Last night I dreamt that I was driving an out of control sports car at top speed and I could not slow down. Swerving into oncoming traffic I was somehow able to manoeuver the car out of harm’s way and eventually came to a screeching halt in a ditch. The door was completely jammed so my only exit was through the driver’s seat window that I was able to roll down. As I crawled out of the window, my adrenalin was pumping like a heavy bass sound from an oversized speaker. Relief washed over me as I kissed the ground after such a wild ride. Is this what it feels like to stop counting calories?
In my dream I was the driver of the car. According to my not-so-scientific Google searches on dream analysis, if you are the driver of the car, regardless of the journey, it means you are making a conscious decision to move in a certain direction in your life and taking responsibility for your own actions. Yes I felt out of control in the dream as I did when I stopped counting calories but in reality during my calorie counting of over a decade, I was never in control; I was the mercy of a sense that to be okay, I needed to deify an arbitrary number based on one or other historical moments and strive like hell to keep my nutrition within its parameters. When I ate less than my calorie quota, I congratulated myself and when I exceeded it, I tormented myself by reveling in guilt. You could show me any food and I could tell you the approximate calorie content – such is the deeply entrenched ritual and data instilled by repetition. I told myself it was fine because, hey, it’s not like I was starving myself. But in many ways I was; I was starved of the freedom to choose what I ate based on what I wanted to eat and what by body felt it needed; every food choice followed strict calorie criteria to ‘fit in’ my budget. The cruel part is that while sometimes I lost a little bit of weight, although not enough for anyone to notice, most of the time my weight remained stable despite my suffering. (That’s a no to impromptu parma night). Worse, I’m convinced that my most rigid arithmetic periods coincided with weight gain – perhaps because the calorie counting mentality engenders episodic overeating driven by both appetite neuropeptidies and the ‘last supper’ mindset that says ‘you’ve blown it, so you might as well’.
Calorie counting had its place in the beginning for me. I was eating doughnuts, bagels, cheesecake and super sized chocolate chip muffins washed down with sugary, milky extra-large lattes and my weight crept up. I didn’t realise how many calories, fat and sugar were in these foods and how they were negatively affecting my metabolism. My mood, energy levels, and hunger signals were out of whack. All these foods had sugar in common. The effect of high-glycemic index foods, for which processed foods often qualify, is rapid release of glucose into the bloodstream and concomitant blood sugar drop, colloquially known as the ‘sugar crash.’ The corollary is cravings for more quick hits, perpetuating a vicious cycle. One type of sugar, fructose, has been found to bypass the satiety switch by sneaking past the fullness hormone leptin. Many obese people are leptin resistant, meaning they literally don’t have the built-in sense of when they have eaten enough (the word comes from the Greek word, leptos, which means to be thin). For most of us, however such a glitch is likely caused by processed foods rather than flawed physiology, so in effect we are creating a self fulfilled prophecy that we can’t trust our bodies. My preference for sugary foods led to weight gain and believing that my body was insatiable. When I learned the caloric and nutritional content of foods, I started making healthier choices and reducing processed foods. Calore counting was a useful training drill – not a long-term solution.
Eventually I got sick of counting because I was no longer enjoying my meals, as they turned from delicious nourishing sustenance to bland numbers. What’s the point of having taste buds and cooking delicious dishes if food only amounted to numbers? Being in control my calorie allowance was the grandest illusion of all because in the end I realised it was the calorie counting that controlled me. The energetic manifestation of not trusting my gut spread into other areas of my life where I ultimately felt out of control. Only when I made the conscious decision to stop counting did the windfall of all that head space I was using up to occupy my mind with arbitrary numbers help me to gain something greater in return.
One of my favourite quote is, “Insanity is doing the same thing again and again yet expecting different results.” Could not counting calories have unlocked something that was dormant in me for so long? I decided to continue my experiment of not counting to see where it led and the results were not as I had anticipated. Changing the strategy completely changed my life – transforming it in other positive and unexpected ways.
I now find myself trying to persuade clients who have become convinced that they need to count calories to lose and maintain weight that this is not the case. Tellingly, even the most disciplined aren’t underweight and most are looking for answers – calorie counting is supposed to work. And it does. While it doesn’t promote sustainable weight loss or afford control over anything that matters, it is something consistent in an ever-changing world – and many people become dependent on that in the same way a chile drags a blanket around. When I tell people that I don’t count calories and eat what I want, they look at me like I have two heads. Can you recall a time when you were a healthy weight and didn’t have to think about what you were eating and how many grams of fat, carbs or sugar it contained?
Science supports the case for swan-diving off the calorie wagon – both due to the physiological effects that occur when one eats fewer calories than their body needs and the psychological tumult of the starve-binge cycle. In fact while I don’t want to promote intuitive eating as a weight loss method per se, abandoning my inner abacus caused me to lose weight because without the preoccupation – and I didn’t quite realise how much head space it consumed until I gave it up – I was able to focus on things that really mattered; and without food occupying a leading role, I was surprised to find myself stopping eating before I finished because despite what I believed while calling muffins a food group, I just knew when I’d had enough. What’s more, I did still say “yes” to office cake when I felt like it, which meant I wasn’t compelled to go on baked good benders.
If your goal is weight loss and you just want to free yourself from the limitations imposed by what is akin to a second job for the brainpower it demands, stop thing about weight and start thinking about healthy eating. Nourish your body, take care of it and truly love it, for it will love you back. As a result of not counting calories I healed my metabolism by eating foods my body needed and eventually got leaner, stronger, more energetic and my bloodshot eyes cleared up. My mood improved and I started making conscious decisions about my life to move it a direction that I wanted. In feeding my gut with as much fantastic and nourishing food as it so desired it thanked me and steered me in new and exciting directions no doubt my decisions were sharper without competing for brain space). I started trusting myself and I got outside of my head. In not counting calories I embraced being “uncomfortable” and achieved more than I ever thought possible.
I still have days where I over think what I have eaten and worry that I am overindulging. Old habits die-hard. Ultimately what really matters is getting up and starting fresh every day. New habits take time to form until they become ingrained, much like brushing your teeth. Accomplishing this goal inspired me to motivate my health coaching clients even more with their personal goals. Being in the present and enjoying my food was the first step in showing up for life in general. There is no reason why you can’t do the same – although I know you won’t believe it until you do it.
Certified Health Coach