When Counting Calories Takes Over Your Life


I’ve never been amazing at fast math. I even have to use my fingers adding up the numbers of my Yahtzee roll . I somehow was able to nail an A in calculus, but forth grade addition tables will still get me every time. It’s bad. However, when it comes to calorie counting, I’m basically a mathematical genius.

Calorie counting was a huge part of my eating disorder. I was obsessive about it. In school, my notebook margins were filled with calories I was summing up. I would recount everything I ate or every calorie I worked off over and over again. I would check my watch literally 100 times a day. It was like continuous white noise. Always there. My brain was constantly in math mode. Adding and subtracting and counting. In all honesty, people would probably think I was bizarre.

It’s amazing to me the power of these little units of energy. I guess it’s not about the energy at all, right? It’s about the control.

I started calorie counting for one reason. To lose weight. Before my eating disorder developed, I went on your typical handy dandy diet. It seemed simple to me. Cut calories, work out more, lose weight. Great! Except this said “diet” did not tell me what it would do to my metabolism, my organs, my bones, my balanced nutrition or my brain for that matter. (a topic for another day). Now don’t get me wrong. Not every person who counts calories or diets develops a clinical eating disorder. It’s a combo of things that sent me down that road, but a diet was the start. Throw that in a bowl with body image issues, major life changes, relationship troubles and it becomes a nice recipe for disaster.

I counted calories to escape. Gain control. Feel good. Be perfect. Why concentrate on the bad things in my life, the things I can’t control or my insecurity, when I can just count and control my calories? Of course, this was not a conscious thing. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “You know what? I don’t feel like dealing with that issue, I think I’ll just start counting the calories in my food.” Nope. It just happened. It wasn’t until months into treatmen I realized my calorie counting was an escape that my eating disorder used to secure its nasty and ugly place in my head. Something that started out as a measly way to lose some weight turned into an obsessive habit I used for control.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Sadly, it ended up controlling me.

Counting calories damaged me in a way that is hard to explain. It became a prison. I would cut calories, lose some weight, be happy, then not happy, decide to cut more, lose more weight, be happy, then not happy… and so it goes. If cutting calories was healthy, then cutting more calories had to be extra healthy right? It wasn’t just about having a “perfect” physique — it became a way of measuring my worth. At the end of the day I would add up my final number and it gave me a sense of whether I was “good” or “bad” that day. I would be proud of myself when it was lower then what I needed and I would punish myself with insults and exercise if it was too high. I felt like a failure if my calories were ever over a certain amount and a deep sense of pride and satisfaction when they weren’t. I’m not going to get into numbers in this post but, my calories started to get lower and lower and lower until there were almost none at all. My self-worth was wrapped up in whether I kept my calories below a certain number or not and if it resulted in my desired weight loss. I felt like I was being perfect. That I was winning at the diet game. I told myself I didn’t have an issue, I’m just very disciplined. even though my weight and health were screaming a different story.

Calories made things easy. If I had to choose between two foods obviously the one with less calories was better. Who cares about nutrition or taste or what my body needs. If I couldn’t decide whether or not I should eat something it was simple, just look at the calories. Calories would tell me if it was OK or not. If something had no calories it was like Christmas! Yay! No guilt here! It also made things very hard. I was constantly stressed about food. The list of foods that would pass my calorie requirement became smaller and smaller. Forget about going to a restaurant, how will I know how many calories I’ve had? I began to have anxiety. Counting and recounting, measuring and weighing, just to be sure I was OK. Food I once ate I now feared because of their calories. Instead of eating when I was hungry, I ate when it was mathematically OK. Instead of allowing myself to eat to fullness, I ate to a caloric amount. It was devastating. I reduced something as wonderful and delicious as eating food to a mathematic equation and it took a very dangerous toll on my body.

When I entered treatment it became very clear that the calorie counting had to stop. I had to deal with whatever issue I was hiding behind, learn to give up control and eat food in a completely different way. I’m happy to say that I did it. It was hard. It was scary and it has been completely and utterly freeing!

So how did I stop counting calories? (I just want to take a second to say that none of the apps, or watches or things I am listing below are necessarily bad, they have their place in this world, just not with my recovery!)

  1. I had to decide I needed to stop. This sounds kind of obvious, but honestly, it’s hard to go against the social grain. We are constantly bombarded with calories everywhere. They are on most menus, on the back of every box, and some doctors and dietitians still recommend counting them. I recently went to Sweet Green and asked a woman if one of the drinks there was good. I kid you not her response was, “Well, how many calories are in it?” Our society believes in and loves calorie counting and here I was deciding it was no longer something I was going to participate in. I was going to learn how to eat without counting calories.
  2. I deleted MyFitnessPal. I worshiped this app. I entered every single morsel of food I put in my mouth and every bit of exercise into this app. I loved when the number was lower than the decided amount each dayl and then with one press of a tiny x, it was gone.
  3. I got rid of my Garmin watch and heart monitor. I had a watch that counted every calorie and every step and every beat of my heart. I looked at it obsessively. I would check my calories on it before doing one set of weights and then again right after just to see how many calories I burned during the set. It had to go.
  4. I started slowly. I would allow myself to follow my dietitians’ meal plan for the day, and then at the end of the day I would count it up and make sure I was OK. Yes, it was still counting calories, however it was a small step in the right direction from counting them every time I ate and 80 times in between. Eventually I stopped completely.
  5. I took foods I was able to out of their packages and immediacy threw the boxes and packages away. Foods like cereal or rice I would pour into canisters and toss the boxes that had labels with calories. If I couldn’t do it without looking I would ask my husband to do it for me. Yes, I still knew how many calories were in a lot of the foods, but it did stop me from looking immediately at it the minute I picked up a box.
  6. This sounds crazy but I would count wrong on purpose. When my brain went into “automatic count calories mode” I would consciously throw random numbers in to confuse myself and mess up my addition. When you have to keep starting over because you keep messing up it gets annoying. It works.
  7. I decided to trust my dietician. Eventually I got to a place where I decided it would be OK for me to not do the counting myself and have my dietician count it up instead. I trusted that she would tell me if I’m eating too many calories or not enough. I gave the control over to her and started to let myself eat using hunger/fullness cues instead of caloric amounts.
  8. I stopped exercising. I didn’t initially stop exercising because of calorie counting. I stopped exercising because I was ordered to by my doctor. My health was in a bad place. Not exercising immediately removed a lot of the calorie counting because it was no longer there to count.
  9. I had to believe in what my treatment team was saying and challenge my automatic thoughts about health, eating and nutrition. Avoiding calories altogether doesn’t fix the problem. I had to re-evaluate calorie counting and if it really works or if it is just something my ED used to gain control. Is it a societal fad and diet industry driven concern or an actual necessity to be healthy? I mean in 1920 they weren’t counting calories, so why do I need to now? I had to consider the facts they were giving me about how my body actually functions and figure out what roll calorie counting played. I’ll blog about it in another post, but I’ve found that calories don’t matter all that much and I can eat the right and healthy amount by simply listening to my body.
  10. I prayed that God would renew my mind. Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” I know God doesn’t want me to be a mental slave to calorie counting, so this one I was sure he would help me overcome.

Am I completely, 100 percent, no bad calorie thoughts free? No! Just the other day I went to Buffalo Wild Wings, saw the little numbers next to the amount of wings I wanted and had a small panic attack! I almost left the restaurant! I’ve downloaded MyFitnessPal, deleted it, re-downloaded it and deleted it again at least five times during treatment. I am still working hard to renew my mind and challenge my eating disorder. You can’t change seven years of automatic thoughts that fast. However, calories don’t have near the effect they use to on me. It takes time and it’s a choice I make every single moment.

At the end of the day here is the truth: Calories do not give me worth. They don’t make me good or bad. They don’t define health or let me know how yummy pesto sauce is, and they certainly don’t tell me the quality of my diet. As of today I do not count calories 90 percent of the time and to me that is a far cry from where I use to be and only 10 percent away from full freedom.

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