I had mastered the art of feigning attention. I’d nod, lean forward, and open my eyes wide with interest, but the world felt blurry, almost underwater, as though everyone were speaking in the trombone voices of adults in Peanuts. Numbers were the only thing I paid attention to anymore, and they stacked on top of each other pristinely, forming a pyramid.
“One hundred for oatmeal,” I’d think, flipping through my mental record of every calorie I’d encountered since waking up. “One hundred for Greek yogurt, maybe 50 for raspberries… let’s say 300 total, including that drizzle of honey.”
I would then start planning what I’d have for lunch, accounting for every variable: Am I working out today? Will I walk home or take the subway? I’ve always preferred light dinners, but they became a game of guessing how low I could limbo to stay under my calorie cap.
It started at the beginning of summer. I wasn’t feeling my best; while I hadn’t exactly put on hibernating-bear levels of weight that winter, I was carrying 10 pounds that I felt I could do without. Visions of morning runs along the Charles River and mile-long walks to Trader Joe’s danced in my head, and I was looking forward to trimming down a little and feeling healthier overall.
So I chose a number—a reasonable-for-my-body 125 pounds—and became determined to get there.
Let it be said that nutrition and exercise are not new to me. In middle school, I became a vegetarian overnight after reading about how meat is produced. That pushed me to choose mindfully and think about the big picture of my diet. Empowered to learn more about food, I picked up a copy of Nutrition Action magazine, eagerly flipping through reports on sugar intake and FDA regulations. (Totally normal reading material for a middle schooler, right)? Within days of unpacking my bags as a freshman at Stanford, I found out about a major called Human Biology, and that was it: I signed on for four years of study about macronutrients and public health.
You would think that a health fanatic wouldn’t need help in the weight loss department. If you’ve written countless well-researched papers about everything from pedometers to the benefits of vitamin B12, you should probably know what comprises a healthy diet.
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But using a calorie counter was just so appealing. The hard-and-fast logic of numbers felt much more scientific than simply choosing salads over sandwiches and crossing my fingers that it’d work out. With a system like this—I chose MyFitnessPal out of the myriad options available—you’re presented with a number of calories you’re allowed to hit in a day, a button that lets you add them up, and a reminder to stop when you get to zero. Easy.
I found the sensation of tracking my every move really satisfying. And recording all of my meals and snacks, then seeing their nutritional value in black-and-white numbers, was a genuinely effective tool that helped me make better choices overall. Through using the app, I realized that my morning oatmeal didn’t need six different toppings, that grabbing a free bagel at work wasn’t really satisfying enough to justify the calories… and that french fries add up really quickly. (Ditto for the free chips that absentmindedly disappear before your tacos arrive.)
Within a few months, I lost the weight I’d wanted to. I ate smarter portions and consumed less sugar, and I was a pro at balancing out my protein, fat, and carb intake. Even with a degree in nutrition, it was the app that brought this knowledge into my daily choices.
But the game of consistently staying under 1400 calories unlocked a part of myself that I don’t like to encourage. It’s the same part that drives me to clear out drawers and obsessively organize what’s left. It feels a strong pull toward right angles and pristinely empty countertops. It’s a part of me that creates strict schedules and feels out of control when life gets in the way of them.
The calculations consumed me. There were days when I wasn’t paying attention at work, or I’d skip out on social gatherings because I couldn’t sacrifice the calories in my diary. On top of that, life took a complicated turn: I hurt my knee while running and had to trade in gym sessions for physical therapy. At the same time, my long-term relationship with my live-in boyfriend was coming to an emotional end. While my issues with food by no means caused the end of my relationship, it’s safe to say that the same thread of anxiety wove through both, and it was terrifying to know that I had to find a new home, a new lifestyle, and a new relationship with myself… all at the same time.
I decided to use the tough transition as a fresh start. I moved into a new apartment, put my gym membership on hold, and focused on how I was feeling, rather than how I was tracking. I got back in touch with what my body needed and wanted, rather than living by a numerical boundary. After a month of data-free living, I accepted that calorie counting doesn’t fit my personality for the long haul.
And amazingly, I kept the weight off anyway. Through fitness tracking, I’d learned the incredibly valuable skill of truly understanding serving sizes (I see you and your giant cups, Yogurtland). But I also drove myself into anxiety-ridden mental calculations (walnuts are no fun to eat when you’re counting up halves). I’d let myself get to a point where I’d be angry at myself if I went even one calorie over the limit. I didn’t feel healthy when I was pedaling away on the elliptical until the screen hit a magic number that would “earn” me an afternoon snack.
While I still believe that a food diary has its benefits, I don’t recommend it as a long-term behavior. Once you learn what the numbers look like and how to efficiently fill your dietary needs, maybe you’re ready to delete the app entirely.
Food isn’t math. Food is chemistry, food is fuel, food is strength. Yes, we often consume too many calories, but that does not leave us with one option of treating food as calories alone. A calorie is a calorie, but some calories come in the form of protein, some of sugar. One hundred calories of banana bring your body much-needed fiber and potassium, and 350 calories of bagel are, well… not much of anything, nutritionally. (But they sure taste good on occasion). Only when we truly understand the value and purpose of food will we develop a positive relationship with it.
These days, I rely on my yoga practice to stay active and be in tune with my body. Using physical, rather than mental, cues has helped guide me toward healthy choices without requiring calculations. Yesterday, I balanced in crow pose for the first time, and as I was floating up on my arms, feeling powerful, I felt a sense of achievement that a calorie-counting app could never record.
Christie is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a deep interest in why we are the way we are, and how we can be a little bit better. She’s an LA native, Stanford graduate, relentless vegetarian, and coffee enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @ChristieBrydon and Instagram @woweezow33.