did you gain weight that needs to be lost?
And how many solutions have you sought that are outside of yourself?
Most of us gain weight because we are eating too much. We don’t eat too much because our bodies need it. We eat too much for a myriad of reasons and most of them have to do with not dealing with our feelings or being deprogrammed from feeling our hunger signals. If you have weight to lose because of these things, then calorie counting may only exacerbate your struggle in the long term.
If I knew then what I know now and could do things over, I would not choose to lose the weight with calorie counting. I would have paid more attention to why I gained weight the first time and why it was so hard for me to eat without something or someone telling me what / how much to eat. I would have learned how to decode the needs of my body and how to stay with myself when uncomfortable craptastic feelings came up. It took me years to lose the weight in the first place – learning to eat more normally would have saved me a ton of time and pain. Moral of the story: think about why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place before choosing how to move forward.
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