When Counting Calories Doesn’t Work

By Marsha Hudnall on 04/22/2009
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589447_44121078My post several weeks ago about calories on restaurant menus got me thinking about calorie counting in general.  I know there are folks who swear by it, and I’m not attempting to dissuade them.  I’m all for people finding what works for them.

But I wanted to talk more about the subject for those who aren’t so sure, or know definitely that counting calories doesn’t work for them.

The Theory Behind Calorie Counting

It’s the familiar ‘calories in vs. calories out’ equation.  Two mathematical challenges with it.

  1. We have to know how many calories we burn. Easier said than done.  The formulas that most folks use to ‘know’ this are just estimates.  They don’t take into account individual bodies, e.g, levels of fat vs. muscle, different amounts of hormones, and, of course, now that it’s back in the news, how much brown fat we have.  Who knows what else may be relevant.
  2. We have to know how many calories we eat. Three points here:  a) We frequently misremember how much we eat, b) calorie charts are estimates, and c) recipes, whose calorie counts depend on estimates of calories of the ingredients, are rarely made the same way twice (food manufacturers may do a better job but even that’s been known to go awry).

What Else is Calorie Counting About?

All the mathematical stuff really isn’t my point, though. The real challenge is that we’re trying to impose control on a basic human drive, one that really isn’t set up for being controlled.

Try this experiment, courtesy of Kathy Kater at BodyImageHealth.org.  Close your lips around narrow drinking straw, pinch your nose closed, then breathe entirely through the straw. Go about your usual activities.  What gets the most of your attention, trying to breathe or what else you’re doing?  Try running or walking fast.  How does that feel?  When you feel like you can’t take it anymore, what are your first breaths without the straw like?  Big gulps of air?  Anyone recognize how similar this is to eating when we go off a calorie-controlled diet?

I Don’t Know About You, but I Enjoy Breathing

And eating.  So how can I enjoy eating like I breathe, that is, naturally take in the right amount of food to run my body well?  With  intuitive eating (also called mindful eating).  Tuning in and trusting our bodies to guide us. That advice brings out the skeptics, with these kinds of questions.

Q: You’re a dietitian with extensive knowledge about food content/calories/nutrition. Doesn’t that, even at a subconscious level, play into the foods you choose during the day?

A: I’ll bet most dieters know more than I do about the calories in foods.  I choose foods with nutrition in mind most of the time (and always good taste), but calories don’t really play into my decisions.

Q: Is the typical consumer as aware of what they’re putting in their mouths as you think? Doesn’t advertising/marketing and a dash of delusion temper good judgment?

A: It very well may, but does knowing the calories in something really make a difference in that regard?  Or does it just make most of us feel guilty when we decide to have something that’s got a lot of them?

Q: Weight-struggling folks may have absolutely no skill set around intuitive eating and therefore struggle with tuning in to what their body is saying. How can you move from depending on external cues (portion control/calorie control) to listening to your body?

A: We encourage using the Plate Model for Healthy Eating.  That does imply initial portion control, but we think of it as a place to start that builds in a stopping point where we can assess whether we’re satisfied.  The Hunger Scale helps us do that assessment.

Q: How do you separate ‘human drive’ from other types of hunger, e.g., emotional eating/compulsive eating/bingeing? Especially if we see all types of hunger as out of our control?

A: Intuitive eating can help us get rid of emotional eating that arises from feelings of failure about our ability to successfully diet/count calories.  But it takes more than intuitive eating to overcome emotional eating that isn’t about what or how we eat.  It’s a good support tool, though, as we work through emotional eating struggles.

I agree nutrition information, maybe including calorie estimates, can be helpful if we use it sensibly.  The real problem is that so many of us are caught up in the diet mentality that we only use calorie information in one way, and it’s a way that generally doesn’t help us if we’re struggling with healthy weights.

Do you have questions about intuitive eating/mindful eating?  If you’ve tried it, share with us your experience — was it a challenge, did it feel natural to you, are you convinced it’s the way to go…or not?

photo by inya

9 Responses (Add Yours)

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  • etinca says:

    Part of my experience with mindful/intuitive eating has been that I had to stick with it awhile (3-4 weeks) before I started seeing much in the way of results, but then the ounces steadily began coming off. I’m not talking about always concentrating on every single bite, but just making conscious choices. I’ve come to believe that I can lose & maintain that loss by being aware of what I’m putting in my mouth instead of just mindlessly going through the day, letting a candy bowl or serving sizes dished up by a restaurant determine how much & what I eat. I’ve also discovered that for me, anyway, a sugar calorie = more than a protein or complex carb calorie. And, believe me, finally trying out lower sugar (I don’t like substitutes, so it’s sugar or nothing) is HUGE for me, but I’m definitely seeing a difference. I save the sweet treats as an indulgence when I really really want some, rather than an every day habit.

  • Alana Jeffries says:

    To help with counting calories and losing weight, a friend of mine is suggesting I use Flavor Magic Portion Control Sheets, which she describes as basically a portioning guide that also seasons meat and fish. Kind of like the “palm of hand” rule, but more accurate. Does anyone have input on this one? She claims it is working for her with home cooking. I want to give it a shot but it looks like it is only available online.

  • susan says:

    I think intuitve eating works, but I think people with disordered eating need to start therapy before attempting it. I think it is a better approach to normalcy with food for chronic dieters and women who undereat. I have tried it, many times, and it’s a lot of hard work for me. Now that I have 14 months of therapy behind me, I’m attempting it again. It’s still work, but I’m doing better with it.

  • Marsha says:

    Etinca — sounds like you’re making great progress on getting in touch with your body. wonderful! I’m with you on the importance of awareness. It’s a critical step in eating supportively and well (which is really the same thing.)
    Alana — I can only find the portion control sheets online, too. Sound like they’d be interesting to try – and they flavor the food! Plus, sounds like you could ‘graduate’ from them pretty easily, too, which is good — unless you like how they flavor the food. :)
    Susan — you’re so right. Some of us need more structure at first; the goal is intuitive eating but for a variety of reasons, it may not be something we are ready to work on yet. Happy for you that you’re getting closer to the goal. It gets easier!

  • Riayn says:

    Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have any success with intuitive eating. I was eating healthy food, but I was simply eating way too much of them. I have found the Zone Diet works well for me as no food is forbidden, I just have to eat those foods in the prescribed amount.
    Once I have lost weight, I will probably go back to intuitive eating as I know now what portion sizes work well for me. However, I needed to go on an eating plan to work that information out. If I was just starting out, I would have a lot of trouble working out how much to eat as my perceptions of portion sizes were completely screwed.

  • Marsha says:

    That’s in a way what we do at Green Mountain, Riayn. We provide a structured eating plan that helps our participants learn what’s right for them. Then they can take off from there (no pun intended :))!

  • Michelle says:

    The book Intuitive Eating changed my life. While I am still a work in progress when it comes to listening to my body, I have learned to love and appreciate my body as it is, while working towards honoring it more by listening at every meal. Through the process I have gained weight, but I have accepted that as a part of my journey and am comfortable with gaining some weight if it means I no longer feel deprived, and I am treating my body with respect. An important part of my journey has been to journal my progress, so that when I feel like I have shut down and stopped listening, I can see that there are cycles and patterns I need to pay attention to. I actually wrote an article about my coming to terms with my body, and how Intuitive Eating was a big part of that:
    http://venusvision.com/2009/04/i-love-my-new-body/

    Although I still have a ways to go on my journey to becoming a fully intuitive eater, I feel that I have already come so far and don’t need to worry about short cuts to any solution. I am a happier person now and know that I am continuing to learn and grow from my experiences as I become a better listener to my own body.

  • Marsha says:

    Intuitive Eating is a great book. It has helped so many people — including a lot of professionals who are working to help people become normal eaters. Glad you found it, Michelle, and it made such a difference for you.

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