Counting Calories

Calories. They’re energy, nutrients, and essential for life…

So why does society turn every little calorie into a demon?

Counting calories is especially popular among women. They spend more and more time restricting or regulating calorie intake. At first, seeing how many calories are in that pasta or piece of bread seems fine. It can’t hurt to look, right? But this emphasis on numbers can lead to weight obsession or a full-blown eating disorder.

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Online calculators don’t help either. I’ve been through a time where, after every meal, I religiously typed in my food into a MyFitnessPal account. Not only could I see what other people were eating (to compare, of course!), but I could also see how hard I needed to workout in order to burn off that sandwich or fruit. Yes, I sometimes even weighed all the apples in my fridge to find out exactly how many calories each one had.

Forum boards asked fellow users the best tips for ordering out at restaurants. Complained that they couldn’t find the exact recipe to type into Livestrong and get an accurate calorie count. Argued over whether a mini cannoli had closer to 80 or 200 calories. Questioned whether having a banana was too many carbs.

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Calories—the very things our bodies need to survive—quickly becomes an obsession through these online sites. I’m not saying these calorie counters can’t be helpful. If you need to lose weight or watch what you eat for medical reasons, they can be way easier than writing everything down in a notebook. But, for the majority of us, obsession consumes us. Soon, we’re plugging in everything from gum to water, turning eating into “a numbers game.”

Just like specific eating habits (such as cutting up food a certain way or only eating at certain times), rituals like calorie counters help eating disorder sufferers feel in control. And they have support on these online forums.

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Why are calories ineffective ways of measuring health?

  1. The food easiest to get an accurate count are usually the most processed. (How often have you picked up an orange with a nutrition label?)
  1. Calories are estimates anyway. Even packages aren’t perfect.
  1. The body is usually pretty good at regulating its energy intake/outtake naturally, if we let it. In fact, all of our metabolisms and bodily needs are different. Depending on our genetics, what we did that day, how much exercise we had, our health… and TONS of other variables, we might be more/less hungry or need more/less food. I love this post about how “calories are not a bank account.” 
  1. Different calories affect us differently. Even carbs aren’t bad! After all, they are the ones that give us the most energy and maintain our insulin levels.

You could eat a 500-calorie donut, or a 500-calorie breakfast of Greek yogurt, fruit, peanut butter, and toast… yet, that calorie counter would still see these two meals as equal. Which is wrong.

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Should you count calories? In certain instances, maybe. If you need to for medical reasons or athletic competitions, maybe. But when typing those numbers in becomes addictive, and you’re constantly scrolling community boards for answers to how many calories were in your dad’s barbecue—so that you can burn it off later—then it’s time to step away from the keyboard.

Breaking free from calorie-counting takes time and patience. We need to trust our bodies, which is especially scary for someone suffering from an eating disorder. But we need to realize it’s a crutch.

We need to allow ourselves to eat more and remove ourselves from our laser-focus on numbers. Food journals can hinder our relationships with food and even the people around us.

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I stopped counting calories in my gum, then my snacks, then lunch, then dinner… until now, where my calorie counter is deleted from my apps.

Still, I wish I could look at a piece of bread and not know there are 100 calories in it. Or pick up a pear and not see it as “about 120 calories.”

In an eating disorder, calories rule your life. Even in recovery, doctors will often prescribe patients with daily calorie goals to ensure they are getting enough nutrients. But true freedom comes when we don’t care how many calories are in that cake. We’re eating it for enjoyment, to satisfy cravings, or, heck, even just because.

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I’m still dreaming of the day when I enjoy eating out in public because I feel free to order whatever I want, without even thinking about the calorie content. And I’m getting better.

I’ve started working with my cravings, not denying them. But there are still moments when I wish I didn’t see my sandwich as 300-calories, or think I need to limit myself at lunch to “splurge” on dinner at a party later.

But I’m no longer abiding by the 1,200 calorie a day rule. I’ve gotten hungrier and hungrier, and that’s okay. My body needs those calories for fuel: to move, to exercise, to breathe. I honestly have no idea how many calories I eat sometimes, even with the lingering numbers running through my head.

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It’s time to let go. And let ourselves live.

Fuel for thought: What do you think about online calorie-counters? Do you count calories? Why/why not?

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2 thoughts on “Counting Calories

  1. “Still, I wish I could look at a piece of bread and not know there are 100 calories in it. Or pick up a pear and not see it as “about 120 calories.””

    Ugh, I can’t wait until the day I can think of food as just FOOD, and not calories. I can’t wait until my food choices are based off of hunger and taste, rather than calorie math!

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