One of the barriers to eating intuitively—i.e. trusting yourself to eat what your body needs, wants, and likes—is counting calories. This is either a mental calculation of calories consumed, and/or an app that someone uses frequently to “keep track” of what they eat. There are a few benefits to these tracking tools, so as an intuitive eating dietitian, I don’t throw them out altogether. But when someone is working on building back that trust in themselves to eat intuitively, we try to reduce as many external sources as possible.
How does calorie counting interfere with intuitive eating?
Diet culture is a system that thrives on us relying on outside factors. It built apps and calculators and myriad restrictive food plans to convince us that the only way to be healthy is to get the calculations right. Then it convinces us we have to keep using these in order to be “healthy.”
For many folks*, those calculations aren’t necessary. We aren’t robots! We don’t need exactly the same nutrients in the same number (or range) every day. Our needs are fluid and our body is able to communicate these needs with hunger and fullness cues (e.g. hormones) and cravings.
While letting go of tracking and counting is only one part of the bigger intuitive eating picture, I often hear clients say it feels like a relief to get that time and mental space back as they start trusting their own hunger cues.
Here are three ways to stop calorie counting in a gradual process:
1. Take a day off of tracking and counting.
Most people who try this notice that they are still counting up calories in their head so it doesn’t really feel like a day “off”. A tip for this day away from tracking and counting is to do what feels like the opposite of mindful eating and intentionally use distractions. Eat with a friend. Read a book. Watch a show. Check emails. Listen to a podcast—whatever it takes to occupy your mind and distract it from doing the math. (Spoiler: The math will probably still happen but this is a practice in getting your brain to think about other things.)
Start with one day a week, then two, then three. Go at a pace that feels doable for you and don’t rush it! Ideally, you do this with the support of an intuitive eating-aligned dietitian. But if that’s not accessible, enlist the support of a friend.
2. Delete your tracking app (if you haven’t already).
If there is a purpose for tracking our food intake, it’s to assess whether we’re eating enough, not to assess whether we’re eating perfectly (because there is no such thing). A nutrition professional is going to be more helpful than an app on your phone in those cases. But now that you’re interested in eating more intuitively and tuning into your body’s needs more acutely, you probably* won’t need that app.
Remove the temptation to track and count calories electronically by removing access to these types of apps. Delete them today, if you feel so inclined.
If you like using an app and are looking for a non-diet option, I recommend checking out the Way App. It’s mindful and intuitive-eating aligned and provides some thoughtful mindset exercises and prompts related to eating without restrictive diets.
3. Eat new (to you) foods.
This is the fun part! I encourage clients to venture away from their norms. When folks get stuck in a cycle of chronic calorie counting and food tracking, they tend to start eating a lot of the same things. Why? Because it reduces the mental energy that they spend on mental calculations and can even reduce the amount of time they spend tracking with an app because they know where to find their staple foods/meals.
I encourage you to slowly introduce new foods, particularly foods of which you haven’t memorized the nutrition profile. Try things that don’t have nutrition labels—like at a new cafe, or a farmer’s market, or just a new fruit or vegetable.
Calorie counting is a learned behavioral pattern that can be hard to break and will linger for months if not years. As we break out of our norms and try something new, we give our brain the opportunity to enjoy a novel taste and texture while not having the option to automatically add that meal or snack to the mental calculator.
Which of these steps are you ready to try first and why? Let us know with a comment below!
*Exceptions may include (but are not limited to) managing chronic medical conditions that require dietary changes and/or assessments.