You’re about to learn how to stop counting calories obsessively. It involves an open mind and willingness to consider that giving up dieting could be the solution. If that triggers fear of weight gain — and your goal is weight loss, don’t worry — I will address that fear!
Raise your hand if you’ve ever kept obsessive track of your calories in a physical journal or app? If we were in a room, almost everyone would have their hand raised.
And no one can blame us! It’s what every fitness magazine once touted (and probably still does) as the “mathematical, linear equation” to weight loss.
This science is old, though. New research has made a strong case against calorie restriction because it leads to weight gain, not weight loss.
It can be hard embrace the idea of not counting calories because of the fear of gaining weight. Rest assured, I will address this fear and provide plenty of tools to help.
Let’s dig into why obsessive calorie counting leads to a downward spiral and what you can do to eat without anxiety. Doesn’t that sound nice?
How Does Obsessive Calorie Counting Start?
I vividly remember my calorie counting days. I would skim the glossy pages of Women’s Health magazine (which I did not realize was riddled in unhealthy advice) and always looked forward to the “Flat Belly Day” spreads.
It was glamour shot of a 1,400 calorie meal plan, boasting the benefits of a “flat belly.” I used to ooh-and-ahh over these healthy-looking photos, day dreaming about what my body would look like if I ate that way every day.
But here’s what I did not know at the time: When we count calories obsessively and restrict food long-term, we actually damage our metabolism. And then our hormones change to make us crave food even more than before!
This leads to overeating, weight gain, and restricting our calories even more — only to repeat, repeat, repeat…
How Calorie Restriction Damages Our Metabolism
One of the most important steps for learning how to stop counting calories obsessively is to understand exactly how it damages our metabolism.
First, when we restrict calories, our body believes there is a famine and responds by increasing cortisol (the stress hormone), reducing T3 (a thyroid hormone that contributes to metabolism), and reduces leptin (a hormone that suppresses hunger).
This is a smart mechanism that our body has. It helps us conserve energy in times of crisis. However, when we trigger “famine brain” (aka, starvation mode) when there isn’t actually a famine, it leads to unnecessary metabolic and hormonal changes — in an unhelpful way.
Calorie restriction causes us to burn less calories in the long-run and feel hungrier than before. This is a recipe for weight gain!
How many times have you felt like calorie counting is a war between you and your hunger? This is why!
Why Does It Feel Scary to Stop Obsessive Calorie Counting?
The science is clear: restricting your diet leads to a cascade of negative effects. It slows your metabolism and makes you feel hungrier than before.
This often results in binge eating at night, which leads to weight gain, panic, and more obsessive calorie counting as we scramble to feel back in control. But this only leads to more metabolic damage and binges. It’s a downward spiral.
For every restriction, there is an equal and opposite binge. The more we restrict our diet, the more we end up binge eating — and feeling really guilty after eating too! This is why I believe in giving up dieting and giving yourself full permission to eat. The end result is actually eating less!
But many of us are afraid to let go of control. We’re petrified of the idea of giving up dieting or calorie counting because we think that we will go wild and eat everything in sight. We keep counting calories because it feels like a safety net that will protect us from going wild around food.
But calorie counting is not the safety net — it’s the trigger.
What If You’re Too Afraid of Gaining Weight to Stop Counting Calories?
To reiterate, one of the most important steps to stop feeling obsessed over calorie counting is to stop dieting altogether. This often triggers fears of gaining weight, so let’s address this fear even more.
Dieting is rooted in superficial (and unhelpful) food rules. It does not take your unique body composition and needs into account; and furthermore, it doesn’t address your psychology!
I often like to say that weight loss is 90% psychology. The food-stuff and body-stuff matter (like eating well and moving your body) but that’s just 10% of the iceberg.
It wasn’t until I addressed my psychology that I was finally able to stop binge eating. Once I gave myself full permission to eat anything I wanted whenever I wanted it — as long as I was hungry — that’s when I finally started to feel normal around food.
But how did I give myself permission to eat anything I wanted without gaining weight? And the answer is Psycho-Spiritual Wellness: my approach to stopping compulsive eating rooted in psychological and spiritual practices.
There is no single tool that will help you stop counting calories obsessively (although if I had to pick, I would start with my workbook Why We Do the Things We Do and the Stop, Drop, & Feel) but my entire program as a system will help you get there.
And because it addresses your psychology, it will help you stop dieting while minimizing the risk of weight gain because you won’t be warring with your biology. You’ll just be mastering your psychology.
To help you out, you’re about to learn 7 action steps that you can take. Then I’ll come back to this topic (the fear of gaining weight) one last time for reassurance — because I know how vulnerable the process can feel!
How to Stop Counting Calories Obsessively: 7 Steps to Freedom
Now that you understand how restricting calories damages your metabolism and leads to eating more food (not less) in the long-run, let’s talk action steps.
The following steps will help you address your psychology and stop counting calories obsessively. If you apply the advice from this post with consistency, you will slowly but surely work your way towards feeling normal around food.
And when you feel normal around food, you can eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and never think twice about the calorie content of a baby carrot stick ever again. Are you ready for this?!
Here are 7 steps you can take to stop feeling obsessed over calorie counting:
1. Heal Your Metabolism
Science has shown that restricting calories slows metabolism. Therefore, even if we stick to calorie counting (magically, without binge eating) we will eventually plateau.
This is why it’s essential to heal your metabolism; and you can do that by eating. I’m serious, you need to eat.
When you eat adequate amounts of food, your body no longer feels the threat of famine. This helps your body stop producing stress hormones (that inhibit your digestion) while producing more leptin (the hormone that makes you feel less hungry).
2. Try Reverse Dieting
If you’ve been drastically limiting your calories, you may want to consider slowly refeeding yourself like with reverse dieting. This involves slowly and steadily increasing your calorie intake, often by about 50-100 calories each week.
Reverse dieting can be difficult — as is every diet — because it’s slow and steady versus all or nothing eating. Therefore, if this sounds impossible (like an ‘easy to say, hard to do’ kind of deal) let’s dig into more eating psychology.
After all, Psycho-Spiritual Wellness was created so that we don’t have to diet to begin with.
3. Prioritize Eating Psychology Over Calorie Counting
One of the biggest pillars of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness is a tool called the Stop, Drop, & Feel. It’s designed to help you stop a binge in its tracks, but it can also help you stop counting calories obsessively.
The tool works by encouraging you to embrace the feelings that drive compulsive eating. While I talk about it in regards to binge eating, you can apply it to calorie counting by using the tool any time you feel tempted to count calories.
The desire to obsessively count calories is rooted in control. When we stop counting calories, we need to deal with the discomfort of feeling out of control — and it is not easy!
But when we practice feeling out of control, and sitting in that feeling without running away or flinging ourselves into compulsion, we develop tolerance for it.
I like to call that “emotional tolerance.”
4. Work on the Most Underrated Psycho-Spiritual Skill
I wish that someone told me about emotional tolerance back when I was obsessively counting calories. It would have saved me so much time and misery.
Emotional tolerance is your ability to withstand discomfort. It’s your ability to sit still in the eye of the storm, without being swept into compulsion (aka, eating when we aren’t hungry).
When I started doing the Stop, Drop, & Feel, lots of uncomfortable emotions would come up, like sadness and loneliness. In fact, I vividly remember the first time I ever used to tool…
I had a craving for sour patch after I finished lunch. I wasn’t hungry, so I thought to myself, “Hmm, I wonder if there’s a feeling here that I need to feel.” So I sat down and dropped in — and instantly burst into tears.
The crazy part is that after I let myself cry, I genuinely didn’t want the sour patch anymore. And the even crazier part is that I had no idea I was sad to begin with.
This is why I strongly believe that the path to stopping compulsive eating (and yes, stopping obsessive calorie counting) is rooted in psychology, not the food-stuff.
BONUS: Learn more about the intersection between eating psychology and spirituality in my free ebook, The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating. Grab your copy here and continue reading this post after »
5. Prepare for the Stages of Giving Up Dieting
Aside from the Stop, Drop, & Feel, the process of giving up dieting is essential to stop counting calories obsessively. We need to move our focus away from calories altogether to train our brains to stop thinking about them obsessively!
As someone that has been there, I can attest to the fear around the process of giving up dieting. It can be terrifying to let go of the feeling of control.
But as Elizabeth Gilbert once said,
One thing that would have helped me cope with the vulnerability around giving up dieting is knowing what happens after you stop dieting — aka, the stages of giving up dieting.
Essentially, we first enter a period of Rebellion Binges (which we will discuss next) before moving through to feeling normal around food. The Rebellion Binges are not fun, but we can prepare for this rite of passage.
6. Work Through Any Rebellion Binges
Rebellion binges refer to the stage we pass through right after we give up dieting where we binge on the foods we previously restricted.
If you’re a calorie counter, this could be any number of foods but likely high-calorie foods like pasta and dessert — the thing we limit when we count calories.
If you find yourself going through Rebellion Binges, it’s important to stick with the process without running back to the “safety net” of dieting.
This is the part where we all panic and grow fearful of weight gain. And that’s why I’ve listed it fifth, not first!
When we work on developing emotional tolerance alongside the stages of giving up dieting, we have a much greater chance of riding out the storm without gaining weight.
Because we are becoming tolerance to discomfort, we can sit with the vulnerable feeling of giving up dieting without flinging ourselves into food.
As such, I highly recommend doing the Stop, Drop, & Feel daily.
7. Stop Counting Calories When You Feel Ready
Can we make a deal? Can you agree to work on your eating psychology by either doing the Stop, Drop, & Feel or digging into the subconscious reasons why we do the things we do around food?
If you do this, you will be working on the psychological reasons for overeating. And as long as that is in the works, I think it’s fine to keep counting calories until you feel more comfortable stopping.
There’s no need to go cold turkey and give up the crutch — as long as you know it’s a crutch.
If you dive deep into stopping self-sabotage and use the Stop, Drop, & Feel to strengthen your emotional tolerance day in and day out, you’ll be working on evergreen skills.
Evergreen skills help us stop compulsive eating long-term — unlike calorie counting, which is a surface-level skill. (It only addresses the surface level of food while glossing over your psychology, the most important part!)
Remind Me Though, How Can I Stop Counting Calories and Still Lose Weight?
Counting calories doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But when we become obsessed with it — and when the idea of going overboard fills us with anxiety, or when it inevitably ends with binge eating at night — it’s doing more harm that good.
The path to giving up calorie counting, or any other diet, is riddled with anxiety too; but it’s a different kind of anxiety: it’s authentic.
It’s not the surface-level anxiety of “oh no, my salad came with dressing already mixed in!!!” It’s the deep, self-discovery anxiety of “oh no, I feel so vulnerable right now because I have no idea how many calories I’ve eaten. I feel so out of control!!!”
And this is an improvement.
Once you open your eyes to how you’re really feeling — and I mean really feeling, not just what you think you feel, but what you actually feel — you begin to develop emotional tolerance.
And when you are willing to feel discomfort (authentic discomfort, not the discomfort of a calorie counting war between you and your hunger) that’s when you learn to stop eating when you aren’t hungry.
When you can eat when you’re hungry, eat what appeals to you (even if it’s high-calorie pasta), and stop when you’re full, then your weight will regulate itself. There is no need to count calories because you’re listening to your body’s innate wisdom.
Your body already knows how to maintain itself. When we listen to our hunger and fullness, our weight falls within a normal range, naturally. It’s only when we listen to the mind chatter (“gotta restrict calories even though I’m super hungry!!!”) that we get derailed (aka, binge eating after a period of restriction).
If you’re still worried about gaining weight if you stop counting calories, I encourage you to turn your attention inward. Focus on eating psychology and the Stop, Drop, & Feel.
Evergreen skills like these will help you learn how to stop counting calories obsessively for good. No diet can promise that. None.
Ready to Ditch the Calorie Counting Journals?
Before we wrap up, I’d like to cordially invite you to a bonfire, where we are all going to bring our old calorie counting journals and torch them. You coming?! It would be a symbolic gesture of pushing out old, toxic habits and welcoming in new, life-affirming practices.
When you follow any of the steps outlined in this article, you really are affirming your life. You’re telling yourself that you’re a worthy human that is worthy of adequate food; and that you’re strong enough to feel out of control without panicking.
All of that is a wild accomplishment. I am impressed that you made it to the end! If you’d like to dig DEEP into more eating psychology, be sure to grab the free ebook below! It comes with a free 5-day crash course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness to help you keep the momentum going.
First published February 8, 2019 // Last updated June 9, 2022
I literally just sat down to enter my morning smoothie calories into my Fitbit app. Saw your email and read that first instead. Considered commenting, then took a swig of my smoothie even though I’m full and had the aha moment of realizing I was anxious about commenting. I even said “interesting” out loud to myself. So thank you for the weekly emails. I made a baby step in the right direction today. ????
Kari Dahlgren says
Oh my gosh, D’Layne! I am so glad this came at just the right moment. And you are amazing for being vulnerable and sharing your story here. There are so many of us that are currently riding the calorie counting roller coaster, and it always helps us feel less crazy when we know we aren’t the only ones. Congrats to you for this baby step!!! 😀
Intellectually, I know diets don’t work. And keeping a daily food journal (but not counting calories) drove me nuts after a couple of months even though I lost weight. After finding you online last year (yep, during a search for my next “diet”), my rationalization has been “I can eat anything I want, anytime I want” but the “only when I’m hungry” part didn’t click until just now as I read this post. I rarely wait til I’m hungry to eat because when get to that point, I’m already irritable, impatient, and even angry with people around me. I haven’t had the courage to explore these feelings yet. The “only when I’m hungry” voice gets drowned out by the “I’m gonna miss out on all this wonderful, tasty foods so I have to eat it NOW.” Thank you for your wise words.
Kari Dahlgren says
Regina, the self-awareness in your comment here is breathtaking. The “only when I’m hungry” part is the hardest! And when you do this work – of exploring these feelings and developing tolerance for them – it will carry you so much farther than any diet ever could. Congrats on the break through! I can’t wait to hear what happens next 🙂