As a dietitian, but probably more as a women, I am exposed to a lot of chatter about calories. All the time, I hear things like this:
"I can eat this because it's only 300 calories!"
"I am ordering eggs whites and broccoli because it's low in calories"
or better yet...
"I ran 3 miles so I get to eat 600 calories for dinner!"
Have you found yourself saying stuff like that to a friend or yourself? I know I have...
It's like calories have become a currency, and we have built imaginary banks in our heads where we can make exchanges and trade-offs with our food choices and exercise. We judge our successes and our failures on whether or not we met the calorie level calculated by our little hand held computers and iPhones. We get down on ourselves when we don't exercise enough or beat ourselves up if we couldn't resist the urge to eat that brownie. We visualize these abstract energy units called calories going to our hips and our thighs if we don't keep things in check which often leaves us feeling defeated, deflated and disempowered.
I know this first hand because I lived this calorie counting lifestyle for a good majority of my early 20s.
In fact, because I was SO obsessed with hitting the correct number of calories for my weight and height, I stopped listening to my body in the process. This reliance on a machine to tell me what to eat, lead to starving myself it on days when I was super active and overfeeding it on days when I was sedentary despite my best efforts to correct for exercise.
I lost touch with my hunger cues and taste buds and reached for any product that said "low-fat" or "low-calorie" without much interest in the ingredients or chemicals these said "healthy" products contained. I over-consumed artificial foods and I justified binging when I purged calories via exercise.
The mental challenge of calorie counting was simply exhausting! I ran away from food that I used to consider satisfying and delicious like butter and whole fat cream and replaced it with fat-free spreads and skim milk (gross). My cardboard diet just never seemed to satisfy me, so I ended up binging on fat-free ice-cream and cereal because eating REAL food just didn't fit into my calorie restricted program.
The ironic result of all of this obsessive behavior was not health and vitality, but rather an extra 10 pounds of weight, thinning hair, decreased energy and malnutrition, especially in healthy fats (I eat a TON of fat now in case you were wondering).
SO, What's a girl to do? I was damned if I did... and damned if I didn't... Truth is, the healing process did not happen overnight.
It took me a couple years to recover from my obsessive behavior and after talking with other nutritionists and studying a book called Intuitive Eating, I felt my life start to change for the better. I got back in tune with my body and learned to eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full (a revolution, huh?). It felt scary to eat butter and bacon at first, but as I learned to trust my body, I learned to enjoy these foods without experiencing the guilt I did in my past. As I learned to stop counting calories completely and I stopped feeling deprived, deflated or disempowered around food.
Around this same time, my interest began to peak in and around Functional Medicine and the deeper study of the healing properties of the nutrients in our food. I rediscovered how REAL food -- the stuff your great great grandmother would have recognized at the market- -is the KEY to health. No longer was I tempted to eat another low-fat food again (unless of course it was naturally low in fat like veggies, fruit and whole grains). I learned to thrive on the good food from mother earth and quickly learned to recognize foods that were trying to mimic the real thing.
I started to focus on WHAT was in my food and WHERE it came from instead. If I was going to obsess about anything, this was more important. Overtime, my energy was restored, I effortless lost the 10 pounds I was holding on to and my hair is now thicker and longer than it has ever been.
Does any of this resonate with you? If it does, you are not alone. You are one of the MILLIONS of women (and men) in this world who have let calories dominate their relationship with food and it's not your fault. If you are tired and fed up and ready for a change, I support you. To start the healing process, I would like to suggest the following ideas and tips. These steps helped me, and I am confident they will help you too.
- FOCUS ON INGREDIENTS INSTEAD OF CALORIES: If you want to get obsessive about anything, get obsessive about where you food comes from. Look for food that came directly from the ground or from a healthy animal. Support local farmers and fill up on foods that are nutrient dense rather than calorie-low or free. Choose products that contain minimal ingredients and ones that you ca n pronounce. I don't know about you, but I KNOW what butter is and I am very certain fat-free margarine did not come from the earth.
- DON'T AVOID FAT BECAUSE IT WILL MAKE YOU FAT: It won't. Instead choose fats that support energy like grass-fed butter, ghee, avocados, nuts/seeds, olive oil, coconut oil and the natural fats that come from healthy organic animals and dairy products. If you want to avoid fat, just avoid the fats from highly processed vegetable oils and conventionally raised animals and this will help tremendously.
- CHANGE THE SUBJECT AROUND FOOD: If your best friend harps about calories, don't demand she stops. Instead, comment on how the food makes you feel and find something positive to reflect back on her. She might say, "I can't believe that we finished that whole plate of fudge!" and your response might be, "yeah, and now my tummy hurts, I think next time I'll go easy. Next time, let's just get a manicure instead".
- GO FOR SATISFACTION, NOT MARKETING: If you go out to eat, focus on the food that will satisfy you and make you feel the best in that moment. Maybe you always go for salads because they are low-cal and you think you would feel guilt if you ate something else, but you are always jealous when you friend's plate comes out with that steak and potatoes. Well I say, get out of your bubble and order the steak for once! Just eat it slowly and devour every morsel with pure satisfaction and ask for a doggie bag when you are full. I bet you anything you'll be less tempted to go for dessert and there is a smaller chance you'll binge when you get home. That said, if you are really craving the salad, then by ALL MEANS, eat that salad :)
- BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF: There is only one thing worse than lying to your best friend and that is lying to yourself. Take some time to explore your relationship and feeling around food and calories. If you are not seeing the results you want to see despite your biggest efforts to track calories, or you are just FED up with all the recording and counting that you just want some freedom, take this tip to heart.
For more tips and pointers, don't be afraid to reach out or work with me. You don't have to do it alone! As a recovering calorie counter, I can assure you that the process is not necessarily easy, but it is certainly worth it. It's liberating to look at food and choose it because it is nourishing, not because it's low in fat, calories or whatever the evil trigger food is at the moment.
Wishing you health, vitality, and a day free of calorie counting...