In my most recent post, I spoke about calorie counting and how what might start out as a useful tool for trying to lose weight can end up becoming the chain that hold us back from achieving true health. In this post, I want to share some of the tips that I have used over the last 12 months to move away from calorie counting hell and closer to food freedom. This is not something that happens overnight, neither can I say that I am over it completely, but these few changes have made a huge difference in my life and I hope they can do the same for those of you who are struggling too.
1. Throw out the measurements
This is probably the most obvious tip but can be one that triggers a lot of anxiety for those who have been strictly controlling their food for a long time. The truth is, that although you might feel like the measurements are keeping you “safe” and without them you will go crazy and eat all of the food, chances are you won’t. We all instinctively know approximate portion sizes for different types of food from years of feeding ourselves. Maybe by not measuring we will end up with 40g or 60g of cereal instead of the intended 50g but generally, we will be in the right ballpark and over time the average difference will be minimal.
2. Ignore the serving size
If you find that you are serving yourself much more than your previous measured allowance, it is most likely because you need it. Often the serving sizes on packages don’t actually relate to how much a typical person would eat, the figures are manipulated to make the food seem more appealing to the buyer. For example, if you look at the label on a 500ml bottle of coke, it will tell you that the drink contains 2 servings. But who feels guilty about drinking the whole bottle when that is how it is sold?! Food manufacturers only do that to make the calorie and sugar content seem more acceptable to us consumers, especially with the introduction of traffic lights on nutrition labels. Anyway, my point here is that experimenting with eating varying amounts of a food can be useful in learning to tune into your inner cues and find the amount needed to satisfy you rather than relying on external rules and guidelines.
3. Try new things
For lots of us, years of dieting has led to a pretty big inventory of the calorie and macro content of different foods. This information is buried deep into our long term memory and as long as we refer to it regularly, we keep it alive. So it can be really useful, especially in the beginning, to try new things. Experiment with new foods and combinations. For example, if you are used to having the same 2 slices of toast with peanut butter for breakfast every day, try cereal or porridge instead or even just change to a different variety of bread that you haven’t tried before. Research new recipe ideas (try to avoid ones that tell you the calorie content!) and experiment to find textures and flavours that you enjoy rather than basing your decisions on the calorie content.
4. Cook in batches
Batch cooking is amazing in so many ways! Not only will it save you time and money, it also makes it much more difficult to count calories in your meals. Even if you are preparing food only for yourself, cook a larger amount of food than you know you can eat in one sitting (or a family sized portion if you have the facility to freeze leftovers) and serve yourself the amount you feel hungry for, without measuring or weighing the food or dividing it into the recommended portion sizes if you are following a recipe. If you are still hungry afterwards, give yourself permission to eat more then save any leftovers for later or the next day. Over time you will build up intuitive knowledge of how much of different types of foods it takes to satisfy your hunger at different levels.
5. Add in extras
This might seem like a random tip but I find it really works. When I add toppings to meals such as nuts and dried fruit sprinkled on the top of cereal or seeds and dressings added to a salad or a veggie burger with all of the trimmings, I find that I can increase my calories significantly without finding it too stressful. Adding in a little bit of this and a little bit of that (as long as you follow the previous tip about not weighing or measuring) means that it is too complicated to keep track of calories. Plus you get the bonus of much more variety of tastes, textures and nutrients in your food and you can keep well-known recipes feeling fresh by switching around the toppings. Getting a bit creative with your meals adds a fun element to preparing and eating food and is a good distraction for the calculator mind that can often run away with itself.
6. Eat out more
When I was deep in my dieting hell, the thought of eating something not prepared by me filled me with horror. I wouldn’t eat food cooked by my family as I didn’t know the ingredients or how much oil it had been cooked in. I would go to restaurants for special occasions but I found it so stressful. I always hoped that I could find the nutrition information online so that I could plan what I would eat before I went or I would try to track the calories using an online tracker once I got home so that I could “make up for it” the next day if the number was too high. This took all of the pleasure out of what should have been an enjoyable time socialising with friends and family. Once I decided to give up calorie counting, eating out at restaurants or friend’s houses was a life saver. Surrendering control and giving myself permission to just eat is a challenge at first for sure, but it is much easier than trying to resist counting calories whilst preparing food at home.
So those are my top tips for stopping counting calories. I think the biggest thing to remember is that you are in control – you don’t need to be controlled by anything outside of yourself. Relying on your own hunger and fullness cues will help you to feel connected to your body and you might find it is easier to develop compassion and acceptance for your body once you see it as an ally and not something to be suppressed or tricked.
I have been practicing these in my life for the last year or so and my relationship to food is a million times better than what it was. Sometimes I do still fall back into old habits but I am only human. For now I am so happy and grateful for how far I have come and I know I will let go for good when I am ready. Hopefully this post can help you too wherever you are on this journey 🙂