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How To Stop Counting Calories

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Can I Be Addicted To Counting Calories?

Calorie counting CAN be an addiction . If you feel a compulsive urge to change  what you eat based on what you see on a label you might addicted to calorie counting.

Calorie counting can be extremely harmful.  It can be difficult to stop counting calories.  Let’s explore some tips to break up with  calorie counting for good!

The American Psychiatric association describes addiction as the compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences. 

Calories certainly isn’t a physical substance available for consumption (such as tobacco or alcohol). However, compulsive behavior that comes with calorie counting can certainly lead to increased anxiety, depression, and physical distress. 

When people try to stop counting calories they may be overwhelmed with feeling: 

  • a loss of identity
  • lack of control
  • overwhelmed
  • undisciplined
  • unworthy
  • unlovable
  • chaotic

People that are addicted to calorie counting may feel a complete lack of trust in themselves when it comes to making decisions about food and their bodies.  

Pantry with food

 

Will I Have To Count Calories Forever?

A calorie is nothing more than the measurement of  a unit of energy. 

The problem with calorie counting isn’t necessarily the information about a food product we glean from a food label but rather the value attached to a calorie based on diet culture standards. 

While inherently, calories have no moral or ethical value, a preoccupation with counting them will lead to physical and emotional distress.  

I’ve had so many patients ask me “Well how do I stop!” Once they’ve started mentally or manually tracking their calories, it can seem almost a ritualistic part of the daily routine.  

While it seems simple, detaching from the control that calorie counting can offer can be extremely distressing for someone.

There is hope. You don’t HAVE to count calories for anything! And once you start you CAN stop.  

If you have an eating disorder, a member of your healthcare team (such as an eating disorder dietitian) can determine how much energy you need and give you ways to monitor for safe dietary intake without EVER tracking calories.  

You can also use a plate model or simply your levels of hunger/fullness(where appropriate. 

It’s important to note- a hunger/fullness scale is not always helpful for those with extreme restrictive eating) as better measures to determine adequate food intake through the day.

Cartoon balloon and girl with the words free

What Is It Called When You Are Obsessed With Counting Calories?

Many restrictive eating disorders have a focus on calories.  

Orthorexia is commonly associated with a fixation on nutrient dense foods, which can easily translate to  an obsession with calorie counting. If you experience orthorexia, you might compulsively check caloric content in foods or ingredients lists. 

Orthorexia may also manifest in the form of 

  • Veganism
  • Eating only “clean foods”
  • Restricting “junk foods”
  • Obsessing over portion sizes

Other restrictive eating disorders that can be obsessed with calories include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other specified feeding and eating disorder. 

It is important to note that there is no one specific way calorie obsession shows up in any of these disorder types, or even within each disorder. 

What Are Some Ways Calorie Obsession Shows Up?  

Counting calories can be sneaky.  A few ways calorie counting can sabotage our day include: 

  • Only allowing a certain number of calories for each meal or snack. 
  • Permitting an allowance for total calories per day. 
  • Only permitting a certain number of calories from each macronutrient group
  • Limiting the total number of calories that come in the form of “junk food” per day or per week.
Man holding two apples in grocery isle

 

Is It Bad To Be Obsessed With Calories?

There are certain instances where having knowledge surrounding caloric intake can be valuable or even necessary for health and safety. 

These may include: 

  • Injury
  • Illness
  • Extreme sports performance

In these instances, energy needs are often higher. Our hunger/fullness cues may not be on par with the level of intake necessary to meet additional demands. 

However, there is a fine line between awareness and obsession that should be closely monitored when it comes to caloric intake! 

Caloric obsession is damaging to both our mental and physical wellbeing. 

It is also likely something to lead us to unmet nutrient needs, as we are constantly micron-managing what goes into our body. 

Fork with measuring tape wrapped around it

How To Stop Counting Calorie Obsessively When I Can’t Stop Thinking About My Weight

There are many things to consider here, which might go beyond the act of stopping calorie counting.  If you have an eating disorder, you. might not be able to simple stop counting calories on your own, and it will be critical that you work with an eating disorder team to meet your nutrient need.  A HAES dietitian can help you to develop an eating disorder recovery meal plan to that does not include counting calories but still helps you to meet your needs.

You may need to work with a qualified healthcare team to work through any issues with: 

Prior to dismissing obsessions surrounding calorie counting, we likely must first disconnect from the fact that body weight/shape/and size is an overarching prize to be sought.  

 

Man With Pedometer

 

Will Counting Calories Change My Body?

It is  incredibly important for our physical and mental wellbeing to disconnect from the idea that  we ought to change our body weight/shape or size without a medical necessity. 

However theres also just a few things many are not aware of when it comes to obsessing over calories: 

  • It’s not a 1:1 ratio.  Less calories does not equate to less weight. In fact, going below caloric needs will slow the rate of metabolism. 
  • Calorie calculating equations often underestimate needs. 
  • Every type of food has a varying rate of metabolism. 
  • Nutrients vary by season and ripeness
Woman in purple shirt holding a sandwich

Why Do We Like Counting Calories?

For many, calorie counting offers somewhat of a “safety network” in a world thats otherwise drenched with chaos. 

Calorie counting is a “skill” we can get better and better at, and every time we increase our skills-disconnect with the world around us in many ways. 

For example we might: 

  • Obsess over “calories spent” on a walk
  • Walk in place to increase. our “calories burned” on our pedometers. 
  • Hyper focus on the label of every snack to distract us from the actual experience of being with our bodies at meal time. 
  • Directly manipulate the caloric number in our meals to make our bodies feel full or hungry. 
  • Manipulate calories burned on exercise to accomidate for calories spent at meal time. 
  • Manipulate the caloric number to reduce or increase our body mass. 

These abilities provide huge amounts of power in a world many may feel overwhelmed with.  

Most of us want to feel as though our world offers some sort of predictability that will keep us safe.  Calorie counting offers this in many ways.

 

How To Stop Counting Calories Cheat Sheet

 

How To Stop Counting Calories

What Are Some Tools To Reduce Calorie Obsession?

Instead of counting calories, here are some things that may work. 

  • Delete the calorie counting app.  
  • Write down why calorie counting no longer serves you. 
  • Change the world calories to something meaningful (for example- Energy)
  • Change the word calories to something meaningless (Michael Myers points)
  • Cover the label!
  • Be present at each meal. Consider the taste/textures of food. 
  • Use an intuitive eating hunger scale. 
  • Create an alter ego and give it a name (for example- Fred). When you have. the urge to calorie count, blame fred and kick him out. 
  • Give yourself a time limit when shopping at the grocery store
Campbells soup food label

 

Get Honest About Your Relationship With Calorie Counting.

There was definitely a time in my life when I was obsessed with every calorie that went into my body. I then capitalized on this obsession by throwing myself full throttle into dietetics training. 

In the end I learned that calories are just a number, that in certain contexts can provide us with information. Once we begin to assign internal value into our relationship with calories, we ought to examine ways to disconnect from these numbers. 

What is your relationship like with calories? 

Time needed: 30 minutes.

How To Stop Counting Calories

  1. Cover Nutrition Labels In Your Home

    Use a sticker, tape, or marker to cover labels in your home. You can also peel off labels. It is also an option to immediately place food with a label in another container once you get home.

  2. Delete any calorie counting apps

    Calorie counting apps are addicting in many ways. Many people feel dependent on them to guide their eating through the day. Many apps also have reminders that have you constantly obsessing over calories.

  3. Change the Word Calories To Something Meaningless In Your Head

    For example, I bet this cookie has about 200 harry styles points.

  4. Count Other Things In The Room

    If you get the urge to count calories, count colors, plants, magazines or pens in a jar instead.

  5. Create Yourself An Alter Ego And Give It a Name

    Then every time you have the urge to count calories blame it on the alter ego. “Shoot! Fred’s counting calories again!”

  6. Give Yourself a Time Limit While Grocery Shopping

    This helps eliminate the urge to hyper focus on calories in the grocery store.

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!

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