In the Facebook group for my recently-released Eating After 40 course, there has been a bit of talk about counting and tracking. It’s interesting to see women who have depended on counting and tracking for so long, that they aren’t sure if they can give it up and trust themselves to eat without them.
Of course, giving up the counting and tracking is one thing that I encourage all of the women in the course – and everyone in general – to stop doing.
These behaviours do work for some people, but for many, they create a dependency, along with anxiety and obsession around food and eating.
If you’re a person who has been dieting, counting, and tracking for years on end, the thought of stopping all of that in favor of more intuitive-style eating habits can be terrifying.
Suddenly giving up counting and tracking can feel like you’re free-floating in space, untethered. This is exactly why you shouldn’t count or track: it’s a tether, or a leash, that keeps you from really feeling what your body wants and needs.
And despite what our society wants us to believe, finding pleasure in food isn’t bad, it isn’t wrong, it’s not unhealthy.
If you count and track and you can give them up intermittently without anxiety, and if you can do them while still being able to relax around food, and you feel like they work for you in some way, then by all means, continue.
You still might want to read this post though, because it may enlighten you to the fact that counting and tracking may be affecting you in ways you didn’t know.
Understanding the relative nutrition content of your food is important, of course. But tracking every calorie? Counting every carb?
Not so much.
There are several reasons why I’m not a fan of counting and tracking, especially for weight loss.
First of all, we don’t know how many calories we really need, and – surprise! – those needs change from day to day. A random app or equation is unlikely to give you an accurate number for a calorie budget, and calories? They’re also a fairly arbitrary measure.
Differences in gut bacteria (we believe), metabolism, food processing, geographic location, and labelling laws mean that the calories you think are in a food, may either be incorrect or, may not be correct in terms of how you as an individual absorb them.
Is calorie tracking beginning to seem like a waste of time?
Second, I truly believe that eating should be intuitive, and food shouldn’t be drilled down into numbers. We don’t eat numbers, we eat food. Letting an external force decide what we eat, versus our own internal cues, is what happens when we count and track.
Choosing food for its calories/carbs/macros can affect which foods we decide to eat for any given meal, which may lead to dissatisfaction, not to mention guilt and shame if you don’t eat the ‘right’ thing.
In other words, if you choose a salad because it ‘fits’ your calorie budget, but you really want meatballs, you probably won’t be happy and satisfied after that meal.
You might be full, which is a physical feeling. But satisfaction? That’s an emotional feeling, and newsflash! it’s important, too.
For so many people, that satisfaction equation has taken a back seat to ‘eating right’ and ‘filling up’ with foods they’d rather not eat, all in the name of weight loss. That is a disordered way of looking at food. Let’s not do that anymore.
When you’re dissatisfied with meal after meal, you can start to feel deprived, which can lead to rebound overeating and an ‘all or nothing’ mentality.
Lastly, counting can become an obsession, in particular if you’ve had an eating disorder or are at risk for disordered eating.
Research suggests that those people who use tracking apps are more likely to exhibit eating disorder symptoms, although we aren’t sure which came first, the tracker or the disorder. Still, the fact that these two things are associated, may mean that tracking is in some way contributing to disordered eating.
This 2021 study suggests that health professionals ‘consider underlying motives’ when counselling individuals using tracking apps. As a dietitian, I consider this to be a concerning statement that suggests that the use of tracking apps is likely associated in some way with disordered eating, at least for part of the population.
Even if you don’t have an eating disorder, counting and tracking are so tiresome, and totally unsustainable for the long-term. Are you going to still be counting and tracking when you’re 90? What’s the end-game here?
Why don’t we talk about getting you out of those behaviours, and onto a happier, more satisfying and sustainable way of eating?
Here are the first few steps for your transition away from counting and tracking:
Acknowledge what counting and tracking have done for you.
This first tip might sound surprising, but perhaps your experience with counting and tracking wasn’t all bad, all the time. It’s interesting to consider what they may have done for you, in order to see how they aren’t serving you anymore.
Does that make sense?
I spoke to Dr. Meagan Gallagher, C.Psych., a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and mental health. She told me this:
Acknowledge how counting and tracking have helped you. Did they give you a framework, or some stability? Then, consider how they may not be working for you anymore. Are you in a place of comfort with them, or are they merely familiar to you? Can you become comfortable with the change and discomfort that can come with giving up these behaviours?
Like anyone who is thinking of giving up a habit or behaviour, sometimes the fear of the unknown and the anxiety around what might happen can be a major stumbling block. Sticking with the habit becomes a safety strategy, and a way to cope. You need to ‘sit’ with the uncomfortable feelings of letting the behaviour go, in order to move through them.
Dr. Gallagher agrees:
Not sitting with the discomfort perpetuates the anxiety around the change and keeps us stuck. We never learn what truly happens if we do change: is it actually true that tracking is working for you?
We become more and more reliant on those safety strategies. You may be uncomfortable, but know that you’re working towards the relationships with food and your body that you need and deserve.
Consider that counting and tracking may have given you a false sense of control over your eating.
Counting and tracking sometimes become a safe spot where we feel that we have control over our bodies and our intake.
If we don’t count what we’ve eaten, things may go sideways!
If we don’t track macros or calories, we may gain weight!
As Dr. Gallagher says, “it makes perfect sense to have a lot of fear about something that we get a lot of scary messages about.”
She’s so right. We’ve been conditioned to believe from a young age that gaining weight and being fat is the worst thing that can ever happen to us. Understand that not only is that untrue, it’s the diet industry that’s perpetuating that incredibly messed-up way of thinking.
Because of those types of fears, it can be extremely hard to give up counting and tracking, especially if you’ve been engaging in these behaviours for a really long time.
The reality is that the power that we feel from counting and tracking, is an illusion. We buy into it at the beginning, thinking it’s a great way to get control over our eating and our weight.
Eventually, it becomes a pernicious habit, interfering over our lives in ways we didn’t know were possible.
We start eating foods that ‘fit’ into our assigned budgets.
We start exercising just to ‘burn off’ food that made us go over our allotted calories.
We feel angry and ashamed when our app tells us that we ate too much…even if we were hungry and needed to eat more that day.
We feel anxious and can’t relax at food-related events that we should be enjoying.
Above all else, if you have kids, counting and tracking in front of them is essentially teaching them how to diet. Please stop!
Think about how counting and tracking have rippled out into the corners of your life. How have these behaviours affected you and the people around you?
As far as having control, you’ve always had free will over your choices even with the app, you just didn’t think you did. The app convinced you that you needed it to eat ‘properly.’
But your tracking app isn’t a living, breathing being with a brain. It has never shopped for you, cooked for you, physically held you hostage, and forced you to eat anything. It’s just an app. Just a thing. It doesn’t know you as a person, and doesn’t know what’s best for you on any given day.
Give yourself an out.
Sometimes it’s easier to know that we can back out of something we don’t necessarily believe is going to go our way.
Knowing that you can pull the ripcord on your no-counting no-tracking experiment can help alleviate your anxiety around it.
Dr. Gallagher tells patients to get rid of the app for a couple of weeks, and they can always go back afterwards. “Do an experiment.” she says, “You have the control – you’re taking it back in order to not have anxiety and an app run your life.”
Make it through those two weeks, and see how you feel.
Delete your tracking apps and grab your hunger and fullness scale.
Take a deep breath, and get rid of that app! Give yourself over to trusting your body to tell you what it wants and needs.
I promise you that you were born with innate hunger and fullness cues. You already know which foods make you feel physically good, and which ones don’t.
These things can take time and practice to find again after years of relying on external cues like apps to tell us when and what to eat. You can do it!
Use the hunger and fullness scale to help you re-discover your hunger and fullness cues. This is the one I use in my course:
Try to eat when you’re around a 3-4, and stop eating when you’re 5-6. Will this happen at every meal? Of course not. You’ll overeat sometimes, and at times, you’ll be less than a 3 when you finally begin to eat.
That’s life, and these are normal situations that happen occasionally to everyone (even people who count and track!).
During the two weeks that you’re not counting and tracking, take your time, be mindful, and try to notice the ways your life is different without counting and tracking.
Counting and tracking are doable for some people, but for many, they’re not conducive to a good relationship with food and their bodies.
Eating After 40 is a 5-module text-based course that I developed for women in midlife who want to learn how to better nourish their bodies, understand the changes they’re going through, and have a supportive community around them. Join the course here.