About a month ago, I tried counting calories to lose weight. I wanted all the usual things: a flatter stomach, thinner thighs. But mostly, I just wanted to feel better about myself and my body. And for some God-forsaken reason, I believed that counting calories would get me there.
It’s worth noting that my self-confidence has never been flawless; having struggled with anxiety for many years, I can say that my self-esteem oscillates much more than is healthy. And I’m really, really working on it. But sometimes, my organization-dependent brain looks to solve the wrong problem with a faulty solution. In other words, instead of handling the core issue of low self-esteem, I decided to count calories.
And I’m not the only teenager who does this, either. One in every 2 teenage girls and 1 in every 4 teenage boys have tried dieting as a way to change how their body looks. And about a third of teenage girls who diet are already at a healthy weight!
These numbers seem staggering to me, but they have been around for a long time. And the media is definitely to blame — but I’ll spare you from my melodramatic, millennial soliloquy.
But I’ll tell you what: counting calories didn’t fix my problem. Sure, I lost a little bit of weight, but I also lost my connection with food and my connection with my friends. I was so focused on eating the right amount of food, the right kind, the perfect kind, that I stopped being involved in group discussions. I secluded myself to my phone, where I looked up things like How to lose belly fat quickly and does drinking tea make you lose weight and Gigi Hadid abs diet.
And focusing so much on the numbers left me feeling detached from what I ate. It didn’t matter if I liked it, or if I was still hungry when I was “done.” I thought in macros and numbers. And it was unhealthy for both my body and my mind.
I checked my stomach in the mirror multiple times a day. I went to the gym intending to burn as many calories as possible in 30 minutes, which often led to very sore muscles and a sore ego. I thought about food all the time, even when I wasn’t hungry and especially when I was. I shouldn’t have had that ice cream last night. My stomach looks awful. I wish I had abs. I’m hungry again. Is it okay to eat?
If I’m honest, even after stopping counting calories, I still have some of these thoughts. I still am learning not to check my stomach every time I go to the bathroom, and I’m still trying to coach myself to not treat food as either “good” or “bad.” And I’m trying to enjoy what I eat, and eat what feels good for me.
I realize this may sound kind of sketchy if you’ve been on a diet and it has been helping you lose weight: but you don’t have to count calories to feel good about yourself and your body. I promise, it will only make you feel worse.
But what should you do instead?
Here’s my tentative plan for myself. I urge you to copy it.
Rule 1: Exercise a little every day. Do activities that you enjoy rather than the ones that burn the most calories.
Rule 2: Eat well most of the time: eat a few veggies, a piece of fruit or two, whole grains and non-whole grains, and have an indulgence or two every day.
Rule 3: Do not count calories. It is okay to be mindful of portions, but eat until you are full. Do not stop eating just because you feel like you should be full by now.
Rule 4: Eat slowly, and savor your food! Eat things that you enjoy and this shouldn’t be hard at all!
Rule 5: Drink lots and lots of water, especially before and after your workouts!
Rule 6: Make your goal to be healthy and strong, not thin.
If this is hard for you to envision for yourself, I understand. I’ve only made the switch to stop counting calories in the past few weeks, and sometimes I still find myself reaching for the calculator to estimate the calories in my meals or thinking that I shouldn’t eat something I enjoy because it is “bad” for me. But I still feel like I am making progress. Every day, I focus a little less on my body and a little more on fitness. Every day I Google less and less. And I eat things I like to eat! I exercise in ways that feel good for me, in ways that build endurance and strength, not a flat stomach. And I’m still working on it. But I know that these rules are much better rules for my overall health and wellbeing than anything I was telling myself before.
And it might just be the ice cream talking, but I think I feel a lot better about my body, too.