Safety in Numbers: Calorie Obsession

by Sarah on February 26, 2013 · 38 comments

It starts off innocently enough.

As anyone who is anyone even somewhat educated in healthy eating knows, reading nutritional labels is the first step to making smart choices in your diet.

Over time, perhaps, you start to focus in on certain aspects of the label: calcium, iron, fat, sodium, protein, calories.

Then you might start to wonder about foods without nutritional labels.

Out of curiosity, you might google ‘nutritional information of ____________,’ filling in the blank with whatever fruit or vegetable is currently tickling your fancy.

The discrepancies you find won’t bother you. For the most part, you’ll believe what you read.

Educating yourself about a food’s nutritional value is very different from educating yourself about its numerical values, but that line might slowly start to get a bit blurry.

You’ll start to build up a miniature warehouse of knowledge about everything you are eating: which foods will give you iron and calcium, which ones will raise or lower cholesterol, which foods have the ‘healthy fats’ that your body needs.

And you’ll also start to memorize–unwittingly, perhaps–calories.

It won’t take over your life or anything.

You’ll start to roughly gauge the numbers of your lunch, even when it consists mostly of–dare I say frickin‘?–vegetables.

As a food blogger, you also consider yourself a recipe developer. You’ll probably start to wonder about the nutritional content of your own recipes.

Smart, right?

There are now apps for that.

You’ll measure out ingredients more carefully, and keep track of what food goes into a pot…and how much food comes out.

Those apps also let you track your daily caloric intake.

Again, the discrepancies among contributions to the site/app won’t matter. They’ll give you at least a general idea of what you are eating.

As though what you are eating is a number.

(I thought what you were eating was food?)You’ll just ‘eyeball’ it at first.

After all, as anyone who is anyone studying healthy eating knows–yet again–developing a sense of portion control is crucial to well-being, right?

That’s probably 1/2 cup of rice…That looks like 1 cup of Cheerios…I think I scooped out about 1/4 cup of hummus into that bowl…Criminy! I probably just ate 1/3 cup of peanut butter!

You’ll still go out to eat, of course, and you might even go to some amazing food tasting events.

No way of knowing exactly what you are taking in–I mean, aside from what the food is of course–and you won’t get too caught up in it at the time. You’ll still enjoy every bite of bacon, every tantalizing sweet treat.

But later…later, you’ll make some guesses. You’ll try to figure out what you ate, and how much of it.

It will become like a little game. A numbers game. And you always loved math.*

*Well, maybe not calculus. Unless it was that song by 2Ge+her. You + Me = Us.

And when you think that a kitchen scale will be a brilliant gift–after all, don’t all healthy foodies have one?–you’ll start to measure more than just ingredients for recipes.

Grams and ounces, ounces and grams.

One day it will hit you:  you are eating like you are on a diet.

But you’re not.

Or you shouldn’t be.

You still don’t freak out if you aren’t 100% sure what you’ve eaten at a restaurant.

So it’s not a problem, right?

And when you travel, or go to parties, you won’t measure or track rigidly either.It will feel great. (Obviously.)

But you’ll always fall back on the safety in numbers.

But it is a false sense of security. (What do all those numbers REALLY mean?) And one that can get a little out of control.

You’ll know it’s time to change when you don’t even want to scrape off the most delicious part of a loaf of cranberry orange bread from the plate because you wonder if you should be trying to record it.Or when you find yourself throwing a few chunks of roasted rutabaga or a couple of blueberries on the scale, ‘just to see how much they weigh.’

And you’ll say to yourself, repeatedly, for months, “I really don’t need to be keeping track of what I’m eating so rigidly.” But you won’t stop.

It’s an addiction. And not a healthy one.

So. The counting? The tracking? For me, it has to stop.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Kaila @healthyhelperblog! February 26, 2013 at 8:16 am

Good for you Sarah. Tracking, counting, and calculating an be such an addiction so I applaud you for being able to recognize it and work to stop it. Its a slippery slope that can lead to further restriction and unhealthy behaviors! Just think, blueberries are FULL of nutrition! The more the merrier…no need to limit your self to a certain caloric amount! Good luck with this and definitely reach out if you need some accountability!

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calee February 26, 2013 at 8:27 am

Sarah, I have to bet this was a hard post to stop.

The first step is admitting this is a problem. :)

I highly recommend you pick up intuitive eating. They talk about “diet mentality”, which is what you’re talking about.

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Lindsay's List February 26, 2013 at 8:32 am

you are amazing! i’ve been there. and i can sometimes still get sucked in – i had to just delete MyFitnessPal from my phone. Dangerous stuff. I’m so proud of you for taking the bull by the horns!!

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Jessica, the_toned_teach February 26, 2013 at 9:38 am

I completely agree with Lindsay. It is so easy to get sucked in, especially if it is on your phone/on your computer/others on IG remind you of theirs every day. Best idea? Delete it. Remove the temptation of even opening that “tiny, harmless, everybody else does it” app.

We are all here to love and support you :)

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Kaila @healthyhelperblog! February 26, 2013 at 4:46 pm

YES! The first step will definitely to be getting rid of all the tools you use to count! I went through a phase in which I counted calories but it felt so obsessive and would make so frustrated. I felt like I was wasting my life away….so I stopped, COLD TURKEY. I just had to get over the discomfort that I initially felt. But remember all anxiety will pass. You just have to sit with it.

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Brittany @ Delights and Delectables February 26, 2013 at 8:38 am

Beautiful. Just like you. I’m so incredibly proud of you… for everything. :) xoxo

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lindsay February 26, 2013 at 8:51 am

i’ve had to work with meal plans for years, for others. SO much that i never count my own. I actually try not to promote it unless youre in need! I feel like we lose track of our true hunger that way, yes? Thanks for sharing sweet friend. Love YOU!

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Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table February 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

What a brave post. I had no idea! I can see where it can get out of hand. I have to track to make sure I have enough as I’m building muscle. It’s working for me but I have wondered what going back to “normal” will be like. Unless I compete forever. Lol!

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Jessica, the_toned_teach February 26, 2013 at 9:39 am

Compete forever. Do it. You’re awesome and rock that stage like it’s no one’s business :)

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Maren February 26, 2013 at 10:12 am

Thanks for posting this! Although, I’ve never been one to count calories, I always wonder if I am eating too much or even too little sometimes. Maybe I’m holding on to this extra fat because I’m not getting enough calories? (ha, probably not!) But I think MANY MANY people can relate to you. So you are helping more people than you know by posting this. So thank you.

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Michelle @ Eat Move Balance February 26, 2013 at 10:14 am

Fantastic post, Sarah! I TOTALLY hear where you’re coming from, and I think it’s awesome to recognize that this isn’t healthy, even if it’s not as drastic as other restrictions/counting/rules/etc. Getting caught up in the numbers does become an addictive game, just like silly apps on an iPhone, checking page likes, and . . . . sometimes the number on the bathroom scale.

On a lighter note, let’s not be hating on calculus, okay?!? Math is fun!! :)

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Aly February 26, 2013 at 10:33 am

Oh my goodness- I am so here right now!
I think I freaked myself into it when I had been intuitive eating for awhile and then jumped back on a scale and realized that the number was a bit larger than what it had been previously! So now I no longer step on the scale, but I track my calories pretty rigorously, at least on week days. On weekends I go back to intuitive eating, and this seems to work for me.
As for is this healthy…I think that depends on the person. I know I used to be super rigid with everything I ate and I almost had a break down because of it- but this time is not the same thing. I am more forgiving and I, most of all, love my body and appreciate what it does for me everyday. Plus, the more I measure out my portions, the more I get used to eye-balling what they’re like on the fly. I plan on becoming a registered dietitian someday and giving people advice means I have to know some of this stuff. To this end, I would say this, for me at this point, is less of a bad compulsive habit and more of a hobby.
But thank you for bringing attention to when this does become more obsessive- it’s a big problem and I could have gotten myself into a lot of emotional trouble if I hadn’t realized it myself.

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Melissa @ Treats With a Twist February 26, 2013 at 11:28 am

I started tracking my calories almost 2 years ago. I have notebooks upon notebooks full. And I can’t stop. I’ve tried. Several times. Then the uncertainty kicks in, I freak out, I have to write it down, calculate it all. I order off menus like I’m making it myself, being so strict with waiters and cooks that I’m pretty sure they spit in my food. Wouldn’t surprise me…does that add calories to my food?
Anyways, I’m glad you wrote it because it’s all I think about. And it all started when a trainer told me to try it just to be more conscious of my decisions…and now its a crutch. And I fear life…I fear my waistband without it.

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Danica @ It's Progression February 26, 2013 at 11:48 am

I relate to this post so so much, Sarah…about a year ago I started counting calories and it got ridiculously obsessive–not at all in a good way (if it ever could be good). It was hard for me to stop running through the numbers in my head, and it took a while to get to where I am now, but you’re strong and you’ll get through this–happier AND healthier on the other side!!

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Miss Polkadot February 26, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Sarah, this is a great post and I command you for saying it out loud and wanting to stop counting. While reading I could relate to just about everything you said.
I’m sorry to hear you got sucked into tracking nutrients, too, but you can be proud to have already gone the step of admitting it. It’s gotten way too obsessive for me, too, and I’ve recently started taking little steps away from it. too.I’m convinced you’ll be able to let loose of counting – you’re a smart cookie after all ;) !

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Tricia @ Saving room for dessert February 26, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Love you Sarah – very proud of you too. You are the brightest, smartest, most wonderful blog daughter I’ve ever known. So happy you are strong and brave!

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K February 26, 2013 at 2:47 pm

First, congratulations on acknowkedging this as a problem. As someone who recently realized her own eating behaviors are, in fact, disordered, I know how challenging this can be. Second, I admire your bravery for making this announcement publicly. I’ve told some close friends as I saw the need for a support system (for me isolation is both a trigger and a symptom) but even in that I’ve been highly selective (aka those I’ve told are mostly people with disordered eating in their history). So I’m sending you all the hugs and positive vibes I can as I can only imagine what it took to post this.

Also, and I hope I’m not overstepping, but I found getting help, just having a sounding board, has been a huge help for me. Everyone is different, but I learned that I couldn’t heal on my own…I needed accountability and support and someone beyond my loved ones and friends to whom I could acknowledge my actions and my thoughts. Because for me, more than anything, it was the constant barrage of disordered, untrue thoughts that did me under, not the mostly vegan and healthy food I was eating (and bingeing ).

Good luck and THANK YOU for being another voice in this cause. The world needs people to speak out and make it known that these issues run on a spectrum, not a healthy/sick scale. ::hugs::

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Debbie (Accidently Delish) March 2, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I agree with your point of support and help and accountability. Having recovered (if we can ever really 100% recover) I knew that if I didn’t go see my nutritionist weekly, I could have so easily fallen back into my old ways, but knowing that I was going to see her, made me push harder (because I didn’t want to get yelled at for not gaining haha) but it defiantly grounds you and when you have the disordered thoughts you have someone to correct you and let you know those are not normal regardless of what society tells us.

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Jen@HealthyFoodandFamily February 26, 2013 at 2:53 pm

This is precisely why i STOPPED counting calories! It literally takes over your life!!!!! I knew it was bad when I was pissed my stick of gum was 5 calories. Just deleted MFP app off my phone this morning. I do not need that stress.

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Lauren @ Oatmeal after Spinning February 26, 2013 at 5:05 pm

I love this post! It is definitely true- eating healthy (and counting calories) can so quickly become and obsession. It’s one that’s hard for me to get over!

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Kristen @ notsodomesticated February 26, 2013 at 5:43 pm

This is so well said, because this has been me for years. I don’t stress “too” much about calories. I can go out to eat and just eat and be fine. I can go to parties and indulge and not blink. But on a typical day, I’ve always had a general tally in my heard. Even while being pregnant, I’ve caught myself doing it on occasion. And it’s ridiculous for so many reasons. Thanks for sharing, girl!

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Cari February 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Wow– good for you for owning up to this. It’s really hard to admit to yourself, let alone others, that it’s an issue. I know how easy it can be to get sucked into this kind of thing– I’ve definitely been there myself, and I’m much less critical than I used to be, but I’m still working on getting out of it. How about we support each other here? :)

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Meghan@CleanEatsFastFeets February 26, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I must say I had no idea you were a calorie counter. A wordsmith absolutely, but I had no clue about the other. Kudos to you for coming out of the closet so to speak, and I wish you all the best with ditching the numbers. It might be tough at first, but probably very freeing in the long run. Good luck. Go get ‘em Tiger. I’m rooting for you.
I’ll confess, I do look at the nutritional info, but only the ingredients. So long as I’m eating food (and not food like substances), and getting ample vitamins, I say screw the rest.

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Liz @ iheartvegetables February 26, 2013 at 9:20 pm

You are SO speaking to my heart, Sarah!! I can’t always get the numbers out of my head! But I HAVE stopped counting and tracking, for the most part. It’s a hard habit to break and I still do it sometimes, but I have made an effort to stop!

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Gina @Health, Love, and Chocolate February 26, 2013 at 9:33 pm

This post holds so much truth, good for you for stepping away from the numbers. It can be all-consuming when we get too caught up with them.

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Maria February 27, 2013 at 10:52 am

Love you. You got this.

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Heather @ Better With Veggies February 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I love this – and that you recognized it’s not good for YOU. It works for some, not for others, and people like me are too lazy to do it (although I probably should).

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Allie February 27, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Oh god girl, this post speaks to me. Seriously. It does start so simply–and I got completely caught up in weighing every. little. thing. And tracking every. little. thing. The day I took MyFitnessPal off my phone was a horrifically scary one, but oh, life feels so much lighter/better now. Healthy food means a healthy relationship with food…and damn, that’s no easy task.

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Kanoelani February 28, 2013 at 11:27 am

I’m on a little weight loss journey(close to having lost 100 lbs… yay… hope soon hehe) but I don’t count calories or use MyFitnessPal. I’ve thought about it but I think it would drive me crazy lol. I keep a food journal and that’s about it for tracking. It can definitely can become an unhealthy problem if it keeps you from enjoying the great things about life :-)

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Lele March 1, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I am so glad you shared this- brave, brave, brave. I have been on that boat and been in the process of getting off it for a lonnnnnnng time (er, not to make it sound difficult and horrible. It is a rewarding, enlightening experience).
I just rifled through my desk looking for this helpful book excerpt I read and of course I can’t find it now but something it did was differentiated between food (food as defined by our modern culture, all too often, as numbers- grams of this and that) and the process of nourishing your body. So eating is part of it but so is digestion, so are the hormones that are going through your body, so is your state of mind and how the food is affecting the serotonin levels in your brain and improving your mood. So are the bacteria in your guts! So is how efficiently your body is metabolizing something based on how warm it is outside, or whether you’re about to get your period. And then of course it’s also about getting pleasure, and receiving hospitality, and making a promise to your body that you are feeding it enough.
Once you quit, I promise you will not want to go back to calorie counting. When I catch myself doing it, it has nothing to do with food- it’s this emotional crutch I lean on when I’m stressed about work or a fight with my boyfriend or whatever. And there are way better emotional crutches, such as watching otter videos on Youtube.

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Ashley @ Freckles And Spice March 2, 2013 at 7:31 am

Sarah! I can commiserate with this far too well. I swear it almost killed my love of food, and played a role in how I ended up unintentionally getting so small. And even when I thought I had stopped – like you said it is always been in the back out of your mind. And more recently I had to start doing it again to make sure I was getting enough. I was never scared of the numbers so felt a NEED to know. But I really just want to not think about it. There are days when I don’t now because I’m just too busy and I feel like I am stuffing in food all day long – but then sometimes at night I do try inadvertently start to think back through out the day and attempt to add it up. It is quite a hard process to quit once your brain is sort of wired to think that way. It will take time and just know I am right here with you! Thank you for sharing – I’ve been meaning to comment on this all week.

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Debbie (Accidently Delish) March 2, 2013 at 5:38 pm

You know I am behind you 100% on this and I am here for you every step of the way if you need someone to talk to.

I could go on and on in this comment, but I am going to leave it at I love you. You’re amazing. And goodness girl, you’re gorgeous and do not need to count calories <3

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Amanda @ Diary of a Semi-Health Nut March 5, 2013 at 1:12 am

Isn’t it funny how things happen like that? There’s a song (not about food lol) called “slow fade” talking about how morals take time to change. “People never crumble in a day.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QASREBVDsLk&feature=share
Again, the video isn’t about counting calories, but the idea is the same. And it convicts me every single time because there are areas all over our life that we can slip.

Thanks for sharing this friend! I know it isn’t easy!

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lindsey March 12, 2013 at 9:00 am

Sarah-

I am so glad that you’ve come to these conclusions/admissions with yourself. I had to stop reading because it was too triggering for me, seeing what you were doing to yourself. I’m glad that I stopped by at the right time to experience this with you–and resubscribe to your culinary adventures. Keep it up. You’re on a journey with circular, looping paths. It’s probably deeper and wider than you even realize now, but you’re on your way. You’ve done the hardest part; the rest, you can do if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, being honest, and LOVING YOURSELF!

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