Why I stopped counting calories: part 1
Happy January AKA diet season!!!!!!!!! (Can you tell those exclamation points are dripping with sarcasm?)
If you've been exposed to any commercials in the last month, you know that diet season means ceaseless promises from weight-loss systems to help you count your food with points, or even deliver your food to your door. They promise results straight from the mouths of celebrities, and they put you on the fast track to reaching your weight-loss goals!!!
Obviously I'm all for taking opportunities in your life to make healthy changes, but I'm going to be honest: I hate dieting.
I have a hypothesis that at least 75% of the women in America have—or have had—an eating disorder of some type, and probably a vast majority of those are undiagnosed. If that sounds alarmist or exaggerated to you, maybe it is, but we can at least agree that we have a huge problem with food, yeah? And the promises of these systems and programs play right into it.
It’s not by any means a particularly female struggle, but it does impact women uniquely, because our relationship with our bodies is a bit more complex than that of men. We go through hormone changes and fluctuations throughout our lifetime in seasons, and we also go through them on a monthly basis. Our bodies function and cycle and change in beautiful ways that enable us to bring about the next generation of life. This means our hormones are in a more delicate balance, making us very sensitive to fluctuations and changes—so truly, scientifically, women have complex relationships with our bodies on a purely biological level.
Then on top of that, factor in the years and years of socialization that have abused and battered and objectified women’s bodies, making them subhuman property, and we discover deeper and deeper layers of complexity.
We’re survivors of sexual assault and aggression, and it’s easy to blame our bodies because of it.
We’re demanded to look a certain way and it’s easy to hate our bodies because of it.
We’re told expression of our femininity is “unprofessional,” and it’s easy to mask our bodies because of it.
Now we’ve got beautiful ad campaigns honoring and celebrating bodies of all shapes and sizes—and yet they’re only one voice among the crowd, as the rest of media continues to blast their sexualized doctrine of thin-but-curvy perfection as a woman’s ultimate hope. In a world where everyone is constantly sharing their opinion on what a woman is supposed to look like, how could anyone ever measure up?
It’s no wonder we’ve grown so disconnected from our bodies.
And yet, at the same time, rates of obesity and weight-related health issues are absolutely on the rise in our country. We know the health issues, so isn’t that a pure enough motivation to make a healthy change that sticks?
Honestly, no. Even if you are able to block out the messages of beauty and sexuality from the media (and if you are, for the love of all women everywhere, please share your secret with the rest of us!!), most of us still approach making change in our bodies as if an us-versus-them battle.
So food becomes a tool—even a weapon against our own bodies. We jump onto a new diet or eating plan, thinking “this time I’ll get my body to do what I want.”
It’s no wonder we’ve grown so disconnected from our bodies.
And as women gain their voice in self-love through campaigns of makeup-less selfies and body-positive advertisements, we often find that that self-hatred persists. The self-hatred motivates us to make the change, to work harder, to deprive and discipline ourselves more and more—often it seems like we need the self-hatred, because we don’t know how to operate from anything else.
We see our bodies as machines to manipulate and formulaically control. We make tweaks and adjustments in order to change the final product.
But you are not a machine. You are a living, growing, beautiful being, and there is a difference between changing and growing. No car ever grew a new tank of oil when it was time for a change, and no oak tree ever bullied itself into growing.
Self-hatred has become our exclusive fuel for making changes, and we’ve forgotten how to grow from anything else.
But what if the answer is not in making a change, but in growing as a person?
I’ve been there—I’ve been in the thick of all of this. I used to thrive off of my own self-hatred. I remember in college as a Dietetics major, my sophomore year I was reading a brief section on eating disorders for a basic nutrition class. The chapter described bulimia nervosa, and as I read it, my stomach dropped.
“This is me...exactly.”
It described the way that I ate, the way that I exercised, the way that I consistently had out-of-control eating experiences, matched by a compensation of some type (always fasting or exercise because of my paralyzing, irrational fear of throwing up).
And I never really considered until that moment that I could be diagnosed with bulimia.
And I immediately thought, “No one can know, because they’ll make you try to get rid of it.”
Realizing I had an eating disorder was shocking mostly because I didn’t care. I didn’t want to get rid of it. I liked my habits because they were serving me—they made me feel like I was in control. I got to have my indulgences with food, and I got to feel like I could manipulate my body in how it processed it—completely ignoring what it did to my spirit. (This is what it looks like to thrive off of self-hatred. Maybe it sounds familiar.)
This isn’t unique to me, and the very fact that is is so common—again, particularly among women—is a problem. It’s a broken relationship with our bodies as much as it’s a broken relationship with food. We aren’t connected to the way we digest and process food. We aren’t connected to what food could be for us, or to the gift and provision that it already is.
We come to eating decisions asking some combination of, “how can I get the most pleasure and the most comfort?” and “how can I get the results I want?” We want it fast, we want it satisfying, and we want to look good, too.
And then when we decide to change our bodies, we change our math, but keep our questions. We learn about calories-in-calories-out and the energy formula of weight loss, and we restrict to take control.
We villainize certain categories of food and certain ways of eating, and enslave ourselves to new eating patterns—we manipulate our food intake to achieve an ultimate result in our bodies.
This utilitarian view of food is a heartbreaking pattern, and it’s the water we’re swimming in.
And in our trying to take control of our bodies, food takes control of us.
(Which is very much not what eating is meant to be about. More on that in part 2.)
Calories in and calories out and balancing them is important. I’m not saying it’s not. But the problem is that you’ll never figure out the exact number of calories you need, nor will you figure out the exact number that you’re eating. You can obsess over numbers and formulas, but at the cost of taking care of yourself—your whole self. You have made your body into a science experiment, and you've lost your connection to the part of you that remains. You may well get the results you're after! But as soon as you stop the routine, you and I both know you're likely return to the same habits and the same old results.
You've seen this before, if not in yourself, on reality tv or a family member. Food is much more than just a numbers game. As soon as you free yourself from the cage of restrictions and diets, you run back to the same patterns of eating, because you never addressed the magnetism of those habits for you. You never acknowledged what your relationship with food was doing for you.
What if the answer is not in making a change, but in growing as a person?
That was the problem for me—I used to bounce around among fad diets and counting calories to the point that it consumed my mind. All of my mental free space was occupied with listing the food I had eaten that day and planning the next meal. The calculator app on my phone was probably my second most-used application, and my nutrition knowledge became my greatest ally in obsession, continually calculating the amounts and numbers I’d consumed and what I had left to consume. I’d determine how much more I could eat that day, then inevitably eat more than that, be bogged down with guilt and shame, and in my shame, determine how many calories I needed to burn at the gym the next day to be free of my inability to control myself around food.
For most of my life, I've been simultaneously in love with, and afraid of food.
Do you see how backwards it is? Maybe not, because it is so. freaking. common.
I was ruled by food and ruled by body image. There was no room for anything else to really give me any sense of identity.
I was hardly consuming food—food was consuming me.
I had to do a lot of work to restore a positive relationship with my body. I did a lot of yoga. I learned to appreciate what it could do, and accept what it couldn’t. I learned to breathe and comfort myself in discomfort when I longed to break free from a pose. I learned how much my emotional state impacted my body, and vice versa. I had to figure out who I am, and how my body is a part of that.
But I also had to acknowledge the extent to which I blamed my body and my femininity for a lot of my problems. I had to turn the parts of me I’d made my enemy into my ally.
This took time, mindfulness, prayer, a different way of eating, and a lot of emotional healing.
To be sure: growth is not easy, and it’s not formulaic.
But growth is how you really change—and it’s what makes you alive.
(Parts 2 and 3 on relationships with food and with your body are on their way throughout this month!)