This post is about something I’ve kept to myself for a long time. I haven’t outwardly told anyone, not even close friends or family, about this thing I’ve been doing every day for the past few years. I’ve been too embarrassed to admit my weaknesses and anal retentive habits out loud. Even writing this now is giving me major anxiety. However, I’ve wanted to put my thoughts into writing for a while, so I figure now is as good a time as any.
I started counting calories after my sophomore year of college, the summer of 2013. It was the summer that I started exercising regularly; I went to the gym every evening after my internship to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes or so. I wasn’t overweight—I’m 5’3”, and was around 120-122 pounds — but I wanted to get rid of the extra flab I had accumulated over the first couple years of college. I also began eating less, and the pairing of less food with more exercise caused my weight to come off pretty quickly. By the end of the summer I was restricting my calories a decent amount. I don’t remember the exact number, but I think I was probably eating around 1000-1500 calories a day.
That summer I lost around 5 pounds, and continued to steadily lose weight throughout my junior year. I even managed to lose a couple pounds while studying abroad my second semester, despite the fact that I was eating burgers and drinking multiple liters of beer a week. I countered those unhealthy, high calorie meals by cooking healthily the other days of the week, closely monitoring my calorie intake, and exercising a few days a week as well.
Although I was exercising regularly by running and strength training 3-4 times a week, I wasn’t really doing it purposefully. I was doing it for the calories. When I ran on the treadmill, I wasn’t paying attention to the miles or the pace. I only looked at the calorie count on the machines. When I strength trained, I used online calculators to estimate the calories burned. I factored in the calories burned into my caloric needs to know exactly how much I should be consuming a day. So, if I did an hour walk that burned 100 calories, plus a treadmill run that burned 300 calories, I would add 400 kcal to my basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you burn at rest), which I think was about 1300 kcal. With 400 kcal burned that day, I could eat 1700 kcal. On the contrary, if I didn’t exercise at all, I’d only let myself eat a certain number of calories that day (probably about 1500). This took even more work to not only count how much I was consuming, but also how much I was expending. There were times when I couldn’t hold conversations with friends because I was busy calculating calories in my head. It consumed me.
By the end of junior year I was around 105 pounds, and then that summer I lost a couple more pounds by continuing to restrict calories to less than 1800 a day.
However, I couldn’t admit to anyone that I was obsessing over food because I didn’t allow myself to even consider that I had a problem. I’d always thought of myself as a rational, logical person, and I couldn’t fathom the thought that I had an issue with food or associate myself with the dreaded eating disorder label. I was still eating, so I wasn’t anorexic, and I wasn’t binging/purging, so I wasn’t bulimic either. I refused to admit to anyone, not even myself, that I had developed disordered habits around food. I couldn’t let go of the image I had of myself as a well-balanced, reasonable person.
By the end of the first semester of senior year I was around 100 pounds, a weight that truly scared me. I never wanted to get below that number, so I decided it was time to try to gain some weight back.
However, weight gain was very difficult for me mentally and physically. I wrote about my experience in a past blog post. I wanted to gain weight, but was scared of how I would look and feel if I did. After a few months of little progress, I went to a nutritionist who prescribed a meal plan (9 servings of grains, 3 cups of vegetables, 3 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy, 8 tsp fat, and 8 servings of protein a day). I tried to stick to her plan by tracking how many servings of each group I was eating, but I was also counting calories on top of that. I ended up gaining back a couple pounds, which was good, but I still couldn’t let go of my obsessive need to track my calories.
It’s been over a year since my visit to the nutritionist, and I no longer follow the meal plan everyday since I’ve gotten much better about eating enough food. However, I do go back to it every now and then to help me decide what food groups I still need to fill when it’s the end of the day and I need more calories. (E.g. I’ll eat a serving of pretzels if I’ve only had 8 servings of grains that day.)
Nowadays I am still estimating/counting my calories, aiming to reach around 2300-2500 a day, but I want to stop. I give myself excuses like, ‘if I stop counting calories then I won’t eat enough and I’ll lose weight,’ but I eat in such a similar pattern every day that the argument isn’t quite compelling. For those who are curious, here’s a breakdown of my typical calories: 650-700 kcal in the morning, 500 kcal at lunch, 200-300 kcal as afternoon snack, 400-500 kcal for dinner, 400-500 kcal as night snack (yes, my night snack is the same amount of calories as a typical meal… oops).
I don’t measure things like vegetables, since I just estimate that I’m eating around 100 calories worth when I make a stir fry, salad, roasted veggie bowl, etc., and I have also let go of measuring oil, nut butter, hummus, etc. since I can eyeball it. However, I still measure things like rice, oatmeal, cereal, and beans to make sure it’s 1 cup or ½ cup or whatever.
My relationship with food has come a long way since my last few semesters of college; I don’t get the same sort of anxiety about calories that I used to, and mainly just count to have an idea of how much I should eat to maintain or gain weight. However, I think it’s time for me to stop. I just can’t figure out how. I’ve tried many times before– I’ll wake up, tell myself I won’t count calories for the next week, but then I’ll find myself counting the calories of my breakfast just an hour later. It’s like an automated action my brain takes—like I have no control over it, even though I know I do.
Everyone in the vegan community touts how wonderful eating a whole food, plant based diet is because it allows you to eat however much you want without counting calories. I do eat 95% whole foods (I eat some processed food like cereal, ice cream, and rice crackers), so I want to reach that level of comfort. I want to be able to live day-to-day without worrying about whether I’ve had too many or too little calories. Letting go of calorie counting would allow me to have the fully sustainable, nourishing relationship with food that I am striving for.
To be clear, I think counting calories is fine if you have goals and/or would like to lose, maintain or gain weight. However, I think it’s a problem when it consumes you day in and day out and becomes more of a burden than a benefit. I guess that’s the paradox of weight loss– you start losing it to get healthy, but you get so scared to gain it back that you obsess over it, and then you start forming different, yet equally damaging unhealthy habits.
Although I definitely have some growing to do, I’m proud of where I’m at right now. The fact that I’m writing this post and publicly admitting that I’ve dealt with unhealthy, disordered eating habits, something that I’ve kept buried in my brain for so long, is a triumph.
To those who have ever felt too shameful to come forward and talk about something they know is damaging, whether it’s food, alcohol, drugs, or whatever:
I hope that, when you are ready, my story empowers you do what I was never able to do; I hope it gives you the strength to talk to someone about what you are going through.