Written by Lucy Walton
Whenever we do something repetitively, it creates a neural pathway in our brain. A connection in the brain that is formed based on our habits and behaviours which allows us to do things automatically over time such as reading or driving. The more a behaviour is repeated, the more automatic is becomes.
In many cases this can be helpful, however entrenched thought patterns that develop during an eating disorder, such as counting calories, can be difficult to overcome. In eating disorders, repeatedly counting calories and telling our brain that this is an important behaviour means that it is prioritised and eventually becomes automatic. It can be difficult to change this behaviour, just like if we had to brush our teeth with the opposite hand or learn the alphabet backwards, but with consistency and commitment it is absolutely possible.
Why you don’t need to count calories
We often hear that 1200 calories per day is enough for adults, but this is simply not true. In fact, the average adult female requires 1200-1500 calories per day just for basic bodily processes to happen (breathing, sleeping, heart beating etc). Our body then needs additional calories for digestion and physical activity.
Did you know that the brain uses approximately 20% of our total energy requirements?
Our calorie requirements are always an estimate and calorie information about food can vary between different brands and restaurant meals. Calories do not tell us the nutritional value of food, how much energy will be absorbed by our body or how the food will interact with hormones or stress levels.
Obsessively counting calories can also lead to restrictive eating patterns, rigid rules and can encourage an unhealthy relationship with food. Read more on our blog Are All Calories Equal?
How can you stop counting calories?
When a neural pathways is formed, and you have taught your brain so much about calories, it cannot simply delete that information. You can however work to give these thoughts less attention and create less noise around the topic. Where you give your mental attention informs your thoughts. The more we think about a subject, the more we learn and the more important it becomes. If you pay attention to the calories on the food packet your brain will give it thought. If you shoot that attention down at the first opportunity your brain has less chance to think about it. Telling your brain the calories are no longer important changes the neural wiring of the brain and overtime new (and healthier) pathways will build in its place.
Practical steps to stop counting calories
1. Remove external trackers
A great place to start is by deleting calorie tracking apps and watches (such as My Fitness Pal or Fitbit). You may still have numbers in your head but removing this external stimulus of calories will bring less attention to them. This goes for writing any calories down or collecting data about calories before, during or after meals. Delete any existing data you have saved on calories whether it’s on paper, online or on your phone. That way you won’t be tempted to take a look.
2. Ditch the scales
Avoid weighing food as this will prompt the brain to carry out further calculations and thoughts around calorie content. Instead, you shift from numbers to portions (see our free How to Build a Balanced Plate portion guide). The amount of food you need will vary at each meal and will be different for everybody, the scales cannot tell you this.
Start by not weighing one snack or one component of a meal, and every few days increase the number of items or meals you don't weigh food at. We suggest a graded approach from weighing food, to using measuring cups to guide your portions and then learning to freely portion based on visualising how much to add to your plate. Remember that we don't eat perfectly!
3. Avoid nutrition labels
Try covering up nutrition labels and calorie information on food packaging using coloured tape or stickers. You could also remove food from packets and into containers to avoid re-checking packaging.
4. Educate yourself
Educating yourself about what calories are and how much energy the human body actually needs can be helpful in understanding how inaccurate calorie counting is. Our blog on Energy Requirements in Eating Disorder Recovery is a good place to start.
5. Opposite actions
To overcome calorie counting, we need to make calorie information less of a priority for the brain. To do this we have to avoid giving the subject attention, as the brain does not give attention to things that are not relevant. For example, if your automatic reaction is to choice the lower calorie option, select the higher calorie one or, if your eating disorder only wants you to eat two biscuits, then have three.
6. Let someone cook for you
This makes it more difficult to calculate calories and reduces your control over quantities of food. Arrange for a friend or family member to cook for you, even starting with one meal a week. You could also try buying pre-made food such as sandwiches from independent stores that don't list calories or making your own food such as muesli as the calorie information isn't available. We also recommend practicing eating at restaurants and cafes that don't display nutrition information. Read more about Calorie Labelling On Menus to learn which establishments are not required to display this information.
7. Use serving sizes as a guide
Serving sizes are a guide given by companies but also used to make nutrition claims and meet food standards such as salt and sugar limits set by the Government. You can use serving sizes to guide your portion when learning to stop calorie counting, but remember a serving size isn't a portion size. A portion of food is the amount that you need to eat for you! Many suggested serving sizes are smaller than what someone would eat, for example 40g of cereal would not satisfy most people.
8. Social media detox
Social media can have a huge impact on our relationship with food and what we consider normal eating. It is important to be aware that we only see a snapshot of someone's eating online, and 'what I eat in a day' posts will never depict what a person actually eats day to day. Unfollow any diet, weight loss and even recovery accounts which don't serve you well.
How long will it take to stop calorie counting?
When you first decide to make a change the initial shift might feel overwhelming. Our brain might resist the change initially, preferring the old neural pathway. You might feel anxious or stressed, but over time a new behaviour and thought process will be created.
There are two methods you can take to changing your behaviour and stop calorie counting:
1. Go all in
This means removing everything all at once. Deleting all the physical data you have about calories, covering all labels of all foods, removing your watch and the scales. Read more about Going All In for Recovery.
2. Go gradual
A more graded approach, try having one meal or snack per week without tracking calories or collecting any data. Then increase this slowly every 2-3 days. Maybe you start with eating out for one meal at a café that has no calorie information on their menus.
The length of time it takes will be different for everybody. The most important thing is that you are committed and consistent with your approach and that you are kind to yourself. Change is hard and the process will be difficult. Your brain will resist the change and make you doubt yourself. Be persistent and your neural pathways will change and new ones develop.
At TC Nutrition we can help anybody that is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder. If you are struggling to change your behaviour around calories or would like support to help stop counting calories please reach out to the team.
Lucy is a Registered Associate Nutritionist and intern at TCN! With Lucy's background in nutrition and psychology, her aim is to help you become more confident in your food choices and enrich your mindset. You can find Lucy on Instagram @lutritionw and her website here
Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians specialising in eating disorder recovery, disordered eating, gut health and sports nutrition. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the UK or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.