4 Things You Learn When You Stop Counting Calories
I started counting calories a long time ago – before calorie counting apps even existed, if that gives you a rough idea of the time frame! – and continued to do so for many, many years. I started calorie counting via a little pocket-sized notebook and gradually graduated to an app once the iPhone came out and became more popular. Trust me, I’ve been there and I get it.
Over time, I became less religious about counting calories and inserting every little thing I ate into an app. I would often do it only a few days a week, and many days, didn’t even finish the day. In my mind, at this point, I was just doing it get an idea of what I was eating and really to see the nutrients I was eating on an average day (always interesting to a dietitian or dietitian-to-be!). I had been including all foods in my diet for a while and had a pretty healthy relationship with food. But, it wasn’t until I stopped calorie counting for good that I realized the very subtle ways it still had an effect on my eating.
There are 4 really important things you learn when you finally stop counting calories that I’d love for you to experience:
1. Your meal choices and sizes become dictated by your hunger, not by calories.
A subtle, yet overarching, message you give yourself when you track your calories are: I can have XXX number of calories in this meal to keep within my calorie goal for the day. If you’re eating at home, you might serve yourself the portion that fits that calorie goal – and that’s it. Or even more difficult, if you’re eating out, you might order the meal that seems to best fit your calorie goal, regardless of what actually looks good to you.
This means that, often, not only are you not eating what you actually want, but you’re also not eating to satisfy your hunger. You might still be hungry but not get more to eat because you don’t have many calories left. Or maybe you deny yourself a delicious sauce that goes with the meal because it adds too many calories. Either way, when you no longer have that number in the back of your mind, it allows you eat what you really want, eat the amount that you’re hungry for, and stop when you’re full. No longer tracking your calories is the first step to letting your meal choices and sized be dictated by you and not an app.
2. Similarly, snacks are no longer a number game.
Hungry in the afternoon but don’t have many calories left? Just skip the snack, right? Wrong. Because meals are often a little more planned and snacks are usually based on your hunger level between meals, they can be harder to plan ahead for. Some days, you might be hungrier for a bigger snack. Some days, you might not be hungry for one at all.
But, when you’re counting calories, what happens when you’re hungry between lunch and dinner, but don’t have many calories left for a snack? Do you make the snack smaller to fit the number it needs to fit? Do you skip the snack altogether? When calorie counting, either of these becomes a viable option. Instead, when you finally stop counting calories, snacks don’t have to be a meticulous number game to try to calculate between meals. Like with meals, instead, you can base a snack off of your hunger level, what sounds good, and what’s going to truly hold you over until your next meal - no matter how many calories that has.
3. You no longer graze or have instances where “calories don’t count.”
On the other hand, instead of manipulating a snack, when you’re hungry but see that you’re almost at your calorie goal, there’s also often a “calories don’t count” situation. These include activities like: standing by the fridge eating, grazing but not counting the things you’re eating, and/or eating a little bit of different foods, but not enough of each to truly “count.” Because you’re not sitting down with the food or even taking it out of its container, the calories seemingly don’t count and don’t have to be entered into your app. But, the irony here is that if you just ate a snack (and the one you wanted) when you were hungry, you probably would’ve eaten less calories overall than if you ate those calories that “didn’t count.”
Just like above, no longer counting calories means that you can sit down and enjoy a decent-sized snack, or meal, or dessert. Not playing around with numbers lets you choose something to eat and mindfully enjoy it, instead of grazing or eating standing up in a way that doesn’t count (and never ends up being enjoyable). By default, you become better at mindful eating, and decrease those “it doesn’t count” and “I don’t even know what I just ate” eating moments.
4. You’re able to TRULY listen to your hunger.
If it isn’t already clear, no longer counting calories allows you really, truly listen to your hunger. No matter how minor it seems, when calorie counting is happening, it will always serve as a subtle reminder about how much you can or can’t eat. Even when you feel in tune with your body, if you always have a number in the back of your mind, it will get in the way of eating the amount you’re hungry for and letting yourself eat until you’re actually full. Only when your meals aren’t dictated by a number can you truly listen to your hunger and fullness signals.
The other day I ate an entire Levain cookie (they’re pretty big) after dinner. If I had a number in the back of my mind, I probably would’ve subconsciously been aware of that number and only eaten 1/4 or so of the cookie, even though I really wanted more. On the other hand, not calorie counting meant I could eat as much of that cookie as I was actually hungry for without overthinking it. At that time, this meant the entire, delicious cookie. I wasn’t overly full, I wasn’t still hungry and I wasn’t thinking about the numbers game – I was perfectly content and satisfied.
I’ve been asked if I believe in calorie counting in my private practice. With clients, many often want to write down their meals for a week or so just to get an idea of what they’re eating. Think about it: do you remember what you ate for dinner last night? It can be weirdly hard to remember, and sometimes my clients enjoy keeping super brief notes to get an idea of what they’re actually eating during the day, when they’re skipping meals or overly hungry, or when they eat mindlessly. This helps us looks for patterns and make an action plan – without looking at or using any numbers. Most of my clients don’t count calories for all the reasons listed above. It becomes obsessive. Despite your best intentions, calorie counting drives your eating based on everything but your internal cues.
I know it can be scary to think about stopping to count calories, but I promise, it will be worth it. Personally, when I stopped doing it years ago, nothing overly negative happened. I wasn’t all of the sudden eating way more than usual, I didn’t feel like my eating was out of control, and I didn’t gain a pound. On the contrary, being able to truly listen to your body without numbers getting in the way is an amazingly freeing feeling.
The cool thing about being able to listen and tune in to your body is that you’ll want to eat food that makes you physically feel good and, over time, you’ll learn how to eat and choose meals without overthinking it. If you’ve been manipulating or restricting what you eat for a while, you might find that you need a little more nourishment during the day. Or, if you’ve been doing a lot of grazing, “calories don’t count” eating or struggle with binging, you might learn how to create larger, more satisfying meals to prevent that excess grazing. You can only truly determine what your body really needs once you’re no longer letting external factors guide those decisions. If you’re currently counting calories and subconsciously letting numbers dictate the way you eat, there’s only one way to find out.
To learn more about listening to your body without counting a thing, check out my membership program All Foods Fit, available all at once, monthly or weekly (coming soon!).