The Numbers Game: How I Stopped Counting Calories

By Katie, 5:11 am

100, 2000, 180, 440, 70.

I used to be quite an expert on calorie counts. I knew the breakdowns for every single food I ate regularly, and for those I didn’t I was pretty good at estimating. I kept track of them on yellow post-it notes. You could say that I was obsessed with counting calories, although I never would have admitted that.

The truth is that I didn’t think my calorie-counting was a problem. That is, until a friend’s summer BBQ that I was invited to a few years ago. A friend’s summer BBQ that I did not attend. A friend’s summer BBQ that I avoided like the plague not because I had anything better to do, but because the idea of going to a party and eating unlabeled food prepared by someone else – food whose calorie counts were a complete mystery to me – absolutely terrified me.

Counting calories – or points or fat grams or whatever it may be – always seems pretty innocent at first. But for me, that innocence always quickly vanished and was replaced with obsession and dependence. When I counted calories, I had to know a food’s “stats” or else I simply wouldn’t – or couldn’t, perhaps – eat it. My entire day would revolve around the numbers, and my self-assurance came solely from how my meals stacked up against my total calorie goal.

Lots of people say they count calories to be healthy, but in my case it was anything but. Perhaps you can relate.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a calorie-counter – three months, a year, ten years, whatever – it’s still possible to let it go. It’s still possible to live a life that doesn’t revolve around food labels and a nutrition calculator.

Here’s how I did it.

How I Stopped Counting Calories

1. I realized that forgetting wasn’t the goal.

When I first decided to stop counting calories, I thought that I could just wake up one day and…stop. As if the numbers would simply have dripped out of my brain overnight. Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen.

So I think the first step is to accept that the goal is not to erase the knowledge of calorie counts from your memory. That just isn’t going to happen; I won’t be surprised if I go to my grave still knowing the counts for things like apples and bananas. When you obsess over something for years, your mind can’t simply forget.

The better goal, then, is to reach a point where the information contained in calorie counts simply isn’t important. You might know it, but you rarely think about it because it isn’t meaningful; it has lost its power over you. For me, re-envisioning my intent in this way felt more realistic and helped me make progress.

2. I embraced incremental changes.

Coming off of years and years of counting calories obsessively, I really struggled to move away from it all at once. I was in the beginning stages of trusting my body, and I knew that too much too soon would create anxiety and throw me off the path. So I embraced a gradual approach; I stopped tallying up one snack, then one meal, then one full day of food, etc. Going through the stages helped me to see that not counting calories didn’t mean I’d immediately blow up like a balloon.

3. I practiced mindfulness…a lot.

Mindfulness – a state of awareness of and presence with our thoughts, our actions, and ourselves – has been absolutely key to my ending my relationship with calorie counting (and it really was a relationship…a dysfunctional one). I had to be fully aware of my tallying thoughts in order to intervene and intentionally turn my attention elsewhere. That would have been nearly impossible with my brain on autopilot.

I actually started studying and practicing mindfulness before I actively worked to stop counting calories, and going in that order worked well for me. So if you’re really not sure where to begin, mindfulness could be a good place. There are tons of resources out there – including exercises and practice ideas – which are extremely helpful.

Essentially, what it came down to for me was that calorie-counting was a burden, an imposition, a prison even. I didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I had to. But in reality, I didn’t have to. And now I don’t.

Have you ever counted calories? Do you now?

42 Responses to “The Numbers Game: How I Stopped Counting Calories”

  1. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t give a rat’s behind whether I eat 1000 or 3000 calories in any given day. If I eat less, I’m clearly not needing that much fuel, but if I eat more, my body’s obviously asking for it! Your tips are perfect, and they’re the ones I would cite as the things I did to help me stop. It definitely took me a while, but I finally realized that they aren’t really a useful number – just like the number on the scale!

  2. Kate says:

    Years ago I counted points. First I had to break myself of the habit of using the points calculators, then I had to stop doing the calculations in my head, finally I stopped looking at calorie content. It took awhile, but now I can’t remember the last time I looked at the calories in a food and using it to base my decision on whether or not to eat the item.

  3. Tina says:

    Great post Katie! I love your site.
    I was also like you but with counting points. I’m not saying that Weight Watchers doesn’t work because it does, but for me that is where I became totally obsessed. I have now gained back all the weight because it was not a way to live for me and created all the crazy obsession. I’m still a work in progress.

    • Katie says:

      We sound very similar. It’s so easy for me to go from a healthy level of moderation to total obsession, which is why eating intuitively is so much better for me.

    • Mary says:

      I completely agree with you, Tina. We have to remember that not all programs work for people in the same way. Having had an eating disorder then turning to this program as a solution years later was not a good way to get over obsessive thoughts because it fosters them in rule-abiders.

  4. I used to count calories but wasn’t obsessed with it (in fact, I didn’t really like it), so deciding to stop wasn’t really an issue for me. There are times when I will feel like going back to it, but it’s usually when I am feeling desperate and I know that desperation is not a good place from which to make those kinds of decisions.

  5. bubu says:

    Thanks for this post. I too am a work-in-progress on this. I have gone through Weight Watchers multiple times and do think I learned a lot of useful information about portion size and focusing on fullness and satisfaction, high fiber and nutritious food, much of which overlaps with the IE approach. But I too could not face going back to points, spending my whole life tracking points and counting – I had to find something I could live with. So far, IE, is much more in line with how I want to live, but I am definitely still learning, and it does sometimes feel like letting go of a life raft to let go of points. But I also realized that I like to cook, I like to eat natural foods and unusual things, and sometimes you just can’t get points values on artisanal bread or cheese- and to give them up for that reason is just crazy to me. I don’t want a life of packaged sandwich bread and american cheese just so I can calculate points! But I do still have to check in with myself to keep on the mindfulness track or I will start just randomly eating without really focusing on fullness or desire, and then I see my weight and body size go up, and my sense of health and wellness go down. But I now recognize pretty quickly when I feel out of balance in terms of food or exercise or rest or relaxation, and sensing that, and finding the balance again is worlds easier and more rewarding than counting points.

    • Katie says:

      I have a distinct memory of wanting to buy fresh bread at the farmers’ market but was afraid to because it wasn’t labeled. Such a shame. I definitely think that it’s possible to take the good, useful information that comes with a knowledge of nutrition and apply it to a more flexible, realistic approach like IE.

      • I once screamed at a district manager of a Culver’s because the calorie info wasn’t posted on the soup I purchased. I avoided eating at my parents’ house because I couldn’t be certain how many calories I was taking in.

  6. McKella says:

    I used to count calories and felt very similar about it as you did. I still get the urge to “check” sometimes, just to add them up quickly to see where I am for the day, to see if it’s ok to eat a little more, but I remind myself that calorie limits and counts are irrelevant. It’s all about what my body needs, which varies wildly from day to day.

  7. k.sol says:

    The few times I tried counting calories it drove me nuts, because I cook from scratch most of the time, and I learned to cook from a mother who didn’t measure anything. So, if I made myself a smoothie in the morning with several different fruits/veggies, I had to measure 5 or 6 different things, find out calories for them, etc. If I bought a prepackaged smoothie from the store that I didn’t consider nearly as healthy, I’d know EXACTLY how many calories I had. Ditto for homemade lentil soup versus canned, homemade bread vs. store-bought.

    • Katie says:

      Yep, that drove me nuts too. Calorie counting was incredibly time-consuming and took a lot of the joy out of cooking for me. :(

  8. Counting calories/points is such a mind f’er for me. I don’t miss the craziness. What’s the point anyway, when our bodies were created to know how much we need?

  9. Katie, this post is excellent!!! I love your tips to stop calorie-counting. I used to count calories, and for me, too, it felt like a prison. I was afraid to put anything in my mouth. I’m not sure how or why I stopped – I bet it was because it got exhausting and made me feel too guilty – but I’m so happy that I did. I feel like counting calories is this arbitrary and potentially unhealthy thing – not just because it can become an obsession. I mean you can eat a ton of crappy foods that add up to very little but not get the nutrients you need (or enjoy eating). That’s not a life I want.

  10. Sarah says:

    I have counted calories-sometimes in obsessive ways, and sometimes in ways to “get myself back on track.” I still revert to it during times when I’m having trouble listening to my body, but for the most part, I feel best when I am eating intuitively. Body usually knows best, right?:-) Whenever I am making the transition from calorie-counting to not, I make sure to eat healthy, satisfying foods that I don’t know the calorie counts to (even if I know the calorie counts, I won’t measure, so I don’t know the exact counts). As a lover of words, I also often write down my food choices. Those 2 actions seem to help me out quite a bit.

  11. sui says:

    Calorie counting was actually the thing that made me descend into my eating disorder. I was so glad to let go of it eventually and it was a huge help for my recovery. It might work for some people who haven’t had eating issues, but not for me– and I personally think it’s unnecessary. Listening to your body is best! :)

    • Katie says:

      I completely agree that it’s unnecessary. It makes me think of that recent study that showed that the calorie counts posted by restaurants are usually off by like 30%. So even when you think you know, you don’t really know. All the more reason to trust our bodies!

    • Amy says:

      Counting calories was also a symptom of the beginning of my anorexia. I have notebooks full of my calorie counts for each day over a period of a few years. Thankfully, I don’t keep track like that anymore, but recover continues…..

  12. Way back when, I tried to count calories but it never really worked for me. I could never “diet” that way…the only way I was ever successful in losing weight was just totally restricting and not eating at all (very, very big problem, I know.) I don’t do that anymore, but I totally know what you mean about eating at BBQs or other folks’ houses. I still have trouble with that, because I get a little phobic about processed foods and other ingredients now. I often feel “pushed” to eat and sometimes I’d rather just not go to avoid it. I’ve even been tempted to make up some kind of medical problem, like diabetes or something, hoping that people will just back off and leave me alone. Whenever I’m in situations like that (where I don’t really want to eat much of what’s offered) I always feel like people aren’t respecting my boundaries when they push and push. I’m not sure if it’s my problem, their problem, or a mixture of both, but it really puts a damper on social occasions for me sometimes.

    • Katie says:

      I totally get that. For whatever reason, people can be very pushy when it comes to food. In the end, we all need to feel comfortable with what we’re putting into our bodies, and when people don’t respect that, it really is a boundary issue, imo.

  13. I still catch myself doing calorie counts in my head, especially when my brain is on autopilot. At this point, I’m at the “just don’t let yourself tally them up for the day” point in the process and it works just fine for me! I feel okay if I’m eating a certain amount at one point in the day, but having the total number freaks me out more for some reason!

  14. Ugh, yes, I’ve counted calories in the past…not fun. Literally drove me nuts and when I finally realized how unimportant it is for me to do, I stopped.

    I don’t remember the last time I have even done it!

  15. Sarah says:

    I used to be obsessed with counting calories. And I would freak out if I couldn’t figure out the caloric content of an item. I’m still guilty of checking the calories of foods I’m purchasing and I have a mental tally of how many calories I eat during the day but it’s no longer an obsession!

  16. Alexis says:

    I tried Sparks calorie counter. Since it was on the computer, using charts and graphs, it was fun… for about three days. I couldn’t get the calories up, fat down, carbs fluctuated. I was always out of whack. Tried a few times but abandoned it.

    Very first formal attempt was WW years ago. It was so strict, like Richard Simmons diet. Two carbs, three small fruit, three 3oz servings protein, no sweets, no mayo, milk counted as a protein. Got down to a size 3. Then the very next day started gaining it all back. So I wouldn’t say it worked. Never have been able to stick to a diet since.

  17. FM says:

    Awesome post! I love your first point, that forgetting is not the goal. I’ve been recovery from a ED relapse, fighting the automatic calorie counter. At first I tried “forgetting” but found I couldn’t get my mind to focus on a negative. The way you put it here sums up exactly what I’ve been going through (but the thoughts were still an inarticulate muddle in my head). Thanks!

    • Katie says:

      It’s amazing how many of us struggle with similar things, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your experience!

  18. Claire says:

    I know exactly what you mean. I still can’t seem to balance my calorie counting and sanity. I used to count every cal and weigh all my food but managed to cut it back to watching portion sizes and knowing approximate cals. The times I don’t count cals are the times I go totally off the rails- I can’t seem to find a happy balance yet. Thank you so much for your tips, I really needed to hear them.

    • Katie says:

      It’s taken me a lot of time to find a balance, and truthfully I still struggle sometimes. It’s a constant journey!

  19. Paige says:

    Yes! I have counted calories for a very long time.

    Katie- I have really started to work with mindfulness the past little while since I have started to get over my diet obsession. It seems to be the solution. Do you have any recommendations for practices or what you have used that have been most helpful. I have listened to “The Power of Now” which I love but anything to add would help.

    Thank you. I love your blog and Ebook

  20. [...] at Health for the Whole Self shares how she gave up the numbers game and finally stopped counting calories. She describes it as a “prison.” What do you [...]

  21. PTC says:

    I used to count calories a lot, but now I think I count the calories I burn more than I take in. I have a heart rate monitor and it keeps track of my calories and I’m obsessed with the thing. Even if the count is incorrect, in my mind it’s right and what matters. I’m also a bit scale obsessed.

    • Katie says:

      I’ve been there, and for me it was miserable. I’m so glad I’ve reached a place where the numbers don’t have so much power over me…

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