Ask Aly: Calorie Counting

Is counting calories, in your opinion, always bad? Or can it be appropriate when the calories goals are in a healthy range? Just curious. 

Hi there!

This is actually something that I've been grappling with over the past couple of weeks, so your question couldn't have been timed better :)  I haven't completely found the answer to it yet, but let me share with you what I've come up with so far:

Counting calories is a complex topic that can't be sorted into being entirely good or bad. With that in mind, I don't think counting calories is always bad or endangering, but I also do think that it should be avoided altogether--since, in many ways, it can be a double-edged sword that can harm not only ourselves, but those around us. Even with the best intentions, calorie counting can quickly become dangerous (I would even go as far as to say that calorie counting is a type of disordered eating on its own as well). I guess the best example of what I'm talking about can be found in my own experiences with the anorexia that resulted from a calorie-deficit diet I decided start when I was a sophomore in high school. Initially, my calorie counting was "healthy"--I watched portion sizes, set what seemed to be a safe limit, and made sure I was eating healthy foods that were also lower-calorie than what I had included in my diet before. However, calorie counting eventually became an obsession and my low-calorie diet turned into a low-calorie, low-fat, low-sugar, low-carb, low-food diet as I tried to push myself to lose more and more weight. I saw calories as my enemy because I related them to being unhealthy and saw them as unwanted. Eventually, my relationships with those around me also suffered and (as crazy as this seems) my calorie counting hurt those around me too. I shamed friends and family for what they were eating and I tried to promote my calorie counting disorder as the best way to maintain a healthy lifestyle (there were also people who probably saw what I was doing and were influenced by me indirectly as well). I hate to think about it, but I'm sure the way that I talked about calories and food may have been the cause of or the justification for someone else's disorder. While calorie counting may temporarily help some people who need or want to adopt a healthier lifestyle, calorie counting placed in the wrong hands, prolonged over a significant period of time, or initiated for the wrong reasons will develop into an eating disorder.

Another problem that I've found within the context of counting calories is that it also teaches us to view food as a set of numbers rather than as a source of nutrition and it also antagonizes calories in the process. Calories are essential for our bodies to function and when we view them narrowly as numbers on a box or within the confines of a calorie limit, we detract from and forget the positive force that they are in our everyday lives. We need calories to live and to function properly. Also, calorie counting sometimes leads to the consumption of low-calorie foods that actually detract from our health instead of increasing our health. For instance, when I was counting calories, I would buy low-calorie foods from the store so that I could stay within my daily calorie limit I established. However, I didn't realize that some of those foods were low-calorie because they consisted of chemicals and artificial ingredients that did my body more harm than good. While I was staying within my calorie limit and losing weight by eating those foods, I was not necessarily becoming healthier. When I was a mentor in an eating disorder recovery group at my university, one of our meetings focused on teaching us to be aware of the nutritional values of foods and how those nutrients help our bodies, rather than focusing on calorie amounts. For example, a double cheeseburger can be around 800 calories, but it also provides around 40 grams of protein (which is essential for the growth and development of tissues in your body), along with being a good source of iron, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. We also talked about the necessity of carbs, sugars, calories, and fats in our bodies as well. Personally, I believe this is a much healthier approach to diets and food in general. With that being said, I don't think anyone should totally ignore calories, but I do think that calories and calorie limits definitely should not be the focal point of one's relationship with food and their personal health endeavors (especially when it comes to meals that include fruits, dairy products, vegetables, meat, and/or grains). Obviously, moderation, recommended daily amounts of various nutrients, and balance are also important to take into consideration with our diets, but it is also crucial to remember that there is always something positive to be gained for our bodies from just about everything we eat--regardless of calorie amounts.

I probably feel as strongly as I do about this topic because when I recovered from my disorders, I also had to recover from calorie counting too. It fueled my disordered behaviors, my disorders themselves, and caused me to view food as something to be avoided, rather than embraced. Calorie counting is not always bad, but from my own experiences, I believe that there are better, safer ways to go about watching what one eats and controlling one's health.

All-in-all, calorie counting is a high-stakes risk that I personally would not recommend taking.