Please Stop Counting Calories

Numbers game

Do you count calories? 

Even in my advanced stage of eating disorder recovery, counting calories is something I struggle with. I can typically tell when I am feeling stressed out or overwhelmed, because it's often these days that I stop more than once and think, "OK, let me take a pause and count how many calories I've eaten today." I don't really know what motivates this behavior, if it's a twisted way of trying to take a break, or if it's a way of trying to assert order in what feels increasingly like an out of control world. Maybe both. 

When I do count how many calories, it acts as a barometer for my mood. If I've eaten a low amount of calories so far that day, I have a lot to look forward to, mostly in the way of future calories. If I've eaten more than usual that day, it suddenly becomes even harder: it's going to be lean times at dinnertime today.

In my more-sick days, I would often have a number in my head of how many calories I "should" eat that day. This was, of course, an unhealthy system, because it really didn't allow much room for natural fluctuation. Whether I'd run a marathon or was sick in bed or did yoga and ran errands or been on a plane all day, that ideal caloric intake did not waver. 

Counting calories doesn't work.

Reader's Digest version? Just like your life is different every day, so are your calorie needs. Different levels of activity, hormonal and stress levels, and so on and so on, affect your calorie needs. So to expect to declare an amount of calories you deem "right" and expect it to jive with what your body needs...well, you're probably goign to be wrong.

These days, I try to approach eating in a more intuitive way, but the moment a stressor crops up, I start counting calories like the taxman. 

While I cannot say that I have reached total peace with this, there are some approaches that have been extremely effective for me in letting the calorie counting go. Here they are--I hope it helps. If you have any to add, please feel free to leave a comment! 

Methods to wean yourself off of counting calories

Schedule a time to count calories for the day. Sort of a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. But instead of letting the crazy calorie counting take over at any time, you schedule a time for it: for instance, "At 5.30 I have an appointment to count calories all I want!". Interestingly, this approach seems to help me because when it becomes an appointment, it becomes alluring to avoid it. Funny, human behavior, isn't it?

Stop for just one meal. Maybe "stop counting calories" is just too much. So, start small. Don't count breakfast one day, don't count dinner the next. If you feel comfortable, stop counting a little bit more--breakfast and your afternoon snack, etc. You might start to find that you are "forgetting" to count calories after a few weeks--what a wonderful feeling!

Eat intuitively for just one meal. This can be a good way to add to your momentum with the "stop counting calories for just one meal" method. Eating intuitively--or knowing when to start and stop just by listening to your body--is likely way too much if you have an eating disorder. But one meal? You can handle it. I promise. And if you can't? Maybe you will next time. It's worth trying. 

Count someone else's calories. It might be mean of me to say this, but it is helpful sometimes to take the spotlight off of myself. I'll watch a food show (Guy Fieri is always good, or Top Chef), and instead of counting my calorie consumption, I'll try to calculate the calorie consumption on the show. Mean spirited? Perhaps. But if this is a gateway to not counting your own calories obsessively, then it's a good first step. Note: I find that it's best to stick to TV and media here, not someone you live with or are related to--that can turn into a new, and still very unhealthy, compulsion.

Let someone else serve you. Someone you trust, and not someone who suffers from an eating disorder. Have them dish out what seems like a reasonable portion for a meal. If it seems scary and too much, you can always reduce your portion or dish out your own (let them know first so they don't get their feelings hurt). But by doing this frequently, you will learn what a normal portion is, and that it's OK to enjoy a healthy portion. 

Know that you can always go back to it. You can quit cold turkey: it has happened. For me, the key to success is having a safety net: if this scary new no-calorie-counting world is just too big, bright, and sharp, you can always go back to the calorie counting. And also know that if this method doesn't work out, you can always try the others. 

Do you have a method to stop counting calories?