The Aftermath of Calorie Counting: Tracking Again? + Relationship with Food

Being an extremely avid fanatic of health, fitness and food, it’s pretty clear that I have some kind of history with calorie curiosity. Now a lot of bloggers I follow have relatively polar views on calories. Some completely ignore them and emphasize whole foods and color-counting over calorie-counting, whereas others are fully open to sharing their calorie and macro counts on their fitness trackers as well as nutrition information for their recipes and their food logs. Heck, some people even base their whole lives off of counting calories–not that I recommend that, but it’s a truth.

In one of my earlier posts, I was relatively open about how I developed an unhealthy relationship with food, exercise and my body due to a calorie tracking obsession. Like most people, I constantly aimed to put myself at some kind of deficit to the point where the amount of calories I burned was almost double of what I’d eat for the day. I’m not asserting that I had an eating disorder or anything, but it really took a toll on my relationship with health and fitness. I lost the joy in exercising and the joy in my bland, restrictive diet. With that being said, I couldn’t be more grateful that I let go. Just eliminating one part of my health and fitness lifestyle made way for an abundance of other parts. I can eat extra carbs and fat without the guilt, skip the cardio and just really listen to my body again. I’ve never turned back since.

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Little did I know, however, that certain assignments for my Nutrition class required that we use a standard calorie calculator to complete these projects. One of these assignments is a 3-day recall of our diet in which we students have to input every food we eat in a database and analyze the nutritional information. However, I was not at all triggered by anything, nor was I scared about the numbers that I’d expect to see. It’s been long enough since I did not use any calculator to not have to rely on one for my intuition.

All while completing this assignment, I basically ate just how I typically would and then recorded the total intake values of two weekdays and a Saturday. I found that the total calories consumed was double the amounts recorded on the weekdays because I craved more food to fuel my long weight-training workout, errands and physically-demanding weekend job, whereas I didn’t need nearly as much calories if I were to sit in a desk for hours and hours. What mattered to me the most was that I’d hit more than enough of my vital nutrients. I exceeded my dietary reference intake goals for protein, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, all B vitamins (except B12), vitamin E, iron, folate, magnesium, and potassium. On the other hand, the nutrition database’s average of my 3-day recall found that I’ve been generally deficient in vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, phosphorus and zinc, all of which are easily found in whole foods such as grains, fortified food products, beans, and various nuts and seeds.

So what is my current stance on calories? I don’t hate them, I don’t worship them, but I know they are present in most if not all foods (minus water). Personally, I find that it is extremely difficult to calculate calories at a 100% accuracy. Fitness trackers are often inaccurate as are online physical activity calculators. Not every power squat or burpee is going to burn the same amount of calories due to varieties in form, muscle soreness and exertion. Not every apple is going to be 50 calories and not every carrot is going to be 35 because of varieties in ripeness and size. Even foods such as calorie-free sweeteners and teas might still contain trace amount of calories, yet people don’t track them because their bodies can burn off those minute calories so easily.

I’ve reached a mental state where the amount of calories I eat or burn during exercise no longer affect my mental well-being. Seriously. I’m in college to enjoy an amazing education and life-changing experience. If I can’t even calculate my Chemistry grade because everything is weighed so differently, then why should I waste my energy obsessing over a number that I can’t even estimate correctly? Do I really want to make time for incorporating tracking into my daily routine? Of course not. Calories are simply units of energy that raise temperature. Nothing more significant. They do not define my happiness, beauty, self-worth or anything besides physiological function. I don’t think they should for you, either.

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To make one more point very clear, however, I still acknowledge nutrition information on a product or in certain foods. For example, if I’m comparing two pasta sauces–both being organic, wholesome and relatively pure at the same price (what? I’m stingy!), I will generally choose the lower calorie option. And while being very healthy, coconut oils and sunflower seed butter are much more calorically-dense foods than say, strawberries or celery, which is why I still try to have reasonable portions of everything. It wouldn’t make sense for me to eat a whole bar of dark chocolate, a bag of trail mix or a jar of peanut butter (as much as I totally can)! On the other hand, I can sensibly eat five cups of spinach, around two cups of fruit or a large sweet potato in one meal.

That doesn’t go to say that I wouldn’t recommend calorie counting in some circumstances. Tracking food can be a great way to analyze which nutrients are deficient, which are adequate and which are excess. Those who have certain medical conditions and have been specifically instructed by doctors, nutritionists and other health professionals should do the same. It can actually create an inverse effect for some people and heal disordered eating because some find that they can fit their favorite treats in their diet and lose/maintain weight. I am not saying that calorie counting is unhealthy and doesn’t work.  It is just simply not my first resort. Many fitness influencers that have been my biggest inspirations track their macros almost every single day, yet illustrate such wonderful and admirable relationships with food, sometimes even better than those who don’t track their meals.

As for weight loss, it has and will always regard energy balance. Calories still matter–the total amount of energy expended must be greater than the amount consumed in order to lose weight. This can be achieved pretty much in an endless variety of paths; however, I still recommend that everybody wanting to drop a size or shed off a pound or two should make clean, wholesome foods the base of their diets solely for health. Then if desired, they can consume more processed foods on occasion.

The reason why I always choose a whole-foods diet is because I find that the more necessary macro and micronutrients I’ve consumed, the better I feel, and the more motivated I am to exercise, sleep better and take care of myself. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss. Pursue what you know will work best for you. Experiment with several ways and see what is the most sustainable lifestyle for you, whether it be weighing your meals on a food scale or eating straight out of a peanut butter jar.

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Healing my relationship with calories is one of the most liberating endeavors that I doubted I would accomplish in such a long time. I’m comfortable enough to look at a caloric number and not freak out about whether or not it is “acceptable”. As of now, I don’t want to share my daily recalls of food nor the nutritional information for recipes, simply because it’s so darn difficult for me to calculate everything to 100% accuracy, let alone 90 or 80%. And calorie counting is not an undertaking that I’d bother to chase.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my reflection on my initial encounter with calorie counting as well as how I’ve grown to accept the whole idea of tracking as it is. My general philosophy is that it is better to embrace or make amends with something that once held you back from your happiness rather than view it as an enemy. Calories are no longer my enemy; they’re not my friends, but they’re present when I need them, and they don’t make me feel bad anymore. But this is just my experience. I would love to hear about your stories with diet logging, whether or not you enjoy it, as well as your personal stances on the best relationship with food in the comments below!

Have you ever tracked calories for a second time after taking a break? What are your thoughts on counting calories in general?

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