The problem with calorie counting? Everybody has needs

Eat when you’re hungry.

Dieting teaches us that we should ignore our hunger, that it is a personality deficit we should overcome and overpower, that it will “adjust” and we will “get used to it.” No.

I can trust my hunger. My body is telling me that I need more energy. It’s not a trick of my mind, or an old habit I need to break, or an addiction I need to overcome and white knuckle through.

Hunger is an important missing piece to the calorie and macro counting paradigm. Greg recently did a deep dive into some of the pitfalls and imprecisions built into calorie counting.

I don’t have a problem with this sort of analysis. It can give us a window into the difficulties of accurately measuring how much energy we’re actually taking in and expending. However, I don’t agree with the solution he offers up–that we just need better tools for estimating how much to eat.

He’s missing an important element to this–even if I could accurately identify how much I need to eat to drop, say, a pound a week, what if that amount of energy leaves me endlessly, intolerably hungry? What if my weight goal is unsustainable and puts my body at an unsustainable level of leanness for me? What if eating that level of calories requires me to remove all the joy from my eating, and I’d have to live a life without cake?

The physiological and emotional experiences of hunger is different for each of us. Some of us are so accustomed to ignoring our hunger that we don’t even know we are hungry until we’re hangry. Some folks don’t notice their internal sensations of hunger, but they notice changes in their moods, their thinking or their focus. Some of us experience overwhelming, unavoidable hunger with food cues in the environment. And emotional eating–eating for non-hunger reasons like boredom, celebration or self-soothing–is normal, and it is unreasonable to expect to never do it.

In their discussion of the problems with calorie counting, Michael and Aubrey address some of this diversity on a recent episode of Maintenance Phase.

However, I disagree with some of their characterizations of the research. They express an overwhelming distrust of much of the data and a tendency to overgeneralize. For example, Aubrey takes an anecdotal awareness of folks who have dropped over 10% of their bodyweight and concludes that folks who have successfully kept it off “only stayed that top weight for a few months.” I don’t honestly know how many people go against her narrative, but I do know that I do. I’m not as little as I have been in the past, but I’m still retaining about a 20% fat loss for what is now over a decade. I don’t exercise endlessly, and I’m not hungry all of the time. I’m not going to say everyone can do this; but I will say some of us can. I also agree with her and Michael that it is not equally easy for everyone and the reasons why I might be able to do this while others cannot are likely largely out of our control. AND, I believe that using internal tools, like learning to listen to our own physical experiences of hunger and satiety is more likely to result in successful fat loss than external tools like calorie counting.

I’ve written before about nutritional strategies that help me to feel full (here and here). But I started the posts with an important caveat: none of them will do enough for us if we aren’t eating enough food. The definition of “enough” is not external, it is internal. What is enough is defined by each of our bodies and our own unique physiologies and psychologies and no calorie calculator can tell us how much we should eat.

The goals of diet culture are backwards. It asks how little do I need to eat to get the body I want? I challenge you to turn it around–how much do I need to eat to live a healthy, happy life and let’s see what physique I end up with. Defining the goal for a healthy life that honors our hunger gives us something we can sustain, something we can live with and adjust as our circumstances change. What kind of life would you live if success was based upon how happy and satisfied you can be? After all, I think a lot of focus on getting leaner and more jacked is really chasing a feeling, not a measurement. What feeling do you want for your life, and what if you could get it without looking like a fitness model?

Years ago, Precision Nutrition did their own take on why calorie counting was not a helpful tool. I can’t find the original article I read, but here’s a cool infographic that summarizes the same information.

I like their approach because it shifts the focus on eating balanced, healthy meals in the real world rather than creating external limits that may or may not be sustainable.

Recently, Georgie Fear did a great two episodes (part one and part two) on what she calls food limit reactivity, the feeling of wanting to rebel the moment someone tries to set boundaries about food. This kind of thinking can be a direct result of repeated attempts to limiting oneself excessively through external tools like calorie counting.

For myself, I’ve never been a traditional dieter, but I lived much of my earlier life being told I was too fat and should make some effort to be smaller. I knew that the way people got smaller was by eating less. I did plenty experiments trying to talk myself into not being hungry. None of them lasted more than a few days because hunger is real, and my needs were not being met. I only finally lost body fat and kept it off when I stopped looking outside at what I “should” eat and started really keying into what felt good in my body. I ate when I was hungry. I created meals that left me genuinely satisfied. I did it consistently, not perfectly but most of the time, for years.

These days, I’m bigger than I prefer to be. Life has thrown me one curveball after another, and emotionally I’m struggling. It makes it harder for me to stick with all my routines and to hear the cues my body is telling me. However, one of the wonderful things about trusting my hunger is that I know it will always be there for me. So, as I’m ready to take it on, I’m slowly once again practicing noticing when I’m eating when I’m not hungry and working on finding strategies that help me do other things to meet my needs when I might be reaching for food to serve non-hunger needs. Not because I’m eating too many calories according to some algorithm, but because I want to take care of myself and feel good. It’s selfcare not punishment.

Part of the work for me is practicing self-compassion. I can be pretty hard on myself. I tend towards perfectionist thinking, very detail-oriented and focused on doing my best at everything I pursue. So, I’m often having to remind myself that what my best looks like is different at different times in my life. That includes eating and following my hunger. When life is really hard, this skill can be “slippery” for me, and I tend towards older habits learned in childhood to emotionally comfort myself with food past the point of physical comfort in my body. So, when I notice I’m doing that, it’s a good sign that I have some emotional needs that are going unmet.

Food works, at least for a time, but other practices are there for me, too. Sometimes I need quiet and alone time, maybe with a soothing cup of tea or hot chocolate. Sometimes I need a walk or some time outside. Sometimes I need to connect with a friend or my husband and feel supported and validated. Doing these things helps me to refocus on my needs and to honor my hunger, to let food more often be about solving food-related needs.

And the goal for me is to eat in ways that honor my hunger most of the time. And when I can return to doing that more consistently, I expect my body will adjust in size again. But even if it doesn’t, I will be succeeding in living a happier, healthier life. I will be giving myself what I need–comfort, connection, quiet contemplation.

I don’t think that point of view exists with external tools like calorie counters. How do you ever get to the place of honoring yourself, your needs and your body when you start from a place that is separate and disconnected? Calorie counting “works” in the sense that folks can sometimes lose weight doing it, but for the many of us who have skills to learn, unhelpful habits to replace, and who need to do the hard work of learning to really honor ourselves and the needs of our bodies, it offers nothing sustainable long term. It also fails to define for us what a truly satisfying and peaceful life is for us, on our own terms.

The problem with calorie counting is that it tells us how much we should eat not based on what we actually need but based on external determinations of the goals–both how much we “ought to” eat and what size our bodies “ought to” be. Yes, the math is bullshit to one degree or another. Yes, folks can sometimes lose weight even with bullshit math. But if it isn’t working for you, it may be more complicated than because the math is wrong. It might be because you can’t find the right solutions unless you’re asking the right questions.

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