Why I don't count calories
When we first started working together, a client – I’ll call her Ana (not her real name) – was exhausted, anxious and irritable. For years, she’d been cutting calories, eating low-fat and jogging at least an hour a day.
During her 20s and early 30s, Ana’s long daily runs and low-calorie, low-fat diet seemed to work. Sure, she got sick of planning her life around workouts and calorie counting, but her weight held steady. For Ana, that was well worth it.
Problem is, beginning in her mid-30s, Ana’s exercise and eating routines became less and less effective. She watched with frustration as her body fat gradually increased and her health gradually declined.
When “doing everything right” stops working
By the time of our first session, what once worked for Ana wasn’t anymore.
Then age 40, she was “doing everything right” but with diminishing returns. Looking in the mirror had become difficult. She felt bloated, puffy and uncomfortable in her own skin.
Ana had an abundance of determination, so she reacted by stepping up her dieting and exercise efforts – in effect, doing more of what wasn’t working.
In this way, she managed to stave off additional weight gain but only with great struggle. Meanwhile, she became increasingly depleted and increasingly dependant on sugary infusions in the form of juices, fruits and sweets.
She felt like she was fighting herself and her body – and she was.
Turns out, healthy eating and exercising is more about quality than quantity.
Put differently, the shape and state of our body is determined more by the types of food we eat and the types of movement we do than the amount.
Number of calories consumed? Number of miles run? Largely meaningless when it comes to sustainable weight loss and long-term health.
Sure, they can be part of the picture for some people. But widespread myths around weight, dieting and exercise blow their importance way out of proportion.
Indeed, restricting calories and fat – and engaging in chronic cardio – can actually slow metabolism and work against weight-loss and health goals.
Often, this doesn’t happen at first (particularly among young folks, whose bodies tend to be more resilient). But with time and age, cutting calories and dietary fat, combined with over-exercising, takes a serious toll.
After all, our bodies (if not our minds) are pretty good at getting messages, and such behaviours tell them to hold onto everything they can!
Self as experiment, body as ally
Don’t buy it? Or still not sure? Well, the best measure is honest, ongoing self-experimentation. So I invite you to ask yourself:
Is constantly cutting calories and eating low-fat working for you? What about excessive exercise?
And when I say “working,” I mean really working.
As in, yes, you’re at a healthy bodyweight. But you also feel good, have sustained energy, and enjoy a life of abundance and nourishment rather than deprivation and restriction.
Is this you? Or are you fighting yourself?
If “fighting yourself” sounds familiar, you’re not alone. You’re also not a lost cause and have a very powerful ally: your body!
That thing you’ve been fighting? It actually wants to move toward balance and health. Give your body what it needs to thrive and chances are it will.
Where to start
Look, learning new eating and exercise patterns (and unlearning old, unhelpful ones) is not easy and won’t happen after reading one blog post.
But that self-experimentation bit I mentioned? It’s an essential piece in the larger process. So for now, I’ll offer one exercise to get your self-experiment underway – and help you start exploring the idea of quality versus quantity.
It goes like this:
Step 1 – For three days, leave the numbers alone. Specifically, no counting calories consumed or “burned.”
Step 2 – Over those three days, try to choose “real food” whenever possible, especially:
- Animal protein (including the fatty bits if organic or grass-fed)
- Butter, ghee, extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil
- Veggies (lots and lots!)
- Moderate amounts of fruit, nuts and seeds
Try NOT to choose:
- Processed and packaged foods
- Refined sugars and sweets
- Juices and smoothies
- Grains (bread, pasta, crackers, cookies and such)
Feel like I’m tossing you in the deep end? Don’t panic.
If Step 2 is too much, start with Step 1 and just cut the counting. If three days is too much, start with one.
Even if you’re skipping Step 2 and not changing what you eat, do bring gentle, honest attention to the types of foods you’re choosing. Are they mostly on the first list? Or the second? How does eating them make you feel?
This is your self-experiment and there are no wrong answers. Think of it as the early days of investigating, information gathering, learning.
Step 1 – Guess this means I need to stop tracking calories on the treadmill. I’ve been doing it for years, but hey, it’s only three days, right? No biggie. I’ll still be running the same amount.
Oh yeah, and no scanning labels for calories and fat. Funny, but that makes me really uncomfortable. Anxious even. Over the years, it’s become something I do automatically, before eating anything. It’s like the number of calories and amount of fat are going to double if I don’t double-check.
Step 2 – Let’s see…food choices. Well, I usually go for a sandwich on whole wheat for lunch, sometimes with a juice or smoothie. All that falls on List 2. What could I eat from List 1?
Maybe I’ll do what “that paleo girl” from work does: pack a hardboiled egg, a burger leftover from dinner, and some lettuce and tomato. No bun, of course. But perhaps an avocado. Feels weird – I’ve eaten sandwiches and smoothies for years. But, hey, it’s just three days.
Findings – Wow. Thought Day 3 would never get here! Actually, I guess the first day was the worst – things got easier after that. Still. Can’t wait to start tracking those numbers again.
It’s interesting though, I kind of liked having a break from that. Maybe I could try keeping track every other day instead of always. Or maybe I could just forget about it on weekends.
Definitely going for a sandwich and smoothie tomorrow, that’s for sure. Although, maybe I should hold off a day. I mean, I miss those, but the food I’ve been packing is actually pretty good. And I am less bloated…and less sleepy after lunch. I wonder how eating this way for a full week would feel?
Sound doable? Possibly not (at least not yet). And that’s okay.
By even considering such questions and changes, you’re already engaging in self-exploration and experimentation. May not sound like much, but in truth it’s a pivotal piece in getting where you want to be with eating and health.
Over time, with practice, your “self-exploration muscle” will get stronger. You may even find these experiments fun! And the more you get curious and the more you notice, the more things will slowly, slowly start to change.
How’d it go for Ana?
With Ana, like most Alchemist Eating clients, this process unfolded over several months of supported change efforts.
Now, it’s second nature. At age 41, she feels like she can finally maintain her desired weight without obsessing over how much she’s exercising and eating.
What’s more, she’s enjoying movement and food again…and feels she’s aligned with her body, rather than than fighting it.
In one of our last sessions, as we reviewed and celebrated her success, Ana put it this way: "You know, it’s true. The right way to eat – and move – really is more about quality than quantity. This feels so much better…and really works!”