In 2012, after the birth of my second son, the combination of severe sleep deprivation and my highly functioning personality (which I will talk about in a minute) left me feeling emotionally and physically drained. Like many new mothers, I had high expectations of myself, and it won’t come as a surprise to you to hear that one of them was to shift the extra weight I gained during my pregnancy.
With the Internet being the primary source of research for a secluded new mum as much as it is today, my Doctor Google search “how to lose weight” was rife with articles on macro and calorie counting.
So one evening, fed up with the feeling of having lost a big part of my old identity and found in a heavier body I decided that I am going to follow the calorie counting approach. I didn’t care how the weight would be gone, I wanted it gone yesterday, but first I had to finish eating my family sized fruit and nut Cadbury chocolate bar.
I am not going to hide the fact that even though I was a personal trainer at the time, I was as confused as any other person about what to eat for optimal fat loss. I found conflicting opinions and recommendations from people I thought were more knowledgeable than me.
I knew that eating plenty of protein and vegetables were useful for controlling my appetite, maintaining lean muscle, and good for my performance in the gym and my overall health. I also knew that no one ever got too fat eating fruit either, but I had even heard rumours about too many sugars in them. Especially bananas. But somehow I had grooved this belief in my head that there was a secret formula that every fitness guru knew about apart from me on how much starches and fats to eat that would make the fat on my body magically disappear.
So I entered the world of calorie counting and macronutrient setting which simply means is that you eat a specific amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Although I gained a new and leaner body, not only it didn’t help me redefine who I was as a woman and a second-time mother, but it also compromised the little self-awareness I had which was already drowned by the demands of my daily life. I wasn’t to be found in my new body because I was already lost.
I am not here to bash calorie counting, but to give you an honest account of my experience. Calorie counting works for some people and I have known a few success stories. There are some benefits counting calories and there are ways that you can do it diligently.
Benefit 1: It increased my awareness of how much food I was eating
Tracking my calories certainly opened my eyes to the reality of how much food I was eating. I was utterly oblivious to the number of calories I was eating especially from nuts which were my regular snacks, as well as things like olive oil and avocado that I freely added to my salads. I understood that even though I was what I considered a healthy eater, it was too easy to overeat healthy food too. Using a tablespoon to measure the olive oil made my heart sink and my Greek ancestors rattle in their grave.
Benefit 2: It made my food portions smaller
It’s a fact that counting calories helped me eat less and be more disciplined with smaller portions. To feel satisfied it put more emphasis on foods like salads and vegetables that increased the volume of food on my plate without bumping the calories.
Benefit 3: It helped me understand that you can’t burn off food
Finally, it helped me reinforce the idea that I “cannot outrun a bad diet” and that eating less was a less painful option than trying to exercise more. I learned the harsh reality that the family size Cadbury Chocolate I ate after the kids were in bed, easily derailed my progress for a whole week.
The reasons I gave up calorie counting
I am not comfortable with what about I am going to tell you.
Even though I know that I have made tremendous progress with a lot of hard work and introspection supported by professionals such as coaches and therapists, my desire to protect you from the possible pitfalls of calorie counting and the anguish I experienced is more significant than my vulnerability to share my story.
Before I delve into the icky bits of my experience, I want to acknowledge that we all have preconceived health rules and beliefs that put us on a continuum that makes our diet endeavours better or worse off.
For example, you may live by the following rules:
- Eating fats will make you fat, so you avoid them and you never feel satisfied.
- Eating after 7 pm makes you fat so you if you are hungry after that time you endure hunger and feel out of sorts.
- For every glass of wine you drink you don’t eat carbs, and then you feel deprived without them, and you end up eating them more.
- Every time you exercise you feel that you earned a dessert and you are not making progress.
- You follow the mindset “train hard or go home” and you constantly feel depleted and experience intense cravings.
Knowing our beliefs and how they shape our behaviours, we can be more critical and become aware of those patterns that disrupt our life.
With an increased self-awareness we can start building systems and protective mechanisms which direct our attention to healthier strategies while still getting excellent results.
I was the worst candidate for calorie counting because I was so fixated on doing things perfectly and locked in the “all or nothing” syndrome that I either had to do things perfectly or not bother at all. Which more than anything meant that I wasn’t open to see it as a tool that I could use flexibly. As I mentioned, calorie counting could be useful if you are not fixated to do it perfectly.
This perfectionist tendency is something that I see all the time with most of my clients and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to write this article.
Here are the reasons why calorie counting was the worst method to use for my obsessive-addictive, perfectionist personality.
Reason 1: My perfectionism compromised the variety of my diet
If you told me that I have to eat a specific number of calories, I would get out my way to do it. If I didn’t hit that number, I wasn’t doing a good job at it and it.
Those who are acquainted with me know that I have a passion for cooking and I like trying different foods all the time. The constant tracking made me reluctant to add the variety I usually add to my diet because I had to calculate the calories of every single ingredient that wasn’t green in colour (I was smart enough not to count veggies).
I am your typical “I want a bit of this and a bit of that” type of girl – don’t forget that I come from a sharing meze/tapas culture – which meant that it would take a hell of lot of effort to calculate the calories to suit my way of eating. So if I were out for dinner eating the famous Greek Moussaka, I’d have to sit there work out the calories until the cows come home. Counting calories was a pain for a person like me that loves a variety and very often I avoided eating out when I couldn’t control what was in food and it was affecting my social life.
The thought of counting every single calorie made me resign to keeping things simple by eating mostly chicken, potatoes or rice and veg almost every day. Although plain meals just covered my energy needs it left me feeling resentful and emotionally and dissatisfied. Don’t get me wrong, I love simple meals but day in and out having the same meals is not my thing. It meant that my diet wasn’t varied anymore and I was getting more or less the same limited nutrients from my food.
Reason 2: It skewed my efforts on outcomes rather than behaviours
Calorie counting made it impossible to have any other benchmark to keep me focused on my sense of success other than hitting a certain number of calories, which screwed me up psychologically. If I was out to eat the occasional burger or pizza, I felt like I was failing and that sense of failure trickled into my self-worth. Sure, I knew eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods was a healthy thing to do, but even when I did, if I didn’t hit that magic number it didn’t matter anymore.
It didn’t matter that I made good choices throughout the day or that I exercised.
All I could think of is that one thing that tipped over the numbers. My belief that I had to hit the magic combination of those numbers (not only calories but fats, AND carbs, AND protein) to lose weight, it shadowed any commendable efforts that I put towards the direction of my goals.
Reason 3: I stopped listening to my body
Then the problem came with the days that I was busier and more active. I still had to stick to the calorie goal for the day. That resulted in losing my ability to listen to my body’s hunger and satiety cues – terms that were completely alien to me. The reality is that you don’t have the same calorie needs every day. If you run five miles one day, you need more calories to fuel your body than a day that you spend watching Netflix.
So there were days that I wasn’t particularly hungry that I forced myself to eat and other days I was too hungry and I ate too little. I was either forcing my digestive system to eat, or I felt that I like was digesting parts of my body to fuel it. To this day there is no method or system or formula that can accurately determine how much you should be eating to support your exercise and I wasn’t flexible to tune into what my body needed. Frankly I didn’t even know how to do that.
Reason 4: It made food all about numbers
I stopped looking at food as something that had a taste, texture and meaning to me. It became all about numbers. The meals of my culture or my family’s traditions that were passed from generation to generation became more of an algebraic formula I’d have to solve. I could see how one piece of Baklava would steeply bump the numbers and most of the time I refused to eat it. The odd day that greeting my teeth didn’t work, rather than enjoying one piece and let it go, I’d think “that’s it, eat 3-4 of them now to keep you going for a while” because you will never eat it again. You know what I mean, right?
Reason 5: I started compensating food
My kids were too young to understand what I was doing. The thought of them one day asking me what am I doing on my phone after each meal hit me with the reality that I am developing an eating disorder.
Imagine the answer:
“Hey Alex, great question. Thanks for asking. I am subtracting the ice cream we are eating from my carb allowance. Ice cream is sugar, well it has a bit of fat too, but to keep things simple I’ll count it as carbs. If I have a bit of “ME” time when you’re in bed, I may factor in the fats too. Don’t worry, you eat your ice cream but mummy may have to skip the roasties with tonight’s dinner”.
Ok, I am joking here, and they didn’t need to know, yet, you know kids may be totally immature (I am hoping they won’t by the age of 18) but they can sense resentment and dissatisfaction and one day they’d be able to connect the dots.
So one day I had enough. I realised that calorie counting was putting me in the wrong headspace. I had become a portable calorie counter with legs, and my obsession with calories was disrupting my life. Calorie counting diminished the joy of eating for me and more than anything I found it a pain in the butt to do for an extended period.
With trepidation, the FitnessPal got deleted. Now I was in no man’s land. If I couldn’t track calories, I felt that I couldn’t trust myself to know how much to eat even though I had been monitoring for years. Also, the stressors and demands of raising a young family without much support made me an emotional eater and any method that addressed only the factual aspects of nutrition wouldn’t work anymore for me. I am sure that you will not be surprised to hear that as soon as I stopped tracking calories, I gradually gained back all the weight and some.
To cut a long story short (sort of), eventually, I got therapy to understand my obsessive tendencies and I got coaching that addressed the mental aspects that surround eating. Having been on a long journey of self-discovery and nutrition education I know in my heart that I have made a remarkable recovery on my perfectionism, if I didn’t I wouldn’t be writing this article. The thought of someone criticising or judging my ideas would have left me too paralysed to write anything.
Still, I don’t regret that I counted calories because it was the path I had to follow that led me to the path that I am on today. I am sure if I tried calorie counting again I wouldn’t fall into the same rabbit hole but I don’t feel the need to do it because I have learned that I can achieve the same results without strict rules around what to eat.
I have learned to tune into my hunger and appetite cues which have helped me make better choices and enjoy them more. I know what and how to eat when I am at home, out with my friends and family and how to cope without food when I am tired, stressed or angry.
I have learned the skills that are required to consistently make better choices while taking into account my preferences, my body, my lifestyle and align them with my goals.
No tracker can teach you these things.
If you feel that calorie counting is not for you and you want to find out how’s that possible, tune in next week again. I will write a guide that will tell you how to eat without counting calories so you can do it too. If some of the things I said resonated and you are looking for personalised to help you overcome similar challenges you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.