You might look at the title and think: Doesn't counting calories have more to do with physical health rather than mental? Yes and no. Calorie counting can be a very useful tool in calculating energy intake and expenditure in order to maintain or lose weight, but when used inappropriately, calorie counting can be bad for your health--both physically and mentally.
I'm going to give you a little bit of backstory about my weight struggles.
I was always a fairly thin person growing up. I was active in sports when I was younger, played in the marching band in high school, and I maintained a healthy body weight all throughout.
Unfortunately, like a lot of people, when I graduated high school I became complacent about my health. When people talk about the "freshman 15," I definitely experienced something like that, even though I didn't start college until about seven years after high school and my weight gain was much more substantial, so my freshman 15 was more of just a "no-longer-in-high-school-50."
I'm not going to throw out specific weight numbers because, without context, my weight ranges can sound either insulting to heavier people who see my highest weight as not that high, or they can make it sound like I'm still heavy to people who don't know my body type, height, shape, etc. and think my current weight sounds like a lot. Weight is something of an arbitrary number that doesn't really tell you anything about a person's health.
I can tell you that I got up to about a 29.5 BMI (on the cusp of being obese), dropped down for a time to 14 BMI (definitely underweight) about six months into my original quest to lose weight, and right now I'm at about a 24 (on the upper-end of the ideal range).
I struggle with binge eating disorder (BED). Sorry for the lack of a segue into that confession. It's just not a big deal for me to talk about it. People close to me know that I can pack in an insane amount of food in a short period of time. It was because of my BED that I gained weight. It was because of the same mentality that goes into BED that I also became ultra-thin early on in my weight loss journey. And it's because of BED that I struggle to maintain a healthy weight now.
Early in my weight loss journey, I got some really terrible advice from a supposed fitness expert, and it's the same advice that a lot of women get. Eat 1200 calories a day and do a ton of cardio. Trusting that this person knew what they were talking about, I did just that. I'd eat no more than 1200 calories a day, which, if you've ever tried it, is roughly the equivalent to half a turkey sandwich and a bowl of cereal. I also busted my ass on an elliptical for about an hour and a half every day, burning somewhere between 500-750 calories, and I never ate those calories back. This means I was netting around 450-700 calories day. This is called starvation.
My trainer never explained net calories to me. She never even actually calculated my BMI, or my basal metabolic rate (BMR--how many calories I need to consume to just function normally), or my total daily energy expenditure (TDEE--the average number of calories my body typically burns on a normal day)--all of which are incredibly important numbers to know, I've learned, to figure out how big a deficit a heavy person can eat to lose weight in a healthy way.
That 1200-calorie figure is a big problem in the fitness world. It's a very generic number that's thrown at the majority of women who want to lose weight without considering individual women's current weight, height, activity level, etc. For reference, my BMR--the number of calories my body needs to just function (breathing, blinking, staying awake, etc.) if I'm just sitting on the couch or if I stay in bed all day without getting up--is roughly 1500. Taking 300 calories off of that to limit myself to 1200 calories takes away 300 calories of vital energy I need just to live. And this isn't even counting how much more I was cutting down from that number with strenuous exercise.
Yes, there's such a thing as energy stores in fat, etc. for heavy people, but any reduction of intake to below a person's BMR absolutely NEEDS to be done under the instruction and supervision of a doctor who actually knows what they're doing.
Long story short, I lost too much weight when I started my journey. I could see every single one of my ribs. I could see my spine through my skin. I had become, by definition, inadvertently anorexic.
So then I had to go through every once-heavy person's worst nightmare: gaining weight intentionally.
I did just that. Slowly, at first, and then too much. Then I balanced it out. Then I maintained my "goal" weight for about three years. The problem was the damage from starving myself for so long was already done, which ultimately slowed down my metabolism as my body reacted as though it was still being starved and hung on to every calorie I consumed, which has led to me gaining back a good chunk of the weight I lost. So now, even though I am at a healthy weight, I am a decent bit above my goal weight--and not so much a weight, but more a body shape and level of health I know I am capable of achieving because I've done it before.
This is where I have sabotaged my own progress and where my BED really becomes a problem.
My BED is mostly well-controlled. If I'm eating a normal amount of food (my TDEE is roughly 2250--I can eat this much daily without gaining any weight), I don't have uncontrollable urges to binge. But the SECOND I start intentionally restricting my intake--even in a healthy way with a healthy calorie target--my mind freaks out like I'm restricting myself too much, so I end up eating all of the things.
I had it figured out for a time. I had my target calorie intake set to 1850, which is 350 calories above my BMI but a deficit of 400 calories a day, which should reasonably lead to a very healthy weight loss of about a pound and a half every two weeks until I reach my goal weight, which would take about a year. I'm okay with that. Slow and steady wins the race.
Using MyFitnessPal, I started trying to take calorie counting seriously a few years back. It's a really convenient tool for tracking food intake as almost every food you can imagine is searchable in their database, and you can create your own recipes for foods you aren't buying in packages at a store or in restaurants. This app can be a lifesaver for people who are trying to get healthy.
For me, it turned out to be the opposite of that.
Being able to visibly see the numbers behind everything I was eating has made me hyper-aware of what foods are "good" and "bad," but it also leads me to make unhealthy decisions in order to stay under my calorie goal. For example, while flax seed-based cereal might be better for me than a pop tart, a pop tart has fewer calories than a bowl of the cereal. I'd eat the unhealthier foods because they contained fewer calories than the more nutrient-dense foods.
Worst of all, on days when I was particularly hungry earlier on in the day and reached my calorie goal before I even got home from work, I'd realize I hadn't allowed myself enough room to have dinner. My BED would freak out at the notion of having to wait until the next day to eat, so I'd go into a panic and eat everything I could.
Or, if I slipped up and ate a particularly calorific breakfast, I'd be self-defeating and say I already screwed up my diet for the day, might as well just eat like trash for the rest of the day.
Then I got it in my head that I could make it up by just not eating at all the next day. 3500 calories eaten in one day can be negated by eating nothing the next, right?
The result was me gaining 12 pounds from the time I started taking my diet "seriously." I went in the complete opposite direction of where I wanted to go.
So on March 1st, after having logged my calories into MyFitnessPal for a personal record of 785 days, I deleted the app from my phone and haven't tracked a single calorie since.
I eat when I'm hungry. I'll have a soda or a pop tart if I feel like it. But in the time since I've made the decision to ignore calories, I, first of all, feel better in general. I have less of a burden on my mind every day. I don't feel guilty every single time I put a bite of food in my mouth. But more importantly, I have not had a binge eating episode even once since.
And also, I've lost three pounds.
I want to emphasize that this is a situation that's very personal to me. I am not trying to tell ANYONE to stop counting their calories, because at the end of the day, calories in versus calories out is the ONLY way to lose weight if that's your goal.
I am saying that, if you're someone like me who struggles with your weight and tries your hardest and logs every single thing but slips up every so often and feels guilty all the time and, on top of it all, you're being pushed further and further away from your goal, maybe it's time to just relax and treat yourself with more kindness.
I'm no doctor. You should definitely go with any advice you get from your doctor over advice of a stranger crying about her problems online. But keep my story in mind if you're going through the same thing and you just want to make a change for your mental well-being.