It seems like the evidence-based folks I listen to and respect land in two camps when it comes to calorie counting. There’s those who see calorie counting as a tool, just a thing you do to keep your awareness and educate your choices, and there’s those who see it as a slippery slope, often leading to unhealthy habits and mindsets.
While I would love for calorie counting to just be a tool, for me it is a slippery slope. Calorie counting, for me, works for a few weeks, or maybe a few months, to do what it is intended to do. I can use it in a non-judgmental way to inform my decisions. I’m able to use it to consider the trade-offs of what I’m eating, when I’m eating, and make decisions in alignment with my long term goals. But slowly over time, or maybe rapidly over a few days, something shifts, and it becomes a source of anxiety. Or maybe it becomes a tool for managing my anxiety? Either way, I start to look at the numbers and fixate on them. As I move away from listening to my internal satiety cues, I start to worry about being hungry, getting hungry, or not having enough to eat. It triggers scarcity mindset, and I start to eat faster, to fixate on what I’m eating, and this feels like a negative feedback loop, ever-intensifying until I can no longer stand it, and I collapse, possibly into a binge.(1)
So, for me, this tool becomes a weapon, and ultimately, it doesn’t help me reach my goals.
The option B, promoted by the ladies at Balance 365 and by Georgie Fear in these two episodes, is learning to listen to our bodies. It requires trusting that our bodies will tell us when we’ve eaten enough, and then taking consistent action based upon that information. And what I love about Georgie’s approach to this issue is her acceptance and acknowledgement that this could be a very scary transition for a lot of people. That they will need tools beyond saying “you don’t need to count calories.” She recognizes the importance of our emotions in how we learn new skills.
In these two episodes, Georgie offers some strategies for transitioning away from calorie counting and learning to trust your body’s internal cues. She starts by telling us that we can begin by doing both–counting calories and listening to our body. Over time, it may become less daunting to cut back on calorie counting and to trust our internal cues more. I love this approach, and this is the first I’ve heard of someone acknowledging that it needn’t be a strict division between one and the other. I can easily imagine many people finding comfort in a slower release from calorie counting, especially if they’ve been doing it a long time.
If calorie counting works for you, doesn’t lead to unhealthy mindsets or behaviors, I’m happy for you and a bit jealous. I encourage you to keep in mind that your experiences aren’t universal, and if you’re a trainer, or just the fit person in your friend group that everyone asks for nutritional advice, I would love for you to learn some of these tools that steer folks towards other skills. Most of us don’t have to use calorie counting to reach our goals, and it can be risky for many. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown eating disorder to count as unhealthy and not health-promoting.
If calorie counting isn’t working for you, please know there are other tools. Georgie does a great job laying some of the foundation in these two episodes. Give them a listen and let me know what you think!
(1) I want to clarify that I do not identify myself as having, or having had, binge eating disorder. No medical professional I’ve ever worked with identifies me this way, either. However, there are lots of reasons someone might exhibit binge eating behaviors, including food restriction, feelings of food scarcity and trauma. For me, my long history of trauma is clearly related to both a long history of habitual overeating or unplanned eating, and feelings of food scarcity that can pop up if I attempt more traditional dieting protocols.