How to Stop Counting Calories
People eating around a table.

So, you’re fed up of counting calories?

Well, you’ve come to the right place… in this article I am going to outline actionable steps on how to stop counting calories, once and for all. As a Registered Dietitian (for the last 9 years) and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor, I have worked with 100’s of clients to help them stop obsessing over numbers and find a healthier relationship with food.

If you’ve been counting calories for months or years, you’re likely feeling tired of it. Calorie counting can sometimes be a helpful tool. But for many people, counting calories in the long term can become exhausting and unhealthy. This was certainly my experience counting calories (more on this below). No matter how long you’ve been counting for, it is possible to stop and find a more liberal relationship to food. Keep reading for actionable steps on how to stop counting calories so you can start to feel more normal around food again

My experience with calorie counting

10 years ago, I used to count calories almost every day. Even when I wasn’t actively tracking them in MyFitnessPal or the like, the mental counter was still ticking over.
 
“If you have this snack now, then you can only have a small portion at dinner, otherwise you’re over the limit for the day”
 
And if I went over my self-imposed limit…one of two things would happen:
 
1) I would have to compensate somehow with exercise or less calories the following day
2) I would think “well I’ve screwed it now, so may as well keep going” and end up out-of-control eating and feeling extremely guilty about it
 
Oh, the mental turmoil of calorie counting. It was exhausting. I felt obsessed with food and had little brain space to think of much else. And I felt ashamed. As a Dietitian, I felt I should know better and knew it didn’t feel healthy to count calories. But I didn’t know there was another way. You see, in university we are still taught calorie counting as a bit of a “be-all and end-all”.
 
Luckily, I now realise how disordered all those constant calculations were and enjoy a healthy, nourishing relationship to food with zero counting. I do not miss obsessively tracking my food intake one bit. I now work to help others learn Intuitive Eating and other skills so they can nourish themselves without the obsession and counting. Keep reading to find out how for yourself.

Why is calorie counting so widely used….and is it worth it??

Calorie counting is often used by people use to try to lose or maintain a certain body weight, or follow a diet. There seem to be endless sources that encourage calorie counting, including:
  • Doctors, dietitians and government pamphlets
  • Media and social media
  • Packaged food labels
  • Exercise machines that have electronic displays showing the calories burned off each minute
  • Restaurants that list calories next to menu items
  • Phone apps and watch devices
Actually, it can be near impossible to avoid calorie information!
 
Calorie counting is touted an essential skill for anyone looking to alter their body weight or shape. But the risks and dangers seem to be rarely discussed. Calorie counting may become so habitual that you end up doing it automatically and have great difficulty stopping.
 
Let’s explore some of the risks and flaws of calorie counting in more depth…

Why calorie counting can be problematic

1. Calorie counts are inaccurate

It’s very difficult to determine the total amount of calories needed for an individual. We can take an estimate but the margin of error here is massive. This is because there are so many factors that influence our energy needs, including:

This study out of Stanford University showed that fitness devices including Apple Watch, Basis Peak, Fitbit have a large margin of error when it comes to measuring energy (calorie) expenditure. They showed that the most accurate device was off by an average of 27 percent. And the least accurate was off by 93 percent!

Also, our dietary needs fluctuate across days, weeks and months. Having the same number of calories each day just isn’t how humans are designed. We are not robots.
 
It’s also impossible to precisely calculate the actual calorie content of the food we eat, even with books, apps, and scales! Most calorie counts on food labels are inaccurate. This is because they are based on a system of averages that ignores the complexity of digestion.
 
Recent research reveals how many calories we extract from food depends on:
– which type we eat
– how we prepare our food
-which bacteria are in our gut and
-how much energy we use to digest different foods.
Current calorie counts do not consider any of these factors. Digestion is so intricate that even if we try to improve calorie counts, we will likely never make them perfectly accurate.
 

2. Calorie counting can lead to false attribution

Often, people adjust caloric intake based on daily/weekly weight changes, but this is false feedback. Body mass and fat are affected by many factors. And they fluctuate regardless of calorie consumption (as does the number on the scale). If you limit intake to a certain amount and lose weight, you may falsely assume that the weight loss was because of the calorie rules followed. In fact, it could be down to so many other factors.
 

3. Disrupted body function and cues

Eating according to a calorie limit (rather than internal sensations and drives), disrupts ability feel hunger and fullness cues over time. This makes it harder for your body to regulate intake in the future, meaning we are more vulnerable to eating past comfortable fullness. As well as experiencing increased anxiety about our food intake. Using arbitrary limits can also leave you undernourished. If we are deficient in a nutrient, our body will not function at it’s best and we may experience negative affects on physical and mental health.
 

4. Poor mental health

Strict rules are innately hard to follow. Especially when it comes to fighting our biology and body’s fuel needs as is usually the case with counting calories. When the calorie limit is inevitably broken, this is often seen as a “failure”. This may then contribute to us feeling rubbish about ourselves, and low self-esteem. People who become obsessed with counting calories may calculate and re-calculate figures all day long, and feel anxious about foods when they don’t know the calorie content. They may even avoid situations where this may occur (e.g. restaurants and social occassions).

 
So…. you can see there are many problems with calorie counting. That’s not to say it is a useless tool but in my experience as a dietitian – counting calories is destructive and unhealthy for the majority of my clients. And learning how to stop counting calories is a key step in rediscovering a healthy relationship with food.
 
But, if calorie counting is so flawed, then what’s the alternative? Well, if we let it, your body will do these calculations for you. And communicate the maths through internal signals of hunger and satiety. A non-dieting adult human or animal maintains a stable weight over time, adjusting the body’s intake and performance as needed.
 
The trick is to tune back into your bodies signals of hunger, satiety and fullness – the OG calorie counters!

 

Fruit and Veg at every meal

      5 Steps to Stop Counting Calories

      1. Inform yourself of the dangers/cons of counting calories.

      So you can feel confident in your decision to stop (read the above section on “Why calorie counting can be so problematic”, if you haven’t already)
       

      2. Explore what calorie counting has provided you

      Many times giving up calorie counting may also mean giving up:
      – a sense of control
      – a means of achievement
      – the pursuit of weight loss
      If this is the case for you, it may be worth exploring (with your journal, or in dialogue with a loved-one or a professional) how these patterns came about and healthier ways to cope.
       

      3. Delete sources of calorie information

      Delete the apps. Ditch the fitbit. Avoid reading food labels.
       
      Even if you delete these, you may still find yourself doing sums in your head. That’s ok and it will fade naturally with time as you begin to place emphasis on internal cues to eating (i.e. Intuitive Eating – more on this in point 5). However, if you do catch yourself doing sums, try to distract yourself or interrupt it with a healthier thought.
       

      4. Reduce gradually

      If going cold turkey on calorie counting feels too scary, try cutting down gradually. For example, pick a snack or meal where you won’t count or track and do this for one week. The next week, pick another meal or snack to stop counting, and so on.
       
      If giving up calorie counting is causing lots of anxiety for you, consider seeking help from a registered dietitian or psychologist trained in disordered eating to support you.
       

      5. Learn Intuitive Eating Skills

      Intuitive Eating is an evidence-based approach to rediscover a healthy relationship with food. Using a series of tools and skills, the framework helps you move away from rigid external rules, to finally trust your body and its signals again
       
      A big part of Intuitive Eating is relearning how to listen, and appropriately respond to hunger and satiety cues. This is really helpful when trying to stop counting calories. The freebie below has tips and tools that can help you get started with this.

      Conclusion: How to Stop Counting Calories

      In summary, calorie counting has many flaws, inaccuracies and dangers. If you are feeling fed-up with counting, stopping is certainly possible. Intuitive eating offers an alternative framework for nourishing your body that focuses on hunger and satiety signals, rather than numbers or rigid rules. It provides a structure for you to learn to nourish your body properly, without counting calories.

       
      • Do you want to eat foods that you enjoy without obsessing?
      • Do you want to improve your health through good nutrition, with the most up to date evidence-based advice?
      • Do you want to bin your list of food rules and stop your life revolving around healthy eating or planning what to eat?
       
      If you answered ‘yes’ then Intuitive Eating is right for you! Explore my article on “Intuitive Eating Tips for Those Starting Our” HERE to learn more.
       
      Do you want to work with a qualified professional who nurtures a good relationship with food? You can read more about what that looks like HERE.

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