Can calorie counting be an eating disorder? I think so. When I wrote it quite a few people got upset, including a reader by the name of Brittany. But she gave it some thought – and then she really got the point. In fact, she expresses it more eloquently than I ever could.
Here’s her email:
My name is Brittany and I live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I just wanted to thank you for the posts you had on calorie counting. I’ve well understood for over a year that a primal/LCHF way of eating is ideal and have managed to lose weight (210 lbs down to the mid 180s at 5’6″ now). However, my DailyBurn Tracker app on my phone was my crutch. I’d keep track of my macronutrient ratios and calories (since I was overeating, even if it was healthy foods) every. single. meal.
When I read your post about calorie counting being an eating disorder, I was kind of put off and defensive about it. I browsed forums of my fellow primal eaters to see how they went about ensuring they weren’t eating too much. I kept trying to validate my need to have these silly numbers and information about my food.
Then your whole point hit me:
I’ve been so inspired by the diets of our evolutionary ancestors and other aspects of their lives (minimalist footwear, good sleep, etc) that I completely ignored my body’s natural ability to tell me when I’m hungry and when I’m full. Counting calories is so artificial and so far removed from the direction I was trying to take my life. I stopped at the beginning of this month and I enjoy my food more. I feel less neurotic about tracking macronutrient ratios (just keeping my carbohydrate intake in check, which comes naturally now) and don’t feel pressured to eat more/less to hit my “calorie goal”. We’ve got built in calorie counters! We just have to tune into our natural way of eating and things will right themselves.
While I wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first, I really appreciate the hard look you took at calorie counting. It helped me review my own habit and I feel so much better for it!
Our bodies are such amazing machines; we really do underestimate them!
I appreciate all the hard work you do in educating others, myself included.
Can you trust your body?
Brittany is exactly right. Believing that we need to count calories means we’re severely underestimating our bodies’ natural abilities.
What if I told you I know someone who counts his every breath and tries to make sure the number of breaths matches his calculated need for oxygen? Who’s afraid to sleep and lose count of his breaths?
Or someone who weighs all her food and all her feces, to make sure that she’s not getting constipated?
These people would be considered eccentric at best, profoundly disturbed at worst. And it’s really not that different from counting calories. It’s about not at all trusting your body’s amazing ability to regulate its energy needs by feelings of hunger and satiety.
However, we have to be clear that trusting your body and being in tune with your body may not happen immediately. After years or decades of overeating processed food and refined carbs, many of us have lost the connection with our hunger and satiety signals. In these cases, or when significantly changing dietary quality, it may be helpful to count for a short time. But the ultimate goal is to tap into our innate ability to regulate food intake and ditch the counting.
The real problem
A weight issue is not caused by a lack of counting calories. No more than constipation is caused by not counting… you know what. They’re both caused by something disturbing the body’s natural regulatory systems.
The real problem behind obesity? It could be many things. But today, by far the most likely problem is too many calories, not enough satiating food, and too much of the fat-storing hormone insulin. Usually caused by decades of ingesting too much sugar and too much processed, rapidly digested carbs. Which is what the Western diet is composed of today. It messes up our hunger and satiety systems, makes us want to eat too much. Voilá: An epidemic of obesity.
Calorie counting will never cure this problem.
We need to fix the problem, not pretend that it’s normal to be hungry.