Stop Counting Calories
Like most people, I thought that I had to count calories to achieve my goals. Weight loss and calorie counting went together like peanut butter and jelly.
The practice of setting a calorie budget and then tracking everything you eat is so ingrained in Diet Culture, that most people never even stop to question whether it’s the right approach to take.
As someone who loves numbers, data, and tracking things, calorie counting was right up my alley. The mere suggestion from someone saying I shouldn’t do it was met with laughter, arrogance, annoyance, and defensiveness.
After all, I had all the proof I needed that it worked. When I tracked calories I lost weight. And when I wasn’t tracking calories, I wasn’t making any progress.
I knew myself better than everyone else. At least I thought I did.
But the calorie counting had one big negative side effect that I couldn’t see for the longest time – it kept me stuck using food as a tool for controlling my body instead of using it as a way to feel my best. And when you use food to control your external appearance instead of to mentally, emotionally, and physically feel your best, you get caught up in a lifetime of food obsession, diet culture, weight cycling, and body image struggles.
It got to the point where it felt like I was eating calories instead of food.
Turns out calorie budgeting, aka the process of setting a calorie goal and then trying to hold that line at all costs, was the very thing keeping me stuck and frustrated.
It kept me focused on the wrong things. Instead of getting down to the root of my food issues and healing them, I remained focused on trying to lose weight using math.
If I eat 2000 calories and burn 2500 I’ll lose weight. So all I need to do is set a calorie budget for 2000 calories, right?
It doesn’t work that way. Sure, if you eat less than you burn you will lose weight. No one is arguing that. The issue is and always has been being able to maintain that energy deficit.
People think just setting a calorie budget and deciding to eat a certain amount of food is what results in you eating that amount of food. It’s not.
How much you eat isn’t a byproduct of the calories you say you’re going to eat, it’s a side effect of your relationship with food. And the more you try to control your food and calories, the more they end up controlling you.
Setting an arbitrary calorie budget does work if you define work as ignoring your underlying food struggles, losing a little weight for a short while, and then gaining it all back.
If that is what you consider working, then you were just like me and most other people who defend calorie counting.
But if you’re going to attribute calorie budgeting to the cause of your weight loss, then you also need to attribute it to the cause of your resulting weight gain and continued participation in Diet Culture.
Why? Because slashing calories in the face of an unhealthy relationship with food attempts to just put a bandaid over your underlying struggles.
These struggles don’t go away simply because you say you’re going to eat less. Setting a calorie budget and then doubling down on willpower just pushes those struggles beneath the surface for a little while.
But they are still there creating upward pressures on your eating. Until one day those struggles resurface, and no amount of saying you’re going to eat xxxx amount of calories will be able to overpower the consequences of ignoring your body’s needs.
Most of us have been through that process many times. And each time you go through that cycle, you reinforce the idea that calorie counting works, while at the same time keeping yourself stuck in Diet Culture’s grips.
So does calorie budgeting work? It can – assuming you already have a healthy relationship with food. But if that was you, you probably wouldn’t be reading this book.
For someone who struggles with their relationship with food, calorie budgeting is a crutch that gives you a false sense of success. If you want to heal, you’re going to have to put it aside for now. Because your struggles are much deeper than what MyFitnessPal can solve.
How Many Calories Should I Eat?
This is easily the number one question people asked me 10 years ago when I was a weight loss coach, who himself, was stuck in Diet Culture.
We’ve all asked that question. We go try out several different calorie calculators. We search the internet for equations and ask people for advice on how much we should eat to lose weight.
The interesting thing is that you’ve most likely already eaten at a calorie level that would result in weight loss if you had been able to stick it out.
But we think there’s some magic number of calories to eat. As if a 100-200 calorie difference is some kind of success breaker. It’s not, by the way.
The issue has never been you not knowing how many calories to eat. All that information is readily available to you. And even if you’re still unsure, simply cutting a few hundred calories each week until you see weight loss would eventually get you to an intake that “works”.
Point being – asking how many calories you should eat is the wrong question to be asking. It’s rooted in Diet Culture and body control and doesn’t address the real question you should be asking…
Why am I not already eating at a calorie intake that would result in me feeling my best?
Asking about calorie intakes keeps you focused on outcomes and side effects. Remember, how much you eat isn’t dictated by a calorie budget – it’s determined by your relationship with food.
The second question addresses that relationship. It gets you down to the source of your eating struggles and the cause of your overeating.
You can go use a calorie calculator and try to set a calorie budget all you want, but saying you’re going to eat 1200 calories, even though that will result in weight loss for 90% of people, is not going to work if you haven’t healed your relationship with food.
Eating 1200 calories doesn’t fix your emotional eating struggle. It doesn’t fix your binge eating. It doesn’t fix your out of control nighttime or weekend overeating. It doesn’t fix your distrust around fun foods. And it doesn’t get you more in touch with your hunger cues.
In the long term we don’t decide how much we eat. How much we eat is a side effect of our relationship with food, body, exercise, and mind. You might be able to set a calorie budget and follow it in the short term, but unless you address your underlying food and body struggles, there will always be long-term upward pressures on how much you eat. And no amount of artificially restricting calories is going to fix these things. In fact, it makes all of these issues worse. Remember – your body doesn’t care about your physique goals. It’s job is to get you to meet its needs.
There will come a time when calorie counting can be a useful tool in achieving specific goals. But until you heal your relationship with food, taking a calorie centric approach is a liability to your success.
The Biggest Influence On Your Eating
How much you eat is determined by the meaning you’ve attached to food.
It’s not determined by an arbitrary calorie budget – at least not in the long term. You will always revert to a level of eating that corresponds to the meaning you’ve attached to food.
I was thinking about this when my then 7yo son got an ice cream sandwich out of the freezer.
He stood there at the trash can unwrapping it, throwing all the little torn pieces of paper wrapping into the trash.
Then, once it was fully unwrapped, he threw the whole damn ice cream sandwich into the trash too.
This triggered me horribly. And when I asked him why he threw it away he simply said he didn’t want it.
That experience really got me thinking about food and why two people can have two different experiences witnessing the same situation, and how it influences our eating as a whole.
When we’re born we have a very basic view of food. It is sustenance. It is energy. We eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re satiated.
It’s a very simple process that happens on an unconscious level.
But over the years we start attaching new meaning to food based on experiences we have and beliefs passed down to us from parents, society, diet culture, etc.
When my son threw that ice cream sandwich in the trash it felt like a waste of money. I had attached meaning to food that went beyond simple sustenance.
Over time I’ve also attached other meaning to food – relief, satisfaction, entertainment, pain, guilt, fear, and health… to name a few.
These dynamics are what create my relationship with food and determine what, how much, when, and why I eat.
This is why we focus so much on improving our relationship with food in our Built Daily Mentorship program. By changing the meaning you’ve attached to food, you influence your eating for the better – permanently.
That doesn’t mean you can’t attach meaning to food that’s beyond basic sustenance. Not all nurtured dynamics are bad. Some can add to your life experience.
But good or bad, the meaning you’ve attached to food is still the biggest determinant to how much you eat. So understanding your dynamic with it is necessary for any true change to occur.
Hunger Is An Asset
Most people have a dysfunctional relationship with hunger. They see it as something that needs to be suppressed, avoided, and fought.
We don’t think twice about honoring our body’s other signals…
You’re thirsty? You drink.
You’re tired? You sleep.
You think something is funny? You laugh.
You hurt yourself? You tend to the pain.
You’re bored? You do something.
But when you’re hungry? GO AWAY WHY ARE YOU HERE!
If you really think about it, it has little to do with the hunger. Instead, it’s all about your relationship with food and what it represents to you.
For a lot of people, food has a strong association with body image struggles. In other words, they see food as the reason they don’t like the way they look.
Clothes don’t fit? It’s because of FOOD!
Afraid to wear a swimsuit? It’s because of FOOD!
People criticizing your body? It’s because of FOOD!
Avoid seeing people? It’s because of FOOD!
Feeling less valuable as a human? It’s because of FOOD!
No wonder we treat hunger differently. It’s a constant reminder that we don’t like the way we look and that we feel less-than.
But if you’re hungry, it’s for a reason. Your body is asking for an unmet need – usually calories (aka energy). Just like how thirst tells you that you need fluids, hunger is telling you that you need food and nutrients.
It’s an asset, not a liability. It’s meant to be honored – not feared. The problem comes when we have our self-worth tied up in our body. When that happens, food becomes a tool for body control, which is really just a way of saying that you use food to control your self-worth.
So anything that threatens your self-worth is subconciously labeled a liability. Food and calories are now the enemy, and anything that drives you to eat becomes a threat.
That’s why we employ all kinds of appetite suppressing strategies in an effort to fight hunger. We drink caffeine, take pills, undergo surgery, set food rules such as no eating after 6pm, or just flat out ignore our hunger.
Ironically, the most effective way to suppress your hunger is to honor it and eat. Hunger is a sign your body needs energy – not food suppressing tactics. Artificially suppressing your appetite doesn’t make the need for energy (food) go away.
For a lot of people, they’ve ignored their hunger for so long they don’t even know what it truly feels like to honor it. They’ve delegated their hunger to external cues like calorie counting, which has served to only divorce them from their own body’s intuition.
One of the first things you experience when you let go of calorie counting is a turning inwards and reconnecting with your body’s hunger cues. These hunger cues are huge assets in your health and fitness journey, and once you’re in tune with them, they become a highly accurate calorie regulator – much more effective than any arbitrary calorie budget a calculator would have you eat.
Eating When You’re Hungry
When you’ve relied on calorie counting all your life to determine how much to eat, it can be scary learning how to eat based on your hunger cues.
There are a lot of fears and unknowns. And when you combine that with an unhealthy relationship with food, you can feel a little like a fish out of water.
When do I eat? How much do I eat? What do I eat?
Remember, calorie budgeting only provided you with a false sense of comfort. It made you feel like you were eating an optimum amount of food. But in reality, only your body can tell you what is optimal.
The process for navigating hunger once you do away with the calorie counting crutch is so simple that you’re probably going to dismiss it right away. But hang in there, because it all gets easier as you move through the process of healing.
So how do you do it? You eat when you’re hungry but not starving, and you stop when you’re satisfied but not stuffed.
That’s it. It’s simple because it’s supposed to be simple. Eating isn’t supposed to be complicated. You’re not supposed to need a PhD in nutrition to eat, nor a hundred food rules or diets to follow in order to live optimally.
But despite the simplicity of this process, most people will find it very difficult for a couple of reasons.
First, counting calories feels objective. You’re either eating a certain amount of food or you’re not. There’s little room for flexibility, which ironically, is part of the problem. On the other hand, analyzing hunger feels very subjective. There’s quite a bit of uncertainty involved.
But that’s only at the beginning, and only because you’re currently divorced from your body’s hunger cues. As you get in the reps of checking in with your hunger, using tools such as the hunger scale, your hunger becomes less and less subjective and abstract, and more and more objective and measurable.
And the second reason people find it difficult to honor their hunger has less to do with breaking up with calorie calculators, and more to do with your body image.
We already know why calorie counting doesn’t work when you have an unhealthy relationship with food. Your underlying struggles don’t get solved. They just get bandaged over in the short-term, and that creates upward pressures and inconsistencies with your eating.
But that doesn’t explain why people then struggle with the simple advice of eating when you’re hungry but not starving, and stopping when you’re satisfied but not stuffed.
Your eating doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Remember, your Ideal Body is the side effect of 4 relationships – food, body, exercise, and mind.
These relationships have an interdependent relationship with each other. They function alone and need to be healed individually, but they also affect each other and create a synergistic effect.
This is important to understand because so much of our eating is influenced by our body image and how we perceive ourselves.
A negative body image forces us into eating decisions that aren’t in our best interest. When you don’t like the way you look or you hate your body, it’s really hard to listen to your body’s cues.
Instead, you distrust your body. You rely on calorie trackers and other external tools like the scale. And you base your eating decisions, knowingly or not, around whether they will help you like your body.
You end up honoring your weight loss instead of your hunger. You ignore your body’s needs and tell yourself “no” when you’re hungry.
The association made is that food and calories equal hating your body. Food is a liability. Your body is a liability.
That’s why people struggle with navigating their hunger when they drop calorie counting. First, they’ve smothered their hunger for a lifetime and have a hard time hearing their hunger cues. And second, they aren’t really navigating their hunger at all – they’re navigating their self-worth through food.
We will soon get to the section of the Formula that focuses on healing your relationship with your body, but for now, understand that it’s normal to be scared, upset, angry, frustrated, or any other emotion over the idea of giving up calorie counting.
This is part of the healing process. But if you stick with it you will learn to trust yourself again. And when the time comes when you’ve completely healed your four relationships and could theoretically reintroduce calorie counting in a healthy way, I think you might find that you don’t want to. You don’t need it. And you feel freer and more in touch with your body without it.
The Daily Reset
It was 8pm and I was starving. I wanted to eat but felt like I couldn’t.
I was having an internal struggle – do I go over my calories for the day and kill off the hunger pangs, or do I suck it up until I fall asleep for the sake of weight loss?
This used to happen a lot and I would mistakingly try to tough it out. I might’ve made it through the night, but eventually the hunger would catch up to me and I’d end up overeating or bingeing anyways.
The turning point for me was asking myself a very important question when the hunger pangs set in – “if I weren’t trying to lose weight would I eat right now?”
The answer was always yes, which means ignoring my hunger was prioritizing my weight loss over my body’s needs.
And make no mistake, whether you try to prioritize weight loss over your hunger or not – your body will always prioritize its needs. And those needs scream louder and louder the more they get ignored. Suppressing this hunger until you go to bed doesn’t make the need go away.
Our meals don’t exist in isolation. And our bodies don’t work on a 24 hour clock. Just because you make it through a day of hunger suffering it doesn’t mean you get a fresh slate to work with the next day.
Meals and calories have an accumulative effect. Each successive meal has an effect on the next.
What and how you eat today affects how you think, feel, and act tomorrow.
There’s a big misconception out there that every day is a new day – that you get to start with a clean slate, and whatever or however you ate yesterday has no impact on the following day.
From a mindset perspective this is and should be true. In other words, if you totally mess up your eating today, you should learn from the experience and then put the thoughts and feelings of the situation behind you and move on. Holding on to the guilt and shame and negative self-talk serves no purpose.
However, when it comes to the accumulating effects of your eating, you don’t get to start over tomorrow. The last meal you just ate will affect the next one you eat. The next will affect the next. Today’s eating will affect tomorrow’s eating, and how you eat this week will affect what happens the week after that.
There are cause and effect forces always at play. Strong-arming your way through today on low calories, with the idea that if you could just make it through the day and get to sleep that it will have been a success, is misguided thinking. You don’t get a clean slate tomorrow.
Fight and ignore your hunger today and tomorrow you’re starting at a disadvantage. Hormone changes and remnant feelings of restriction and deprivation are just under the surface, and they will add risk to your eating.
Going to sleep has nothing to do with your eating (outside of lack of sleep influencing the types or quantities of foods you eat). Your eating is one continuous cycle. Sleep just happens to occur every night. It isn’t an eraser.
So the answer is very simple. If you’re hungry – eat. It doesn’t matter what time it is. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since your last meal. It doesn’t matter if you seem hungrier today compared to yesterday. You always honor your hunger over your weight loss. Because if you don’t consciously make that decision in the moment, your body will eventually make that decision for you anyways, but at a higher cost.
You’re hungry for a reason. You might not totally understand why yet, but your body knows it needs something with 100% confidence. While you continue to work on understanding and healing your relationship with food, honor that hunger – always. Start learning to trust again that your body knows best.