Every so often, I get into this debate with people who reject the concept of “calorie counting” outright. And while I’m the type of person who believes in understanding someone’s viewpoint before I make a decision about it either way (because there is a difference between understanding someone and accepting their opinion as right), I’m not going to make it easy, either.
The very first series I wrote on this site was about my experiences with calorie counting, and it’s a process that’s very near and dear to my heart. Before I explain my experiences with calorie counting and my own personal stance, I think it’s fair to explain the concept of intuitive eating. I think, as you read along, you’ll discover what my real thoughts about intuitive eating actually are.
I know, I know… no one loves wikipedia. I’m quoting it anyway:
Intuitive eating is a nutrition philosophy based on the premise that becoming more attuned to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight; rather than keeping track of the amounts of energy and fats in foods. It’s a process that is intended to create a healthy relationship with food, mind, and body. Intuitive Eating, just like the many books available today, goes by many names, including non-dieting or the non-diet approach, normal eating, wisdom eating, conscious eating and more.
I think that’s a pretty solid definition.
I think I’ve said enough on this site that implies that I am anti-dieting. I don’t believe in restrictive rules that I can’t abide by, thus resulting in my incessant need to “cheat.” I don’t believe in the “health obsessed, yet still unhealthy culture” in our country today.. that takes advantage of people’s confusion about weight loss and wellness. I don’t believe in society’s need to idolize sickly looking women (and by sickly looking, I mean not fit, just thin-for-the-sake-of-being-thin). I don’t believe in perpetuating the idea that you have to buy every book or every trendy fad fitness toy to be healthy… especially when all it’s gonna do is collect dust until you donate it to Goodwill. I just… I reject most of what popular culture tells me about wellness, food and weight loss. That part of the intuitive eating philosophy, I accept and advocate.
I’m also big about developing healthy relationships with food. I support conscious consuming. I don’t support using food to self-medicate. Or hiding food. Or using food for any reason other than fueling the body and enjoying the experience. A lot of us don’t even realize that we have unhealthy relationships with food because we’re not even conscious of what we’re doing when we do it. We just.. consume.. feel better.. and move on to the next issue. Wash, rinse, repeat.
However, people who support intuitive eating also have this tendency to reject calorie counting as a faction of that “health obsessed, yet still unhealthy” culture that we have. Weight loss programs abound, that restrict you to a certain amount of calories, as if calories are the key indicator of weight loss success or failure. (Countless posts here will tell you.. they’re not.) Without proper focus, it can absolutely become obsessive. Supporters also believe it puts too high of a priority on calories… as if a calorie is a calories is a calorie, and it doesn’t matter where they come from so long as you’re under X number.
I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. I think they are great philosophies. I also think they’re thoughtless, slightly privileged and a little disconnected from the reality that calorie counting can provide… because while I am an intuitive eater now, I got here through calorie counting. And because of that, because these people want to pit the two against one another, instead of using calorie counting as a means of maturing into intuitive eating, calorie counting wins out for me.
When I first realized that my problem was not only how much I was eating but what I was eating, I struggled a bit and had to start from scratch. For me, this meant that I completely dropped processed foods and – because I was missing the processed dishes I was eating – had to learn how to cook. Some people take the insulting stance of “you should know that eating a cupcake is not healthy,” but it’s not that you should know it is unhealthy.. it’s about knowing just how unhealthy it is.
I developed a love of cooking, because I realized just how much fun it could be to experiment and actually succeed with a well-put-together dish. And with every dish, I learned what each ingredient contributed to the dish. It taught me to be mindful of just how much fat I was adding to a dish (by way of oil, butter, cream, avocado, nuts, whatever) while still seeking to create a flavorful dish. I learned that I needed to be mindful of a “tipping point” in my dishes: sure, I can recreate the flavors in my favorite restaurant pasta dish… but did I really want the size? Did I really need the size?
I calorie counted everything in my baking, and learned where I could pare down the sugar and excess fat while still enjoying myself. And in baked goods where I learned just how calorie-heavy they were… I learned that I couldn’t eat them often – or at all, for that matter.
While I was doing all of this calorie counting, something was happening to me that I didn’t recognize at first, but I’m eternally grateful for after the fact. All of this experimenting with real ingredients as opposed to processed foods allowed me to redevelop my own sense of being full. That’s right – a lifestyle that relied on food that originated from dust and, within my insides, turned back into dust and failed to fill me… thus compelling me to eat more and consume more calories… altered my ability to eat intuitively. It worked against my intuition, and caused me to disconnect from it. It caused me to lose my ability to connect to myself and my body. I suspect I’m not the only person that has ever had that problem.
Being a calorie counter – as well as an amateur cook – allowed me to learn how different foods make me feel inside. I learned how foods with a lot of fat are much higher in calories and are supposed to fill you up quicker. I learned why there’s a difference in how I feel after eating my cheesecake vs someone else’s cheesecake… which taught me to stop eating someone else’s cheesecake. I learned.. I learned… I learned so much from my experience with counting calories that, if I had just bypassed it for the sake of “trying to become an intuitive eater,” I wholeheartedly believe I’d still be flailing about and clueless, almost 110lbs ago.
Why can’t we have both? Is the risk associated with calorie counting soooooo great that we cannot instead focus our energies on developing a healthy program that nurtures calorie counters into people who become more conscious of the contents of their dishes and better able to listen to their bodies? Why is wellness always all or nothing, especially when overlooking the middle usually results in a lot of people being left in the dust? And, let’s face it – some people want to lose weight. Is there something so wrong with that? They should be allowed to understand their bodies and how to better control the weight those bodies carry. (Or do we fear that allowing healthful discussion about “how to lose weight” implies that people need to lose weight? Isn’t it easier to just work to fix that mentality?)
In closing, I offer up a polite suggestion. Instead of railing against calorie counting… take the stance that, for those of us who don’t come from some grand understanding of “you’re an idiot if you don’t know that a cupcake isn’t healthy,” it is a way to learn just how unhealthy some things are. Understand that it helps us quantify just how bad our decisions are and can be if we aren’t conscious and careful. Understand that it helps us realize that each food we put into our bodies should serve multiple purposes – not just “be yummy” – because our bodies have needs… and our bodies try to tell us what they need, if we’re able to listen. You can’t make it from the first floor to the second without walking up a few steps… and for me, calorie counting was those steps.
So.. if I have to choose? Calorie counting. All day.