Why I Don’t Focus on Calories

When you come in for an appointment you might be surprised that we don’t talk about calories. We talk about foods to eat, general serving sizes, how to balance your plate but the food guide you leave the office with will not say eat X number of calories. This is by design, part of the process I have found helps people find truly sustainable eating habits. My goal for you is to not cycle through life on or off a diet but rather to cultivate a lifestyle.

If you took a time machine back 10-15 years ago, I could have told you the calories of almost any food – packaged snacks, fruits, cheese, you name it – I knew it. I would spend days with a running tally in my head. Unless that tally was interrupted by an unexpected workplace birthday cake, then I would call the day a loss and start again the next. It was a cycle of extremes. Constant, meticulous record keeping or total avoidance and denial. Did meticulous record keeping help?  Sure, sometimes it did.  It might keep me from eating something I didn’t want or need for a while. And there were periods in my life that I lost a good deal of weight while tracking everything I ate and every move I made. But the idea that a calorie is a calorie and that the total at the end of the day is all that matters, also lead to behaviors like “saving” my calories for a splurge.

For example, if I knew I was meeting friends for pizza one night I would eat next to nothing all day so that I could have an extra slice. Or two, or three. I mean at that point I was so hungry I am not even sure I tasted the food, I just wanted more and more. Instead of listening to my body and feeding it when hungry and stopping when satisfied I depended on an app on my phone to tell me if it was ok to eat something. Or I turned my back on the process all together when my hunger or cravings got the best of me.  I am guessing at least a few of you can relate to this experience.

Looking back now I think of all the things I could have done instead of focusing all my time and attention on memorizing or tallying calories. I could have written a book, or learned to play the piano, or invented some revolutionary product. Who knows? My mind was otherwise occupied with thoughts of food and calories.

At some point I just gave it all up. I stopped counting calories and writing it all down. It wasn’t really working for me anyway. My weight remained fairly stable despite the fact that an app told me if I ate like this everyday (which I did, mostly) I would lose 2 pounds a week. Why did I work so hard to please a piece of technology that made me feel bad about myself?

Instead of taking that time to tune into my body for cues of hunger and satiety, I just ate what I wanted, when I wanted.  Sometimes that meant something healthy (I have always loved a big veggie salad with steak or chicken) and sometimes it was not (all pizzas are single serve, right?). Usually at the end of a work day I would be too tired to cook so dinner consisted of eating a bunch of dill flavored Triscuits dipped in sour cream while standing at the kitchen counter. If I had to guess I would say more often than not my calorie intake still fell within the “good” range but my body wasn’t responding.  This was my slow realization that maybe it is about more than calories.

After months (years?) of feeling less than great, it was time to try a radical new approach. I focused on eating food, whole, real food, instead of counting calories. This meant cutting out processed foods and excess sugars. For a girl who had been eating crackers and sour cream for dinner this was a big change! I learned about blood sugar and insulin. I realized that even though my fasting glucose was always in the normal range, I was dealing with insulin resistance - the first step on the road to type 2 diabetes.

I learned how to create a balanced meal with lots of veggies, healthy fats (yes, fats – even with all their calories!), and protein. I started eating actual meals instead of snacking my way through the day. These balanced meals kept my blood sugar balanced (good-bye hanger and anxiety), stopped my cravings (or as I think of it now, my body’s cry for help), and improved my energy and sleep. It also started to change my body, I lost some weight and gained muscle tone, but more importantly it changed my mind. My thoughts and feelings towards food and eating changed. I became the person who could see a cookie and not NEED to have it. I knew it might taste good but I didn’t have eat it. I found a sense of freedom with food that I had never experienced before.

After more than 30 years of treating my body like a crappy rental property, not worth the investment, my attitude and outlook changed. It didn’t happen overnight and there are still days that old thoughts and behaviors try to slip back in, but I have seen the other side – there is a better way.

My body, mind, and life are worth the investment. If I treat my body well with food, movement, sleep, and relaxation, it does wonders for me in return. I am not at the finish line, spoiler alert - there is no finish line, but I have learned to enjoy the journey. I am inspired by how a body and mind can repair and rebuild, even after years of neglect. I continue to see the ways that I am better than before and that is all I need to keep going.

Amber HansonComment