Calories are the measurement of energy. Nutritionally speaking, it is the energy that we get from food and drinks, and the energy that keeps us alive--breathing, pumping blood around the body, keeping our organs functioning properly, digesting food and engaging in physical activities. As obesity is on the rise, the subject of weight loss is gaining its popularity and more information is available to us than ever before. Sources that seem to encourage calorie-counting are ubiquitous—most packaged foods are now required by law to specify the calorific content and some restaurant chains now list calorie values next to each menu item, and even the NHS launched the Change4Life campaign last year encouraging us to count (and restrict) calories for our meals and snacks (and for our children as well)!
But the dangers of counting calories should not be overlooked. Your mindset towards numbers and food can become quite rigid and can eventually put your physical and mental health at stake. It is so easy to become obsessed with numbers—weighing, measuring, counting and logging your food intake, that you can let your thoughts and behavior take over and control you. You think you are in control, but in fact, you are controlled by food. Stress and anxiety can set in, as the calorific value of food is your only focus, and consuming food with unknown calories can be so anxiety-provoking. Many even withdraw themselves from social events. These become disordered eating habits where you become more controlled by food, by your “diet rules”, by the voice in your head and you are preoccupied with food.
Healthcare professionals and medical literature often give out daily recommended calorie intake to people who are looking to lose weight. The problem? Every individual’s body is different, so these figures in regards to the number of calories we need per day for weight loss or weight maintenance are only general guidelines. Age, gender, weight, height, metabolic rate, body temperature, the food that we eat, activity levels etc. all have an impact…and even within the same person, our daily energy needs can vary greatly from day to day. So is there even a point in even trying to set a calorie limit and stick to it?
So how do you stop?
Of course I know this can be a real challenge, especially if you’ve been counting and restricting calories for years. But be brave, tell yourself out loud that you recognize you’ve been counting calories and it’s not doing your mental health any good.
Start by removing scales, measuring spoons/cups etc. when you feel most motivated to stop. Food is more than just numbers. Listen to your body.Try to have your meals with family or friends who are able to distract you from adding all the numbers up in your head.Practise mindful eating. Allow yourself time to eat. Eating is taking care of yourself. Sit down for meals. Chew your food thoroughly. Pay attention to how the food looks, smells and tastes. How does your mouth feel? What is the texture of the food? You will enjoy your food more, feel more satisfied and be more connected to your body signals such as hunger cues and your emotions. There is no need to clear the plate. Recognize when you're full. Stop eating if you no longer feel hungry. Make this a deliberate, physical act by putting down your cutlery and putting the dishes away. You don't want to end up feeling uncomfortably full--for many people, this sensation sets them up for binge episodes. Do not compensate for your meals or binges. This only sets you up for further binging. No food is good or bad. Food has no moral value. Make all foods permissible and don't cut out any food groups from your diet. All food is fuel and gives your body the energy and nutrients it needs. Mobile apps and fitness trackers allow you to track what you’ve consumed and burnt off but again, they reduce everything to just numbers. Delete calorie-counting apps. If you have the habit of picking up your phone after every time you eat, try installing some mindfulness or relaxation apps in place of your food logging apps. This will gradually help you feel more relaxed about not counting calories.