Calorie counting is a slippery slope. It often starts with noticing how many calories are in a chocolate bar. Or you heard someone on TV chatting about calories, and you thought you should be more careful. Calorie counting is seen as normal. But it can be a warning sign of disordered eating and eating disorders. How nice would it be if every time you picked up something to eat, you didn’t have to check the calories? Not only that, but you didn’t feel any guilt or judgement when you eat any food?
Calorie counting becomes addictive. This is because repetition of a behaviour causes your brain to create a pattern. This allows a habit to be formed. By always counting the calories in the food what you eat, your brain makes this into a habit. Counting the calories you eat tells your brain that this is an important behaviour that needs to be kept up. But truthfully, it may be a sign of disordered eating or an eating disorder.
Feeling obsessed with calorie counting is something I see so often in my clients. People often feel so trapped in tracking calories. They feel like there’s no way they could ever stop. You might be feeling the same way. You know counting calories - on your phone, in your head, or simply just noticing calorie counts - is not serving you. You feel like if you stop tracking calories, you’ll feel out of control. That you will gain weight. That you will never stop eating.
I’ve worked with so many people who feel the same way. I helped them stop calorie counting and turn off that internal calorie calculator. I am sharing with you in this article ten things that can be helpful. I hope you find them helpful.
How to stop counting calories obsessively
1. Remove external trackers
By deleting ‘My Fitness Pal’ or throwing away that notebook you use to note every calorie you eat is a great place. By doing this, you’re starting to challenge your brain that this is not a good habit. You’re starting to break the cycle.
You will probably still be thinking about the calories in food, and you might even check sometimes. You might add up all the calories in your meal. But by not recording everything you eat on your phone or in a notebook, you’re starting to break the habit. It can be so frustrating to feel like it’s not working.
But it takes time to break a habit. By not physically recording every single thing you eat, you don’t have anything to look back on. This means you don’t have a specific number you see that makes you guilty. This might also mean you compensate less. You might no longer make up for food by eating less calories the next day. Or with behaviours like purging and exercise.
2. Avoid checking nutrition labels
This next tip will not be suitable for everyone. I work with a lot of people who would feel absolutely terrified to do this. So if that’s you, that’s totally ok. I invite you to think about a version of this that could be possible. For example, you might commit to not check nutrition labels for condiments only.
Many people find covering up nutrition labels helpful. This could be by you, or by a partner, friend, or parent. You could use coloured tape, a Sharpie, or even stickers with positive affirmations. This means that when you go to check the calorie count, you’ll read something positive instead.
You might be thinking “that will not work for me!” Or maybe you’ve tried this in the past. And you ended up just Googling the calories anyway. It will feel so frustrating, but remind yourself that you’re taking small steps. In a “perfect” world you would just stop counting calories and never think about them again. But that’s not realistic- you’ve been struggling for a long time. Finally, I’m going to let you in on a secret. The nutrition labels on food are often inaccurate. In fact, legally nutrition labels can be 20% inaccurate. I have a whole article about why calorie counting is a waste of time.
3. Start with one meal at a time
I want to give you permission to take it slow. I know you want to just stop calorie counting right now. But you don’t have to go cold turkey. By starting with one meal at a time you can slowly break the habit.
You could start by not counting the calories in your breakfast and take it from there. Or if even one meal even sounds too difficult, try to start with one snack. This is what I might recommend for people in eating disorder recovery.
4. Social media detox Social media has a huge impact on our relationship with food. It has a huge impact on what we consider healthy, normal eating. It’s really important that we remember the food we see people posting online is only the food they want us to see. Unfollowing any diet or weight loss accounts that promote calorie counting is helpful. Even unfollowing recovery accounts that just make you feel bad. You need to do what's best for you.
Make sure to e honest with yourself how accounts might be impacting you. You want to stop counting calories - a social media detox is a positive step forward.
5. Let someone else do the cooking This can feel incredibly difficult. But a key to real recovery is spontaneity around food. I explain this in my article about nutrition and eating disorder recovery.
By having no involvement in cooking your meal, you will have less access to calorie content. This includes ingredients, quantities and additions that are added in cooking. Try letting a family member or friend cook for you once a week to see how it feels. This will also increase the social aspect of eating! Eating at restaurants and cafes that don’t display calories on menus is also a good idea.
6. Just guess! Instead of reading the calorie count of your food just guess what it is. Estimating calorie counts can be a good move forward from weighing and checking nutrition labels.
This will start to break the habit of grabbing the scales or saving packaging to refer to later.
7. Start connecting with your body
When you become in tune with your bodies hunger and fullness signals, you see how useless calorie counting is. This might not be possible if you’ve been restricting for a long time, so simply noticing is a big step.
Principle 2 of Intuitive Eating is “Honour Your hunger”. Here you re-learn that hunger isn’t the enemy. Hunger isn’t something you need to be ashamed about. Hunger is how your body communicates a basic need to survive. Some subtle signs to look out for might be…
Gurgling feeling in the stomach
More frequent thoughts about food
Irritability, also known as ‘hanger’
Feeling faint or weak
Hunger is a spectrum and will come across differently for everyone. You might not experience all of these things at once, or some none at all. There is no right or wrong way to feel hunger. Just trust your body knows best and tune in to the ways it presents hunger to you.
8. Imagine your life without calorie counting Calorie counting can take control over your life. It will take the enjoyment out of eating. How nice would it be decide what you want to eat based on the look, smell or price of the food. Not how many calories are in the food. Or if you're having a good or a stuff it day.
Imagine the time you would save not writing down and calculating the calories in every meal. Imagine how much brain space you will save!
9. Time will make it better
When you make a commitment to cutting out calorie counting you might feel overwhelmed by how far you have to go. But don’t worry, the hardest thing is getting started. The brain will probably resist at
first. Over time a new behaviour and thought process will take over and a new, more positive habit will be created.
10. Seek professional support
Not everyone needs one to one support to stop counting calories.
But most people do.
I can help you recover your relationship to food. And stop being obsessed with tracking calories. If you would like to chat, you can enquire here.
I hope these tips are helpful, and you can start to put some in place. It’s also totally ok if you aren’t ready to make changes yet.