What Are Calories?
The amount of energy in an item of food is measured in calories. Our bodies need energy to keep us alive – to live, breathe, move, keep our organs functioning normally and to provide the fuel we need to do the things we enjoy doing.
Wherever we look these days, it can be pretty difficult to escape the subject of calorie counting.
There are lots of sources which seem to encourage that we count the calories we consume:
- Doctors/Dieticians and healthcare literature gives out information regarding daily calorie intake to patients who they advise should lose weight.*
- Most packaged food labels now specify the calorific content.
- Some restaurants list calories next to menu choices (these are usually per portion or per meal).
- Mobile apps and online calculators can track the number of calories you have consumed and burned off.
- Many exercise machines have a monitor which shows how many calories you are burning off through exercising.
- We’ve even seen advertorials and actual products promoting this (including a top available from New Look which we were able to get them to remove from sale)
*Every individual’s body is different so the figures issued by the NHS with regards to the number of calories per day needed to lose weight or to maintain a healthy body weight should only be treated as a guide.
It can be difficult maintaining a healthy, stable weight. It is about finding the right balance of energy that we put into our bodies with the energy we use. There are so many factors which influence what our body needs:
- Age, gender, weight, height, muscle/fat ratio
- Body mass and body fat fluctuates
- Metabolic rate
- Body temperature
- Dependent on level of activity/exercise
- Type of food consumed (some foods are not even digested and absorbed fully)
Your mindset towards numbers and food can either be positive and beneficial or a very harmful and negative response. Calorie counting can work if you are under medical supervision to support weight loss/gain where your health is at risk, but the downside is that it is so easy to become obsessed with weighing, measuring, counting and tracking food, that you can let your thoughts and behaviours take over and control you. This affects your mental health as stress and anxiety can set in as your focus is on numbers rather than food and not knowing the calorific value of what you are about to eat makes the situation even worse. This can lead to eating disorders where you are restricting your calorie intake. Your eating disorder voice is telling you what to eat and what not to, and how to behave. Anybody free from disordered eating does not add up their consumption, but rather they intuitively and mindfully eat.
Practical Tips on How to Stop Calorie Counting
We know this can be a real challenge, particularly if you have been restricting calories, but keep trying, be patient – give it time.
- Be brave. Tell yourself out loud that you recognise you have been counting calories and that you want to stop.
- It’s easy for us to say but actually stopping yourself from being able to weigh, measure and count food by asking somebody you feel comfortable with to remove the weighing scales (ideally from your home completely) or locking away measuring spoons, jugs etc is a step in the right direction. Instead of adding up in your head, try repeating to yourself out loud that you want to stop counting calories and that food is more than numbers.
- When you pick up a tin, a packet, a bottle etc, notice the colours, patterns, font shapes and imagery rather than the words and numbers on the packaging or how many/how much of something is inside when you open it. Remember that it is impossible to precisely calculate the calorie content of the food we eat. Consequently, food labelling is inaccurate and only ever needs to be a guide, particularly for those who might be training for a sporting event, those who have dietary requirements and those being supported by a dietician. Nutrients also vary by season, variety, ripeness, whether they are organic or non organic.
- Delete any calorie counting apps that you have. (Replace with mindfulness apps if you are in the habit of picking up your phone after every meal, snacks etc).
- Learn about intuitive eating – resource yourself with books and podcasts (we recommend reading reviews first to ensure the author/creator encourages a healthy relationship with food and that intuitive eating isn’t a guise for restriction). Intuitive eating involves listening to the nutritional needs of your body and responding to them. Don’t be afraid – just take small steps!
- Actively think about making better food choices and allow yourself to experiment with food – to find interesting new recipes, try new cooking methods, batch prepare if you’re short on time and establish the food you actually enjoy eating and places you like eating at. Over time you will learn how to trust your body and will be able to establish the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
- Give yourself plenty of time to eat. Sit down for meals. Take small bites and depending on the type of food, chew it several times (it might seem silly at first but soon you’ll be doing it without realising and will get the full taste of each ingredient). Pay attention to how the food looks and smells; notice the sensations (i.e. how your mouth feels, the richness of the food, crunchiness, softness, saltiness, sweetness etc) before, during and after eating.
- Don’t cut out certain food groups. Remember, foods should not be labelled as good or bad. Make all foods permissible and just enjoy eating it if you are hungry. Listen to what your body is telling you and the amount of food it wants. There may be times when your body is just screaming out for a particular type of food (a craving). Eat food that you are actually in the mood to eat. It does not hurt to give in to that craving!
- Do not restrict after a high calorie intake. Listen to your body and tell yourself it does not matter what you ate earlier, yesterday or this week, your body knows how much more food it needs and in what nutrient form(s).
- Recognise when you are feeling full – you can even say it out loud. Again, listen to what your body is telling you. If you are no longer hungry then stop eating (make this a physical act of putting your cutlery down or taking your plate out of the room) as you don’t want to end up feeling uncomfortably full. This can take time to learn but you can train yourself to stop eating when you have reached that point of fullness.
Here is an inspirational story to end on:
Our client, Chrissy, looks back on her recovery journey whilst still moving forward:
“I was so disconnected with my body that I wasn’t aware of how malnourished it was. Looking at my body now, I see that through all the years of weight fluctuation, bingeing and starving, it’s still alive and healthy and keeping me alive. My body forgives me for everything despite the suffering I and my eating disorder put it through. Learning to trust food again was not easy, I was petrified of putting anything outside my regimental “safe foods” into my body.
The day I decided to stop counting calories and just go for it, just try eating more and what I wanted was the day I never looked back. It didn’t change my body image, it didn’t suddenly put my terrors at bay. However, I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for that scary process. Now, the fears of “getting fat”, the days when I think my body is less-than haven’t vanished. But the fears aren’t strong enough that I would ever return to that dark hole.
Food and body issues aren’t the reason for an eating disorder, but they are a big symptom and the fear around them can be paralysing. The more I challenged them and persevered, slowly and gradually, I realised the voices had gotten quieter.”
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