Whether you're recovering from an eating disorder or are simply working on tuning in to hunger and fullness cues, counting calories is a major hindrance to eating intuitively. While calorie counting is praised and encouraged in our society, it forces eating decisions to be made based on external cues and robs us of mental energy and true food freedom.
However, many people who want to stop counting calories feel unable to "just stop." They delete their tracking app only to download it again a day (or an hour) later. They catch themselves jotting down calories they've eaten in the margins of their calendar or school notebook. They've memorized the calorie content of a myriad of foods, from a tablespoon of peanut butter to a 4 oz chicken breast. Though it can create a lot of guilt and anxiety around food, calorie counting also gives people a sense of control and can feel impossible to quit. So, where to start? Though there isn't a quick fix for kicking an ingrained habit like calorie counting, here are a few tips to help you get started.
Incorporate Flexible Structure
If you've been relying on a tracker to make eating decisions, switching to simply relying on hunger and fullness will likely be too much of a leap. Because you have so much nutrition knowledge, you will likely second guess any internal cues your body gives you. For this reason, most dietitians recommend following a flexible meal structure at first, such as the "Rule of Threes." While this doesn't work for everyone, in general, incorporating three meals and three snacks throughout your day and eating every 3-4 hours will give you a loose structure for you to follow without encouraging obsessive thoughts about food. Of course, meeting with a dietitian is the only way to determine what type of structure will work best in your specific situation and can be helpful in making sure that structure doesn't become too rigid.
Ditch The Tracker
If you're trying to stop counting calories but you're still tracking every bite you put in your mouth...you're just not going to get very far. For most people who have tracked regularly, deleting the app altogether is the best way to go. This will both remove the visual cue to track make it more of a hassle to start again. Depending on how attached you've been to it, it may be helpful to get accountability from a trusted friend, family member, or dietitian when the temptation to download the app again arises.
Mix Things Up
Another obstacle to ending the calorie counting cycle is that you know too much.You might be thinking, "I deleted my tracker, but I still know exactly how many calories are in everything, from the blueberries I ate at breakfast to my Starbucks order at lunch." Rather than trying to put all these thoughts out of mind at once, it can be helpful to start by mixing things up. Do you always buy a certain brand of cereal? Try a new brand so you can't easily call up the calorie content in your mind. Do you know the exact volume of you favorite bowl because you measured it? Eat out of a mug, tupperware container, or something with an unknown volume. Ask a friend or significant other if they can make dinner so you don't know all the ingredients and quantities of food. This way, it's harder to convince yourself logically that you know how many calories you've eaten. You won't have to do this forever, but it can be helpful in the early stages to relinquish some of the control.
Confront Obsessive Thoughts
It's completely normal to have obsessive thoughts about calories when you're trying to stop counting them. But, it's crucial to confront obsessive thoughts with truth rather than letting them breed anxiety. If you're stressed because you're afraid you ate too much for dinner, remind yourself that your body is able to regulate itself and will adjust if you did exceed your energy needs. If you're tempted to estimate the calorie content of your last meal, tell yourself that your body is more accurate at communicating it's needs than a nutrition label or calculator. If you're experiencing physical hunger but feel like you "shouldn't" be hungry yet, remind yourself that your energy needs vary widely from day to day and that your body's cues are a much more reliable guide than any app. Stress, activity levels, sleep, and hormones can all drastically impact your energy needs. To assume you need the exact same amount of food every day is an oversimplification, and will result in even more stress surrounding food. Most importantly, if you're working with a dietitian and/or therapist, trust them as they walk with you on the road to establishing a healthy relationship with food.
While it can feel like foreign territory at first, moving away from calorie counting and returning to a reliance on your internal cues to guide your eating is a major step toward developing a more peaceful relationship with food.
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