Why I stopped counting calories and macros a long, long time ago
Assigning a number to your food sucks. Period. And I'm here to tell you today why it's something I stopped doing a long long time ago. If you are someone who is currently tracking your food (or considering it) and curious if it's the right approach for you, this article may provide interesting perspective! For those who are unaware, "counting" refers to someone who tracks calories and the macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein) in their food on a regular basis in an effort to get to their goals.
Now, before I have the counters coming down my neck, please let me assure you that I have counted before and have decided it's not aligned to my lifestyle goals. I lost almost 100lbs, 10 years ago naturally, without counting, and have been successful at keeping 90% of it off - so it's fair to say I know a thing or two about living a healthy lifestyle. This article is not meant to disrespect anyone, I'm just here to provide my perspective on why I don't think counting is a positive approach to your health journey. I pride myself on developing enjoyable and sustainable lifestyles - and for me, counting was far from desirable. So this piece is strictly based on my thoughts and experience. But I'm also open to different perspectives... so if you have another view, please be sure to comment your thoughts below and add to the dialogue!
**Note: This article is not geared towards athletes, competitors, or anyone else that requires counting for specific performance/health purposes...
My experience with counting
Over the last 10 years, I have literally tried it all. Fad diets, weight loss supplements, counting - you name it, I've dipped my toes in it. The majority of these trials were early on in my journey, after I lost the weight. You see, I lost the weight in just 9 months by simply eating well and working out - a very healthy and sustainable approach. However, once I lost the weight and became serious about weight training (about 1 year into my health journey), I became obsessed with the way I looked. While to the average person I looked beautiful, I was constantly striving for more.
More. More. More.
This was around the time Instagram started out and my following was growing. I was focusing solely on aesthetics. At the time, I felt I couldn't be a fitness influencer if I didn't have abs, cut legs, or a massive ass. And because I became so obsessed with my looks, I was willing to try anything to look more "fit". Sadly, this stage of my journey lasted about 2 years. During this time I counted calories and macros whilst trying different diet plans to help me achieve my goals. Diet plans including Low Fat, Low Carb, Paleo, Intermittent Fasting, and Keto to name a few.
Over time, I came to realize it didn't just stop at counting. For me (and many others) the obsession snowballed into tracking everything, crazy diets, complusive exercise, daily weigh-ins, and constant scrutiny. I was never happy with the way I looked and always wanted more. During this time I was the most lean I'd ever been but too miserable and critical of myself to even enjoy it. The picture you see below is someone who tracked the calories, carbs, sugar, protein, and fat of every peanut, grape, chicken breast, and tomato consumed. It was no way to live and I knew this.
I kept thinking:
Is counting every calorie something I want to do for the next 5, 10, 15 years?
When I'm a mom one day, is this how I want to portray "healthy living" to my kids?
I have a platform, is this the message I want to share with people who follow me?
I constantly sat on these thoughts. I knew I wanted my brand to be all about body positivity, self love, and living a healthy balanced and fulfilled lifestyle - yet I was living the complete opposite obsessing over everything. Obsessing over calories, the scale, food, aesthetics.... it was all so superficial. I was not leading a life I was entirely proud of, so I had to change.
It's hard to just stop obsessing. It's definitely a mental game. So at the beginning I would reflect a lot. Reflect on what I wanted out of this lifestyle, and what I wanted for my clients. I reflected a lot on the message I wanted to portray and committed to living a life aligned to my true beliefs. Once I was able to really articulate what a healthy, balanced, and fulfilled lifestyle looked like for me, I changed my approach. For this, I went cold turkey by:
Deleting the Macro Counting Apps
Hiding the Scale
Ditching the Fad Diets all together
I'd love to say that doing the above had no adverse effects. That would be a lie. I immediately gained weight (about 10 - 15lbs) and lost some tone. But! I was happy and proud of my new approach. I no longer felt guilty for what I put in my mouth because it didn't fit a particular equation. I no longer had to track every little thing I consumed. I stopped weighing myself daily. And most importantly, I was actually practicing what I preached. My message around weight loss and maintenance once again became "enjoy this process, eat well, and move a lot". I revisited the simplistic approach to this journey and got back to basics - which is exactly how I lost the weight in the first place. Since then, I have rebuilt a toned physique, but no longer obsess. Some weeks I have abs, others I don't. My body is a product of a balanced, healthy, sustainable lifestyle and I couldn't be happier.
The 4 reasons why Counting was not right for me
1. Counting macros doesn't account for quality
And because of this I strayed away from whole nutritious foods. I wouldn't consume foods high in complex carbs or healthy fats (that are great for you), because it didn't fit into my "breakdown". Instead, I consumed a lot of empty calories that lacked nutrients. I would lean towards "flexible dieting", or the "IIFYM" approach. Which basically states that whatever you consume, if it fits your macros, you will achieve your body composition goals. Again not focusing on quality, but strictly on aesthetics. With this mentality, I would be okay to consume processed shitty foods that weren't doing my organs any good, all because it "fit my macros". On the outside I may have looked good, but on the inside I was not at my optimal state. Now that I eat the right foods, and have a far more balanced diet, I've noticed a tremendous difference in the way I feel. My energy levels are incredible, I sleep better, and my skin, hair, and nails have never been stronger.
2. It created a really negative relationship with food - Psychologically.
When you are eating a number, it robs you of freedom and flexibility. This approach is so restrictive I moved from truly enjoying food to constantly thinking "how many carbs are in this?". It was too calculated and the obsession only grew; it was adding unnecessary stress and anxiety to my life.
I'll paint a picture for you. 8 years ago if I was out for dinner, afterwards I would document what I ate on "my fitness pal". My process began by breaking down the meal and calculating everything I consumed. I would spend up to 20 minutes trying to find a way to account for every last item asking myself
"I wonder what oil the restaurant used?", or
"exactly how much table bread did I have", or
"was it 2 cups of rice, or 1?"
It became such a nuisance I'd spend more time figuring out the macros of my meals than I would spend eating it! When I ate at home, weighing and measuring my food became habit in order to get accuracy. It became a religion and created such a negative relationship with food. Whenever I was "over" my macros, it also led to compulsive exercise to help me get back in the green. I knew it was no way to live. Ironically, stressing over my diet was undoing at least some (if not all) of the mental and physical health benefits of the diet itself.
3. I came to realize, it's highly inaccurate
Studies show that counting calories is an estimation game. Many people are often eating double the calories they account for due to the high probability of error. Even if you think you are the worlds greatest counter, there have been studies that prove labels are highly inaccurate - especially in restaurants. In fact, the USDA allows for a variance of 20% on labels in grocery stores. Meaning, if you consume something that's "500 calories", it could actually be 600 calories. If you apply this variance to the many meals we consume throughout the month it could throw you way off - and there's no way for you to know. Even in whole foods, the calories will vary if farm raised, or wild caught. Overall, there is just so much room for error that it made me realize many of my efforts were likely in vain. Sure I was lean, but when I continued to strive for more, it was becoming increasingly harder to achieve my goals.
4. I knew it wasn't sustainable.
Bottom line, It's not a long term solution. And when I dug deep, I knew it wasn't something I wanted to promote. It wasn't something I wanted to portray as "healthy" because I was living a lie. I wasn't healthy - mentally - and I knew this. Thinking about living this way for the next 10, 20, or 30 years made me sick. So because of this, I knew I just had to stop and find another way to see results. What was the purpose in continuing something I knew I couldn't personally sustain? At that point, I had to change this habit.
5 Alternative Options to counting
You might think, well then how on earth does one achieve their goals? Especially if dependent on macro counting? Well I'll start off by saying, you can absolutely lose weight without counting. I did! If you rely heavily on counting, and are fairly accurate, you may experience some weight gain at first. But it's just temporary, overtime, things will re-balance and you can turn that into lean muscle.
Here are some options for you if you are looking to lose weight while being mindful of what you consume.
1. Redefine Success
First, I think it's important to define what success looks like for you. Do you want to be a body builder, an extreme athlete, or enter a bikini competition? If not, you do not need to eat like you do. If you simply want a strong, toned physique, I promise you can do that with eating well and working out. The reason most people don't see success is because they are not patient, consistent, or dedicated enough. So run the course, stick it through, and trust the process. Results will come. For me, I redefined what success looked like from "I want to weigh 125, with a body fat percentage of 18%, and I want to be shredded" - to - "I want to feel amazing, energized, healthy, and strong, and I want to look toned". When I redefined looked like for me, I could become much more flexible in my approach. If the latter idea of success resonates with you, you do not need to count.
2. Educate yourself
While I don't believe in counting, I do think it's important to learn whats in your food and go from there. So educating yourself on what is in the foods you love, and enjoying everything in moderation is the approach you should take. It's takes more trial and error perhaps, but in the long run you will be thankful you started with that approach. We are lucky to be in the day and age of information. There are a wealth of resources available to you. Take an online course in nutrition, perhaps? Or, buy a book on building lifestyles. Do whatever it takes educate yourself on how to approach this journey in a sustainable way.
3. Keep a food journal
If you are someone who is more objective in your approach - perhaps you are Type A and need to track your progress some how - maybe try a food journal. You can keep track of what you consume without tying it to a number or a calculation... it'll just help for added accountability and that's it.
4. Focus on lifestyle
Before you start anything, ask yourself what can be done for the next 15 years? Because as we know, fad diets and quick win solutions don't work. I'd much rather lose 30lbs long term on a sustainable plan, than be yo-yo dieting for the next 15 years, losing and gaining 50lbs. Take the slow and steady approach, and take it back to basics. With no quick wins in sight, you can focus on building a lifestyle that works.
5. Seek help
If you are on a healthy eating tip and have been (truly) consistent and dedicated for at least 6 months, yet see no results, perhaps seek help. Visit a dietician, a personal trainer, or a doctor. Your issue could be hormonal or metabolic - or you may simply benefit from professional advice. If you are lost, don't resort to another quick fix. Instead, do some research, ensure the person you find is aligned with your long term goals, and get the help required.
the new me
Coming from someone who's had her "ideal physique" for years... I strongly suggest entering this process focusing on wellness and balance vs. numbers and aesthetics. I had my ideal figure... yet I was living a restricted and miserable life. What good is 10-15% body fat if you aren't enjoying your day to day? Personally, I'd take a healthy 20-25% percent and the extra 10-15 pounds in exchange for a sustainable lifestyle. Focus on how you feel, how you are treating your body, and enter this process with a wholistic point of view; this approach will make counting far less appealing. It may take longer, but I promise you it's worth it.
Giving up counting and obsessing has allowed for flexibility in many other areas of my health journey. I've ditched my scale and now weigh myself maybe every 3-6 months. I go to the gym max 4 times per week, and some weeks I only go twice and that's okay. When I travel, I eat all the food without feeling an ounce of guilt. When it comes to my physique, sometimes I'm shredded, other times I'm not - and I'm okay and happy with my body either way.
I focus on nourishing and strengthening my body. My purpose and perspective with this journey has done a complete 180. I focus on feeling great and constantly being active. This is a life I wish for all on this journey.