Being aware of the nutritional content of food is normal and even healthy. However, becoming preoccupied with counting calories can cause anxiety and, when left unaddressed, diminish quality of life. When calorie counting becomes obsessive, each meal can become a minefield — a calculated risk. A slice of bread is no longer just sustenance; it is seventy-nine calories. An apple, fifty-two. A pat of butter, thirty-six. If you want to learn how to stop counting calories obsessively, it starts by deprogramming diet culture.
In an effort to lose weight, we often find a diet with a clear set of rules — such as calorie counting or other number-based systems like Weight Watchers — and then struggle to stay within the parameters of the restrictive diet. Yet, restrictive diets never work. Although they might help us shed pounds initially, diets are clinically proven1 to lead to weight gain over the long-term, not weight loss.
The backlash of dieting can heighten fear and anxiety around food, eventually leading to preoccupation with food. Before we even have breakfast, we are already knee-deep in calorie calculations, constantly running the math of ‘eat this, not that.’
Learning how to stop counting calories obsessively involves an open mind and willingness to consider that giving up dieting could be the solution. If that triggers fear of weight gain, don’t let that stop you. I will address that fear several times because I know it’s a roadblock for many people.
Unraveling the Roots of Calorie-Counting Obsession
I vividly remember my calorie counting days from many years ago. I would skim the glossy pages of Women’s Health magazine (which I did not realize was the epicenter of diet culture) and always looked forward to the “Flat Belly Day” spreads.
It was a two-page glamour shot of a 1,400-calorie meal plan, elegantly photographed to look delicious while boasting the benefits of a so-called “flat belly.” I used to fawn over these spreads, daydreaming about what my body would look like if I ate that way every day.
What I did not know at the time is that, when we count calories obsessively and restrict food long-term, we actually slow our metabolism.2 Then, in a vicious cycle, our hormones change to make us crave food even more than before. Specifically, we begin to crave hyperpalatable foods3 (i.e. foods high in salt, fat, sugar, and/or carbs) due to the stress of dietary restriction.
Many of us have experienced the result of too much restriction firsthand, repeatedly. We “eat well” all day (i.e. by counting calories and staying within our allotted number), only to binge later on and eat well beyond the allotted calories for the day. Even though we live this pattern repeatedly (i.e. yo-yo dieting or weight cycling) why do we continue to do it?
Here are five reasons why calorie counting can become obsessive when measures are not taken to quell anxiety around food:
1. Control in a Chaotic World
Obsessive calorie counting can be a means of exerting control in an unpredictable world. Monitoring every calorie ingested offers a feeling of structure and predictability, providing reassurance in the face of uncertainty. However, this type of control can quickly spiral into an unhealthy obsession with counting calories, leading to a preoccupation with food.
2. Disordered Eating or Eating Disorders
Obsessive calorie counting can often be a sign of disordered eating, manifesting as an unhealthy fixation with control over food intake. This practice may serve as a gateway to more severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, where the preoccupation with food and its caloric value becomes the central focus of an individual’s life. Recognizing these patterns is a critical step in identifying and addressing the issue.
Another particular eating disorder worth noting is orthorexia, which is characterized by setting strict rules around food and an obsession with only eating ‘healthy’ foods. Individuals with orthorexia can experience severe anxiety about deviating from their chosen food rules. Orthorexia can include obsessive calorie counting.
If you suspect that you have an eating disorder, it’s important to seek help from a qualified professional. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has excellent resources.
3. The Impact of Diet Culture
Diet culture places an emphasis on ‘ideal’ body shapes and sizes, which can play a significant role in triggering calorie-counting obsession. After all, it was the diet culture-ridden pages of Women’s Health magazine that set off my own former obsession with calorie counting. Constant exposure to media promoting low-calorie diets or vilifying certain food groups can exacerbate the desire to restrict and control food intake.
4. The Thinness-Worthiness Paradigm
Society often equates thinness with worthiness, attractiveness, and success, fostering a mindset where a lower number on the scale equals a higher self-value. This belief can drive individuals to obsessively count calories in a bid to lose weight and enhance perceived worthiness. It can also trigger other obsessive behaviors around food and weight like obsessively weighing yourself.
5. The Desire to Lose Weight
The desire to lose weight is a straightforward yet powerful motivator for obsessive calorie counting. However, without the right guidance, this well-intentioned aim can develop into an unhealthy fixation. This is especially the case when dieters restrict their calories too much; later triggering the restrict-binge cycle and setting off a shame spiral from eating past fullness as a result.
What If You’re Too Afraid of Gaining Weight to Stop Counting Calories?
It can be hard to embrace the idea of not counting calories because of the fear of gaining weight. Even if we have been counting calories for many years without long-term progress, it can still feel worse to give up calorie counting than to keep doing it.
Yet, clinical research4 has made a strong case against calorie restriction because it doesn’t work and oversimplifies the body’s physiological processes. Studies1 have found that dieting, which includes counting calories, is a predictor of weight gain, not weight loss.
If you’re afraid of giving up dieting and no longer counting calories because you’re afraid of gaining weight, clinical evidence5 is in favor of eating intuitively instead of dieting. Eating intuitively means eating foods that actually appeal to you — foods that provide enjoyment — and eating when you’re physically hungry and stopping when you’re full.
Listening to your body to inform what and when you eat can provide the relief you’re looking for if you want to learn how to stop counting calories obsessively. We will dig into more of the specifics next.
Gearing Up: How to Stop Counting Calories Obsessively
Letting go of the need to count every calorie can be a crucial step in developing a healthier relationship with food, where eating is guided by internal cues of hunger and fullness rather than strict numerical rules.
Here are 7 steps you can take to slowly learn how to stop counting calories obsessively:
1. Think in terms of energy, not calories
Counting calories treats every day the same, regardless of your activity level. Even if you account for typical exercise, calorie counting also does not account for the natural rhythm of your body. What if you’re about to get sick and your body needs more food and normal to fight it off? Calorie counting would treat that day like any other, potentially depriving your body of necessary energy.
We need to trust that your body know best. Many of us have lived through the restrict-binge cycle for years and we are fed up with it. Why else would we be trying to learn how to stop counting calories obsessively? Viewing food as energy instead of calories can help.
2. Ditch the calorie counting apps
We’ve all been there, logging every morsel of food we consume into our calorie counting apps. I’ve certainly been there. While it may feel like these apps give us a sense of control, they can also make eating a stressful and guilt-ridden process. When you feel ready, it’s time to ditch those apps.
I understand this can feel daunting, like walking a tightrope without a safety net. Remember, we’re shifting our perspective from calorie obsession to understanding and honoring the energy we consume. This step is a crucial part of the process.
Instead, get curious about your relationship with the app. How much of a sense of control does it give you? Where else in your life might you feel out of control?
Some of the steps discussed in a minute will equip you with the skills you need to become tolerant of letting go of control. For now, try not to label calorie counting as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Just like we try to avoid labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ let’s first neutralize the pattern so that we can ease the anxiety of letting go.
3. Quit the scale-watching habit
Another habit that can often exacerbate our anxieties around food is obsessively stepping on the scale. Many people have unhealthy relationships with the scale. We dread stepping on it; and if the number is higher today than it was yesterday, it can dictate our mood for the entire day and erode our self-esteem.
When you’re ready, toss the scale.
Often, we cling to habits like obsessive calorie-counting or obsessive scale-watching because we’re looking for a sense of stability and control, especially when our lives might be lacking those qualities. Yet, counting calories obsessively and weighing ourselves too frequently can create feelings of instability and loss of control when our weight goes up and down (weight cycling) from the restrict-binge cycle.
Get curious about why you feel the need to weigh yourself and exercise compassion towards yourself for reaching for a sense of stability through food and weight, even if it is misguided.
Going Deep: Addressing Your Psychology to Stop Counting Calories Obsessively
Focusing on eating psychology instead of counting calories can provide a more holistic approach to understanding eating behaviors and feeling normal around food. In order to best learn how to stop counting calories obsessively, it’s also important to look at our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (aka, our psychology).
Here are deeper steps you can take to address obsessive calorie counting:
4. Address any fears of weight gain with the Stop, Drop, & Feel
One of the most significant hurdles you might face as you unravel obsessive calorie counting patterns is the fear of weight gain. These feelings of anxiety and worry can be paralyzing, tempting us to retreat into old patterns.
I’ve been there, and it’s okay to feel these fears. But don’t let them hold you captive. Instead, we’re going to address them head-on with my favorite tool: the Stop, Drop, & Feel.
Stopping binge eating is simply a byproduct of the primary benefit of the SDF: developing emotional tolerance, or your ability to sit with your edginess and anxiety. Emotional tolerance is the skill of being able to sit still with yourself while life feels groundless and chaotic — as if often does for recovering calorie-counters who feel anxiety around food.
Here’s how it works:
- Stop: When you find yourself feeling compelled to count calories, stop what you’re doing and go into another room (if possible).
- Drop: Set a timer for two minutes, and then drop into your body. Allow yourself to get curious about what you’re feeling in that moment.
- Feel: Grant your feelings the space they deserve. Don’t overthink or resist them; instead, let yourself sit with them for just those two minutes. Allow yourself to truly feel your emotions.
If you struggle with counting calories obsessively, you will likely stumble upon uncomfortable and edgy emotions as you do this practice. This is good. It means that you’re onto something. With practice, you’ll find that you can tolerate the emotions that trigger obsessive calorie-counting habits without actually reaching for your app to track anything.
5. Get reacquainted with physical hunger cues (it’s normal for it to take time)
Perhaps one of the most essential aspects of stepping away from obsessive calorie counting is to reconnect with our bodies’ hunger cues. For many, this can feel like uncharted territory, especially if you’ve been dieting or suppressing hunger signals for a long time. If you don’t know what hunger feels like, that’s okay. It will return in time.
When we diet, we’re often told to ignore our hunger. As a result, we can become disconnected from the physical sensations of hunger. We might feel confused when faced with the question: Am I really hungry? This can then trigger a fear of weight gain if we eat without hunger. Keep in mind that it’s entirely normal to feel a bit lost when it comes to identifying true hunger.
Physical hunger is a biological function driven by hormones like ghrelin. Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that it’s time to refuel. This might show up as an empty or gnawing feeling in your stomach, a growling or rumbling noise, or perhaps even a feeling of weakness or light-headedness.
Paying attention to your specific hunger cues, being aware of them, and learning to honor them is an integral part of this journey.
6. Consider the idea of giving up dieting completely
People who advocate dieting often say that it’s a lifestyle. If this is true, do we want calorie counting to be our lifestyle? Do we want to be reading, tracking, and logging every “lick, bite, and taste” for the rest of our lives?
When we listen to our bodies to inform what and when we eat, there’s no need to track calories. Our bodies are self-regulating. When we listen to our true hunger and fullness, our bodies will reach homeostasis (balance) all on their own; and that includes homeostasis of weight.
If you struggle with the vulnerable step of give up dieting because you’re afraid of gaining weight or feeling out of control, it can be helpful to focus on your psychology first.
One of the biggest challenges in giving up dieting is dealing with the fear of losing control. However, remember that dieting and the subsequent cycle of restriction and bingeing is not a form of true control. Real control comes from understanding and responding to our bodies’ needs. It’s about fostering a healthier relationship with food that doesn’t involve guilt, shame, or obsession.
7. Prepare for the stages of giving up dieting
Knowledge is power. Understanding the stages you may encounter when giving up dieting can prepare you mentally and emotionally for the journey ahead. By understanding what happens when you give up dieting, you can alleviate some of the anxiety and uncertainty associated with this process.
One stage that everyone passes through is the ‘Rebellion Binge’ phase. It’s a stage where you, after years of dieting and restriction, suddenly have permission to eat whatever you want, and you do. The initial response might be to overeat the foods you once denied yourself (i.e. your forbidden foods), leading to what may feel like uncontrollable binges.
Although giving up dieting feels groundless, it’s important to remember that ‘Rebellion Binges’ are a normal part of the process, a temporary phase that many people go through when they stop dieting. It’s a rite of passage that, surprisingly, helps you in the long term by breaking the restrict-binge cycle.
Ironically, by surrendering your sense of control by giving up dieting, you end up with far more “control” in the long run as restriction no longer triggers binges. Control is not the goal, but it is often a nice byproduct of all the hard work of giving up dieting.
Remember, this stage is temporary. It’s crucial to stay committed to allowing all foods and understand that these binges will subside. Patience, compassion, and commitment are your allies here. With time, you will find yourself developing a more balanced, peaceful relationship with food.
8. Slowly heal your metabolism from excessive restriction
Many of us have experienced firsthand the toll that excessive dietary restriction can take on our bodies and minds. But we rarely consider its impact on our metabolic health.2 Just as a car needs fuel to run efficiently, our bodies need adequate nutrition to keep our metabolism functioning optimally.
When we deprive ourselves of enough fuel through excessive dieting, our metabolism slows down2 as a survival mechanism. This can make it harder for us to lose weight and easier to gain it back – a frustrating cycle that can feel impossible to break.
The good news is that, once you start eating according to your hunger and fullness, your metabolism will naturally heal itself — likely because you’ll be eating more food than you currently are. Ignoring your hunger and suppressing the urge to eat slows your metabolism down while eating when you are hungry encourages your body to convert food into energy (metabolism).
9. Take it at your own pace
As you learn how to stop counting calories obsessively, remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Everyone’s path is unique. While some people can dive straight into giving up dieting, others may want to take it slowly by laying a solid foundation with the Stop, Drop, & Feel. There is no right or wrong way to go about this process. It is yours.
Just like in every significant change in life, it’s natural to feel a sense of apprehension. You may have days where old habits resurface. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed or are back at square one. If you are doing the Stop, Drop, & Feel every day, you are building emotional tolerance, and that will help you make progress in the long-run.
Trusting Your Body Over Counting Calories
Breaking free from obsessive calorie counting is a journey worth embarking on. It’s about liberating ourselves from the shackles of diet culture and embracing a healthier, more intuitive relationship with food. While it may feel daunting at first, remember that you have the power to transform your mindset and approach to eating.
Letting go of calorie counting and embracing the idea of eating intuitively allows us to reconnect with our bodies and listen to their innate wisdom. It’s about nourishing ourselves with foods that bring joy and satisfaction, not just adhering to strict numerical rules.
Along the way, you may encounter challenges, fears, and moments of uncertainty. But by practicing your tools like the Stop, Drop, & Feel, reacquainting yourself with hunger cues, and gradually healing your metabolism, you can build resilience and find peace in your relationship with food.
- Buchanan K, Sheffield J, Tan WH. Predictors of diet failure: A multifactorial cognitive and behavioural model. J Health Psychol. 2019 Jun;24(7):857-869. doi: 10.1177/1359105316689605. Epub 2017 Jan 22. PMID: 28810391.
- Johannsen DL, Knuth ND, Huizenga R, Rood JC, Ravussin E, Hall KD. Metabolic slowing with massive weight loss despite preservation of fat-free mass. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Jul;97(7):2489-96. doi: 10.1210/jc.2012-1444. Epub 2012 Apr 24. Erratum in: J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2016 May;101(5):2266. PMID: 22535969; PMCID: PMC3387402.
- Yau YH, Potenza MN. Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2013 Sep;38(3):255-67. PMID: 24126546; PMCID: PMC4214609.
- Lowe MR, Doshi SD, Katterman SN, Feig EH. Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain. Front Psychol. 2013 Sep 2;4:577. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577. PMID: 24032024; PMCID: PMC3759019.
- Schaefer JT, Magnuson AB. A review of interventions that promote eating by internal cues. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 May;114(5):734-60. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.024. Epub 2014 Mar 14. PMID: 24631111.