I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in everyone’s life, they’ve spent time Googling the calorie content of your coffee from your favourite coffee shop or constantly being on a calorie counting app (I’m looking at you MyFitnessPal). For many with eating disorders, this quickly becomes a religious thing – you can’t eat anything without knowing the calorie content of the food you’re putting in your mouth.
And if it’s not calorie counting, it’s probably macro counting, recording the number of steps you’ve done or calories burned on the treadmill. Either way, counting can extremely dangerous and obsessive – this article will mainly focus on calorie counting, but it’s applicable to all of the above.
I had to know the calorie content of everything that passed my lips, meaning that most food was shop bought so I could have a more accurate count. Google became my best friend for figuring out how many calories I had for the fraction of the portion I had. I had calories for certain foods memorised – a kids apple, a slice of (absolute rank) low cal bread, the ¼ of a serving of Options hot chocolate
Do I still have those foods in my memory? Yep. Do I count the calories I eat now? Nope.
Once you start counting calories obsessively, the concept of stopping seems impossible. How can you ever live without the calculator app not being constantly open? How could you even go through your day without going onto MyFitnessPal and recording every morsel that goes into your mouth? In short: you can.
I’m not claiming this is an easy process – it can be incredibly anxiety provoking letting go of something that you’re able to control; it’s hard trying to quieten down the voices that want you to track and hush the memorised calories screaming at you.
But it’s worth it.
It’s worth it to let go of this obsession with counting. It’s worth the food freedom. It’s worth all the mental space and energy you now have for more important things. It’s worth it to start seeing food for what it actually is: just food.
Food isn’t a number, it’s not something that exists to give you mental torment or make you fat or any of the other connotations that we have associated food with. Food is the energy source that keeps you alive (nope, coffee and caffeine don’t count as a meal) *sips coffee inconspicuously*. Food is enjoyment, it’s bringing people together, it’s memories and comfort. It’s more than just fuel, and it sure as hell more than a few numbers.
I’ve been there – I know how hard it is to stop calorie counting, and numerous times I thought it was impossible. I even slipped back into calorie counting, but the main difference is that I now know that I can stop. And I know that it’s worth it.
I rarely slip back into it now, so I wanted to share some of my Top Tips for Stopping Calorie Counting! You’ll most likely read bits and think ‘nope, definitely will never be able to do that’, but just trust me. Sorry to burst the bubble (and I know this sucks, but I’m all about giving the honest truth, as much as I hated it at the time), but you didn’t get hooked onto calorie counting over-night, so it’s going to take time for this obsession to at least be dampened down and manageable. Persistence is crucial though.
Anyway, here we go… my Top Tips for Breaking Up with Calorie Counting:
DELETE MyFitnessPal (or whatever app you have)
It’s hard, I know it is, but you need to do it. These apps get you hooked, and they keep you looking at food as numbers. And repeat after me: food is more than just a number.
Stop Googling foods, stop inputting them, close down the calculator app. The only way to start this is to try to go cold-turkey and stop. It’s brutal and hard, and it feels impossible, but you need to dig deep and trust that this is for the best.
You’ll most likely slip up at points in your journey, redownloading it and Googling different foods, but you’ve done it once now, so? You can do it again.
Try to MAKE your own foods
Dust off that old cookbook or go onto your favourite baking blog (Wallflower Kitchen has a recipe for the best triple chocolate cookies you’ll ever eat). Start making food from scratch, then it’s much harder to track the calories. In the depths of my eating disorder, I would bake heaps, but never have any myself. This changed during recovery, because not only do I find baking incredibly therapeutic, it helped me so much with eating foods with unknown calories. Mainly because I was too lazy to calculate all the separate ingredients.
Baking from scratch also helps develop a relationship with food that is more than just numbers – it becomes something that you can do with your mum, something that’s enjoyable to make, something that comforts you on a cold day. It brings in all the aspects of food being more than just fuel/numbers and ultimately aids in the recovery process.
Try to PICK FOODS YOU WANT rather than foods that are lower in calories
This goes back to trying to not view food as numbers. Restaurants have started displaying calories on their menus, which inadvertently causes people to start choosing their meals based on how low the number is, rather than what they really want.
This is where intuitive eating comes into play, something that I will talk about another time, but it’s really important to listen to what you’re actually craving. So go on, have that spaghetti carbonara, because you know it’s going to be delicious, and it’s 100% going to satisfy you.
Even in supermarkets, calories are now centre stage on packaging, causing a host of issues themselves. It’s hard to not look at the calories, but you really need to try to work on not actively looking for them. It will eventually get easier, and you will end up being able to see the calories and still picking the item you want regardless (obviously this is sometimes still challenging, but it does get better and easier). Grab the biscuits you fancy dunking in your tea, rather than opting for that low cal substitute that quite frankly tastes of cardboard.
STAY AWAY from low calorie/diet food
Okay, maybe not all of it – for instance, I actually prefer the taste of Diet Coke to regular Coke so I keep drinking that. Any diet foods that you may have, you need to really take a step back and re-evaluate whether you truly enjoy it. And I mean scrutinise these choices – for the longest time I lied to myself that I liked certain things, and I’m sorry but those 100-calorie mug cakes I used to make were pretty grim.
Choosing the foods that will truly satisfy you will do you so much good, and it’s a step in the right direction towards intuitive eating too (not to mention great for your mental health and soul).
On the whole, diet foods taste crappier than their real counterparts, they’re less satisfying, of less nutritious value and let’s not forget the ridiculously tiny portions.
So you can keep your boring diet-biscuits because my homemade cookies are far better.
I know for me, once I got into the habit of not counting those bloody numbers, I eventually just got used to it. Even on days where I slip up, I actually get too bored and lazy to calculate everything I eat and record it all! Once you challenge those thoughts repeatedly, and actively work towards stopping this obsession, it slowly starts to become a habit – which is great! That’s where you want to get. It means that even when you slip up or your ED becomes louder, you’ll be in the habit to not do what it wants anymore, and it should be easier to get back on the recovery train.
It can be a really slow process breaking up with calorie counting, and you’ll inevitably fall back into it on more vulnerable days, but it gets easier. It really does get easier, and it’s worth it – for the food freedom, for the mental freedom, for the life you gain once you start letting go of this fixation with numbers. And when you slip up? Be gentle with yourself – you’ll get back on track soon.
Take care x