Tips for breaking the calorie counting habit

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 🙂

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Why it is so hard to stop counting calories

Calories.. since when did they become such an integrated part of modern life?!

We are so used to seeing detailed nutritional profiles on every item of food we buy that it is hard to believe that less than thirty years ago, this information was hardly available. Ingredients and additives, along with allergen and health advice have been included for a long time but, until recently, it was rare for packaging to show the exact number of calories or grams of fat the food contains.

That isn’t to say people didn’t count calories for weight loss – this has been a thing since the early 20th century – but it was something they had to go out of their way to do. Nowadays, calories fill our media world from websites, diet books and government recommendations for how many calories we should consume to magazines covering celebrity diets, hinting at how many calories we need to eat in order to achieve that A list body.

magazines.PNG

With the rise of intuitive eating, we can see just how addicted to calorie counting we have become. We now have a name for simply eating according to our natural cues and have to relearn how to do it. For those coming to intuitive eating from a history of chronic dieting, a big part of making this shift is learning how to stop calorie counting and start listening to our bodies. Sounds easy right???

Wrong!

Giving up counting calories is one of the hardest things to do. In part, this is because lots of us have become reliant on this external tool to determine how much to eat each day we have forgotten how to listen to our bodies. Without this life jacket, we feel like we will drown in a sea of chocolate milkshake or disappear into a refined sugar quicksand, never to be seen again. We have heard or seen or read that in order to be healthy or lose weight we should eat X amount of calories per day and we cling onto this for dear life.

In doing this, we discard the inner knowledge that we were born with. We hand our power over to health gurus, scientists or government organisations and let ourselves forget that no one knows our bodies better than we do. That intuitive wisdom of how much and when to eat is never lost but we allow it to shrink further and further away from our conscious mind until it blends into the white noise in the background. Compared to the bright colours and bold text of the media, its no wonder that this faint whisper often goes unheard.

As humans, it is only natural to desire a feeling of control. Following calorie guidelines gives us a sense of being in control but in reality, it is an illusion. If we are following external rules rather than our own inner guide, are we really in control?! But for many of us (and I include myself in this) it is a habit that is extremely difficult to let go of. We might see ourselves as fully functioning, independent adults, but in this area of our lives we feel totally incapable of looking after ourselves. Counting calories allows us to feel safe and grounded, especially when things in the world around us get crazy.

Once we do accept that calorie counting is futile, and even harmful, it is not easy to actually stop doing it! We don’t wake up one day and decide we want to stop and that’s it – we never think of calories again, we eat what we want and live happily ever after. Well, maybe some people can but for the majority it is a much longer process. It is sad to say but many women (and some men too) have spent so long thinking about calories, diets and macros that the neural pathways in our brains which are involved in thinking about these things have become so well worn that the counting happens on autopilot. It happens without us thinking about it and actually takes more effort not to!

Even when we want to stop counting, we can’t help looking at a chocolate bar and automatically thinking 200 calories or silently adding up the calories in the items when we buy a lunch time meal deal. We can’t help looking at the calories on food packages that we buy and comparing similar items. Even restaurants often show the calories in the meals these days and for those of us coming from a background of dieting and restricting food, it is difficult to order a burger and fries when the menu tells us it contains 1500 calories which was probably our “daily allowance” at some point.

I am not saying by any means that it is wrong for this information to be available. I do think that it is useful in making healthy choices but we are all individuals with different needs when it comes to our health and well being so it can be difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution. In this case, for those of us trying to undo years of dieting habits, having these numbers glaring us in the face does not make it an easy process!

So if you are trying to give up counting calories and finding it hard, please know that you are not alone. The media and your human brain make up are both against you on this one. It is a challenging process but so worthwhile so stick with it and you will get there 🙂 this post is getting quite long already so I will save my tips for giving up calories and finding food freedom for next time!

HA Recovery Diaries #7 Progress Update

It has been two months since my last post so I thought it was time for an update on my recovery process.

I had my first period at the beginning of March and my next cycle came right on time after 28 days. I was amazed and thought it was too good to be true!

And it was.

On day 17 of my third cycle, just a few days past when I should have ovulated I had a random two day bleed.  And nothing since..

It was quite disappointing as it had felt like a miracle had occurred and things had just fallen back into place but looking back, it was actually a great thing. A big STOP sign which led me to pause and reflect on my life and recovery process. I felt like things hadn’t changed so I went back to the book (Nicola Rinaldi’s No Period Now What book that is for those who haven’t been following my posts) and reminded myself of what can send our cycles out of whack.

Cycle

The first point is a tough one. I definitely have not been eating as much lately as during my peak HA recovery efforts. This hasn’t been on purpose but more because my focus has shifted towards other things and I simply don’t feel like sitting around eating biscuits and chocolate in the evenings.  I have gravitated back towards a whole foods plant based diet simply because this is what makes me feel good! I am still eating a ton of food and I am definitely not in a calorie deficit but maybe I do need to think about introducing some more “fun foods” back into my life.

I am still keeping away from the gym and all cardio activity. Since the weather is getting warmer I am probably walking more than I was but nothing extreme. I am still focusing on yoga and trying to slowly build my strength back. I don’t feel like my current activity level is enough to stress out my body but if I am not seeing any positive signs in the next few weeks I may have to rethink things and give my body more time to rest and heal. This is pretty frustrating as I love cycling and I was hoping that I would be able to spend the summer exploring on my bike but maybe this is not a good idea for me right now.

My weight has stopped increasing and has remained pretty stable since my period returned. How do I know that you might ask? Well if I am honest, I have got back into the habit of weighing myself every once in a while “just to check up on things”. This is something that absolutely needs to stop. I am so past the point of feeling that my weight defines my health, happiness or value as a human being but old habits die hard. So from now on, I am enforcing a scale ban for a minimum of 30 days.

Now to the big one: stress! I have had a lot of stress in my life this month. I have decided to leave the safety of my job and venture into the unknown. I will write more about this in another post but to summarise, my anxiety levels sky-rocketed when I had to make that decision and again when I had to actually make it happen and tell people at work that I am leaving. Now that stress is over I have the dull, underlying worry of wondering what I am going to do next, when I will find another job and whether I will be able to pursue my passions and find a new career that I love.

So really, looking at the bigger picture, it is no surprise that my cycle went a bit wonky this month. Recovery is not a linear path and I expect the future to be full of ups and downs in the road. But this is ok. Even being aware of this is all amazing progress. My advice for those who are still working towards recovery is to be patient  with yourself. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion and celebrate the small victories. Don’t dwell on the setbacks, learn from them and move on. Never stay stuck in your comfort zone, keep trying, keep challenging yourself and facing your fears. I promise it will be worth it!

HA recovery diaries #6 the roller coaster of healing emotions

In the beginning of this journey I thought that getting my period back was the final goal. Little did I know back then that this was merely a sign that I was on the right track on a much longer healing journey. It has been 3 weeks since the return of AF and it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.. mainly joy, excitement and gratitude but also fear and uncertainty.

Deciding to tackle this mountain of an issue is not easy. Most of us have dedicated years of our lives to our “health” and “beauty” goals only to find out we have been fed a pack of lies. We have spent so long cultivating beliefs about how we should look in order to be happy and successful that finding out that this isn’t necessarily what is right for us is quite a blow.

At first we remain in denial – our lifestyle can’t possibly be the cause of our lack of periods, we are slim and fit therefore we MUST be healthy..right?

Once we start to realise that maybe fixation on our weight could be responsible we get defensive – we aren’t exercising THAT much, we aren’t VERY underweight, we know people skinnier than us who still have their cycles..

At some point we experience anger – anger towards the media and diet industries for making us feel unworthy and for providing us with our body ideals and even anger towards our own bodies for not conforming to these images of “perfection”

Of course there is the sadness too –  we are sad that we have neglected our bodies in this way and grieve for the time and energy we have lost and can’t get back

Yet along the way we discover the other women who are also walking this well-trodden path and we find hope – time and time again we see healing stories which give us hope that we can also overcome this

But we haven’t yet cultivated patience and expect miracles to happen over night  – when we don’t see the changes we want we start to feel lost and broken like we are different from the others and will never be able to heal

We start to feel uncertainty – we don’t know whether this will work, we are out of our comfort zones and crave the safety of our old routines. We can’t quite let go of something, maybe our weight, our control over food or our exercise routine

Eventually we surrender and feel a huge sense of relief. – giving up the struggle and allowing our bodies to lead the way instead of our minds constantly planning, analysing, criticising

This is where the magic happens

Getting my period back brought me huge joy but it is not the end of the road. Now I have to relearn how to look after my body.. I want to eat well and move my body but I don’t know how to go about it any more. Everything I learned from the past is a no go and I feel totally lost. I need to discover where my boundaries are – what can I do? how much is too much? Right now I am remaining cautious and I am very aware that I could easily slip back into old patterns.

It seems like I am in this for the long haul but I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂

Amy

HA recovery diaries #5 I DID IT

I never expected that this day would come so quickly on only diary entry number 5 but here it is.. I got my period back!! After 8 years of amenorrhea, BAM it is back. I am so so happy I can’t stop smiling and telling everyone I see!

I posted my recovery story in Nicola Rinaldi’s No Period Now What facebook group so I am just going to share this post as I don’t have time to write a separate entry today. I am so full of gratitude to Nicola and also to Meret Boxler and her Life Unrestricted podcast for helping open my mind and get my life back. Also big thanks to Hannah Lipman from The Healing Woman for supporting me throughout this journey!

So here it is…

For those who wanted to hear my story.. I lost my period 8 years ago through very restrictive dieting, over exercise, stress and the birth control pill ( perfect storm hey!). My lowest bmi was probably 18 but after a couple of years I fell into a binge/restrict cycle and gained up to bmi 21. I have been at that weight for the last 6 years.. maintaining the diet mentality, weight suppression and over exercise. I was constantly thinking about food, planning what to eat, worrying about what I ate, eating on a schedule rather than listening to my body. I lost my spark for life, my emotions and libido were severely suppressed and I lost interest in hobbies and socialising. I would still do these things but I almost felt like I was just going through the motions and lost my excitement for life. Last year I was (wrongly) diagnosed with PCOS and at that point discovered a high carb vegan diet and started eating loads of fruit, veg and starches probably around 2500 cals. I started to feel much better but despite no longer physically restricting I still was mentally restricting and always terrified of weight gain and used exercise to maintain my figure. In November 2016 after researching endlessly online I found out about HA and how it can be easily mistaken for PCOS – this was my story exactly and was the kick up the butt I needed to accept things needed to change. I decided to stop exercise other than walking and yoga (which was such a hard and scary decision to make after nearly 10 years of addiction!). In Jan 2017 I discovered Nicola’s blog and bought NPNW book and realised I was still not “all in” even with all of the positive changes I had made. Even though I eating plenty, I was still not completely free and still using brain power to control my body’s cravings and urges. At that point I decided I needed to let go of allll rules. I ate anything I wanted, including lots of processed foods that I had only ever eaten during binges before, sometimes scared that I was getting out of control as I was so hungry all of the time and terrified I would fall back into my old bingeing habits. I aimed for 3000 cals a day but never tracked anything so I couldn’t say for sure.  I still wanted to stay vegan for ethical reasons and eat lots of fruits, veg and starches as I felt good doing this but I ate biscuits, chocolate, ice cream ON TOP. I stopped the all or nothing, black and white thinking and realised that I don’t have to be perfect (not that there is any such thing!). I knew that my controlling nature had got me to HA and that I needed to give it up to get past this.. I focused on letting go, stopping the struggle and surrendering to the process. Paying my body back for all the restrictions and letting my cravings/instincts lead the way. 5 weeks later I saw ewcm for the first time and now 7 weeks later AF!! So all in all this has been a 12 months since I upped my calories, almost 4 months since stopping exercise and 6 weeks since going all in with food no restrictions. I have gained some weight but not much I don’t think although I haven’t weighed myself I am somewhere between 21 and 22 I would guess. I hope this is helpful if you have any specific questions please ask xxx

I am still going to keep up this blog as I have so much more I want to write about. The above is just a summary to show that recovery is possible! Now I need to go and celebrate and I am going on holiday tomorrow. In the past I would have been gutted about getting my period just before a beach holiday but now I am so thankful. I will never take it for granted again. Sending love to anyone reading this and pleeeeaaase remember to trust your body, regain that connection and miracles can happen!

Amy x

Recovery diaries #3 Eating by the clock

At the depths of my struggles with food, I would put off eating for as long as possible during the day. I would wait until I was literally starving, belly growling before each meal or snack. At first I felt ok and lost quite a bit of weight but of course it wasn’t a sustainable way to live. After a while my body started to fight back. Often, when I finally did give myself permission to eat I would eat till waaaayyy past satiation to the point of being uncomfortable and even in pain. At the time I saw this as a lack of control, being greedy and a problem to keep secret and overcome by myself. Now I can see that it was only a natural survival response and a huge flashing warning sign that something wasn’t right!

I remember coming across this hunger scale a while back and realising that I really need to change things.

hunger-scale

Instead of hovering around the ideal zone and listening to my body’s gentle hunger and fullness signals I was swinging wildly from level 1 to level 10 on a daily basis. Even when started to eat a healthy amount and gained weight eating this way, my cycles never returned. Now I understand the importance of consistency with HA recovery. For our bodies to feel safe again and trust that there is enough energy available for “unnecessary” functions such as menstruation, we need to feed them sufficiently and reliably.

Even though I know all of this, a habit that I am finding very hard to un-learn is eating by the clock. Not in the sense of eating at fixed times every day, but more deciding how long after a meal it was OK to eat again. Now I am trying to get back in tune with my body, I am finding it hard to totally let go and trust my body’s signals. I am not even sure if I am aware of them half of the time, never mind listening to them.. If I get hungry a couple of hours after a meal, the first thing that pops into my head is

“I can’t be hungry I just ate!!”

The magic number for me seems to be 3 hours. I don’t know where along the line I decided that but my mind expects a meal to last that long and if I get hungry before then I will question it. The thing is, as long as we don’t have natural cycles, our bodies are going to demand more food. I need to keep reminding myself of this! Every time I delay eating because “it hasn’t been long enough yet” I am reinforcing those restrictive thought patterns in my brain. It is something that has been there so long it has woven itself into the fabric of my daily life and it is super hard to unpick!

I am definitely making progress as now, even though I still have those thoughts, I choose to act otherwise and do what I know is right for my body. Every time I do this I am strengthening new, positive thought patterns which will help me to recover. I am trying to honour my hunger signals and eat whenever and whatever I feel like eating. I know that sometimes this means eating out of boredom or emotional eating rather than true hunger but right now that is something that I am happy to accept as part of a normal, healthy relationship to food. I am hoping that eventually I will get to the point where it is as simple as feeling hungry and eating. No thinking back to my last meal. No wondering if I can hold out till my next meal. Just eating!

What determines when you should eat – your brain or your body? Are you struggling to let of self-imposed rules about when to eat? Let me know in the comments 🙂 

Amy x

HA Recovery diaries #2 The body knows best

Something I have realised since starting my recovery journey is just how detached from our bodies we often are.  Living in our heads with a constant conveyor belt of thoughts; to do lists, criticisms, judgements, action plans..  Our bodies become something of an inconvenience and we find ourselves getting frustrated when they don’t look or behave how we think they should.  The fact that we consciously decide what our perfect body looks like and then try to make it so results in a constant uphill battle. Our bodies are smart!  They have their own ideas about what size they should be and can maintain that balance without any conscious thought from us.

I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I have spent over the years focusing on the size and shape of my body and what I can do to change it.  Endless hours spent researching diets, planning meals, killing myself at the gym, staring at my “flaws” in the mirror, worrying about falling off the wagon and how I can get back on. Never once did it cross my mind about what would happen if I just decided NOT to get back on.  Such a simple idea but one that seems so ludicrous when you are caught up in the whirlwind that is the diet and fitness world.

I never really bought the idea of “set-point” weight before. Like many people, I saw weight loss purely from a mathematical point of view and to be honest I thought that the only thing between anyone and their goal weight was their effort and motivation. Now I know that is not true!! For years and years I exercised intensely most days and limited my energy intake – what most of us feel is necessary to maintain a low body weight.  I didn’t trust my body, I thought that I was MUCH better off letting my mind do the thinking and planning and then my body could do as it was told. Of course this didn’t happen and resulted in me getting stuck in a vicious cycle of overeating and restricting/over exercising to compensate.

Every time I “failed” at a new diet endeavour, I was angry at my body for not conforming to my plans. I would religiously start again the next day in the hope that this time my body would listen to my mind which knew what was best for it. This constant feeling of failure left me feeling anxious and out of control. I never considered the fact that maybe my body was trying to tell me something. I was so convinced that what I had planned was the right thing to do; that I needed to eat a certain amount and exercise a certain amount in order to look at a certain way.

Since deciding to go “all in” with my recovery, my eyes have been opened to the fact that my body has its own agenda and that it really isn’t so bad! I have stopped all forms of intense exercise now since 3 months and have totally relaxed all of my food rules. And guess what, my body has hardly changed. I have gained a few lbs yes, but nothing hugely noticeable. I honestly can’t believe the amount of effort I put in for so long trying to maintain a slightly lower body weight. I guess we just have been taught not to trust our bodies and it becomes a belief that we have to constantly control ourselves. Letting go and trusting the process is so freeing and although my body weight might be higher my mind is so much lighter.

I am writing this hoping to give some reassurance to anyone waiting to take the leap out of restriction and into a life of freedom and abundance. And also as a reminder that just because we surrender doesn’t mean we are out of control. Choosing to make every decision based on the intelligence and intuition of our body and mind at that given moment and not on some arbitrary rules is the ultimate way to take control of our own life and health.

Do you find that you are “living in your head”? How about handing over control to your body just for a day and see how it feels.. you might just surprise yourself 🙂 

Amy x