How to Stop Counting Calories & Find Peace with Food

how to stop counting calories & manage the normal fear of weight gain

The old science of weight loss through “calories in, calories out” has been debunked. Yet, because calorie counting apps still reign supreme in popular culture, the concept of learning how to stop counting calories might seem counterintuitive. However, it’s a powerful step towards reclaiming your physical and mental well-being.

I remember the first time I decided to delete my calorie tracking app. It felt like I was losing a safety net, but what I gained in return was immeasurable. Once I learned the science of set point weight theory — of how the human body is wired to resist weight loss via calorie restriction — I resolved to never go back.

In this post, you’ll discover the benefits and methods for learning how to stop counting calories. I’ll also delve into the 5 stages of giving up dieting, which are relevant for anyone ceasing calorie counting too. My goal is to illuminate the path towards “normal eating,” a way of eating guided by internal wisdom rather than external rules.

Why Is It So Difficult to Stop Counting Calories?

Learning how to stop counting calories — or rather, relearning the innate, intuitive relationship with food that we are all born with — can be challenging for several reasons. When you focus solely on calories, you might sacrifice satisfaction, an important element of eating, and perpetuate feelings of deprivation. These factors can ultimately lead to overeating due to the binge-restrict cycle, working counterproductively against the goal of calorie counting.

Learning how to stop counting calories is not a small task. Often, the act of keeping meticulous track of food intake provides a sense of control that can be difficult to give up. Although an abundance of clinical evidence shows that dieting does not work — such as a randomized controlled trial published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition[1] or a clinical trial published in PLoS (Public Library of Science) One[2] — it can be hard to let go of the need to be in control.

This struggle often stems from a fear of gaining weight or eating “bad” foods, which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Furthermore, calorie counters may find themselves avoiding social situations that involve eating. I’ve certainly been there before, and it only worsens feelings of deprivation and isolation — taking a significant toll on mental well-being.

To intensify the situation, counting calories is inherently stressful, and stress has a complex relationship with weight. While calorie counting is often pursued for weight loss, chronic stress, including that from restrictive eating habits, can lead to weight gain. If you aren’t losing weight on Weight Watchers, Noom, or any other calorie counting programs, this could be one reason why.

Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that can increase appetite and promote fat storage, especially in the abdominal area.[3] This creates a paradox where the very act of counting calories to lose weight can contribute to weight gain, making it a counterproductive and frustrating endeavor.

Benefits of Giving Up Calorie Counting

Understanding the benefits of giving up calorie counting can empower you to make informed decisions about your eating habits that prioritize your overall well-being. By focusing less on numbers and more on your body’s natural cues, you can reduce stress and anxiety around eating, making meals more satisfying and pleasurable.

Here are some of the benefits of learning how to stop counting calories:

  • Stronger metabolism: Constant calorie restriction can slow down your metabolism.[4] When you stop counting calories and eat based on hunger and fullness cues instead, you can heal your metabolism from the effects of dieting. This often means you can eat more food than allowed with calorie counting while maintaining the same weight — as long as you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.
  • Reduced stress and anxiety: When you have to track every single thing you eat, it increases stress.[5] Stress is associated with overeating, cravings for high-calorie foods (which are often restricted while counting calories) and weight gain.[6] By learning how to stop counting calories, you reduce the risk of stress-related symptoms.
  • Strengthened intuition: Moving away from calorie counting helps shift the focus from numbers to the quality and enjoyment of food, fostering a more positive and holistic relationship with what you eat.
  • Decreased risk of disordered eating: Calorie counting is associated with eating disorder symptoms and researchers even conclude that calorie counting apps “might do more harm than good.”[7] By learning how to stop counting calories, you can reduce the risk of developing disordered eating or an eating disorder.
  • More satisfaction and pleasure in eating: Enjoying a variety of foods without guilt or calculation enhances the pleasure of eating, making meals more satisfying and enjoyable. By embracing this approach, you can steer clear of ‘hedonic eating,’ a behavior characterized by compulsively seeking pleasure through food, especially when there’s a void of pleasure and satisfaction in your life or diet.
  • More enjoyable social eating occasions: Without the stress of counting calories, social events involving food become more enjoyable, allowing you to fully engage in the experience and connect with others. The increased joy and pleasure of social connection can also help reduce hedonic eating tendencies.
  • Natural body weight regulation: Restrictive dieting is actually associated with an increased set point weight.[8] Fortunately, when you stop counting calories and eat based on your body’s true hunger and fullness cues, your body is likely to remain at its set point weight or even drop to a lower set point weight if appropriate.

Many people wonder if it’s possible to stop counting calories without gaining weight. While individual responses to giving up calorie counting vary, making it impossible to provide a definitive answer, the evidence is clear: dieting is associated with a slowed metabolism and increased risk of weight regain and an increased risk of settling upon a higher set point weight in the long run.[9], [10]

How to Stop Counting Calories

Dedicating yourself to learning how to stop counting calories begins with deleting any calorie counting apps from your phone or computer. These apps, while designed to be helpful tools, can often perpetuate the cycle of obsessive calorie tracking and detract from your ability to listen to your body’s natural cues.

Similarly, it’s important to put away food scales and measuring cups, as relying on these tools can reinforce the idea that food needs to be meticulously controlled. By removing these items from your daily routine, you’re taking a significant step towards embracing a more intuitive and relaxed approach to eating.

When you’re ready, here are other steps you can take to learn how to stop counting calories:

  • Focus on satisfying, nutrient-dense foods: One drawback of calorie counting is that it discourages processed foods, which can actually increase your desire for them via the ‘forbidden fruit’ effect.[12] Instead, adopt the ‘all foods fit’ approach, where even high-calorie, processed foods can be part of your diet in moderation, up to one-fifth of total intake, while still maintaining optimal nutrition.[13]
  • Embrace intuitive eating: Intuitive eating encourages listening to your body’s hunger and fullness cues instead of relying on external calorie counts. Studies show that eating intuitively leads to better metabolic health, improved food choices, better weight stability compared to dieters, and enhanced psychological well-being.[11]
  • Navigate the fear of weight gain: Instead of resisting the fear of weight gain, which can intensify it, acknowledge and make room for the groundlessness and uncertainty of giving up calorie counting. I know from personal experience how hard it can be to let go of control, even when you know something isn’t working, but the benefits of intuitive eating are worth it.
  • Eat mindfully: Pay attention to the taste, texture, and aroma of your food, and eat slowly to savor each bite. Mindful eating helps you enjoy your meals more fully and recognize when you’re satisfied.
  • Use urge surfing to combat overeating: Overeating is a normal part of the human experience, whether you’re counting calories or eating intuitively. To overcome this important issue, use psychological tools like my Stop, Drop, & Feel®️ technique which applies urge surfing to compulsive eating. When the urge to overeat arises, acknowledge it without acting on it, and let it pass like a wave.
  • Address food guilt: Finally, support the process of learning how to stop calorie counting by challenging the stigma around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and embracing food neutrality. By viewing all foods as equal, you can reduce the moralization of food, which is especially important if high-calorie foods make you feel guilty.

Interestingly, one study found that intuitive eating helped reduce weight-related shame but did not impact feelings of guilt after eating, which shows that guilt in particular may take more time to unravel.[14] Be patient with yourself as you navigate the complexities of learning how to stop counting calories and managing any guilt that arises.

The Stages of Giving Up Calorie Counting

Aside from guilt, another dominant emotion that can make it difficult to learn how to stop counting calories is the fear of weight gain. This fear can be strong enough to prevent many people from giving up (what feels like) the safety of dieting and trusting their body’s signals instead.

While it’s impossible to say whether or not someone will gain weight when they give up calorie counting, there are some patterns that people generally go through. Preparing for the stages of giving up dieting can foster mental preparedness, which is valuable for navigating this transition.

Here are the 5 stages you may go through as you stop counting calories:

the 5 stages of giving up dieting
  • The Freak Out: Generally, the moment you give up calorie counting is marked by anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. It is also marked by excitement and hope! This ‘emotional soup’ is a normal part of the process of learning how to stop counting calories. 
  • The Rebellion Binge Phase: Once you stop counting calories, you may enter a period of indulging on once forbidden foods, which may include high-calorie treats that were otherwise not allowed while counting calories. This phase can heighten the fear of weight gain. In my experience, committing yourself 100% to no food rules and eating intuitively is the ticket through this tough period.
  • Expected Turbulence: Once you make it through the indulgent phase, you may start to feel like life is throwing curveballs your way. However, this is often a sign that you are no longer buffering your emotions with the perceived safety of calorie counting. It is a sure sign that you’re on the right track to learning how to stop counting calories for good.
  • Decreasing Turbulence: After you gain your footing in the groundless terrain of life without calorie counting, the tables begin to turn. You’ll develop more confidence in yourself and begin to feel like you’re in control while eating intuitively instead of counting calories.
  • Food Normal: A healthy relationship with food emerges as you sharpen your intuition and step closer and closer towards food neutrality, honoring your hunger and fullness, and using psychology-based tools like the Stop, Drop, & Feel®️ to address any overeating.

I personally find solace in the stages of giving up dieting because it provides a loose framework of what to expect. While it’s impossible to say what your individual experience will be like, it can be comforting to know when you’re following a well-trodden path.

Embracing the Path of Eating Without Counting

Every step you take towards learning how to stop counting calories is a step away from diet culture, and it’s a true reclamation of your physical and mental well-being. Try not to let the fear of weight gain stop you from getting started. It’s okay to feel apprehensive or encounter setbacks along the way. What’s important is to stay compassionate with yourself and remain curious.

If you want to continue healing your relationship with food, check out my free ebook below. It comes with a free 5-day email course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, my unique approach to stopping compulsive eating rooted in psychology and spirituality. It’s a great next step for anyone looking to break up with calorie counting for good.

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Some say ‘feel it to heal it’ but this workbook takes it a step deeper and helps you ‘see it to heal it.’ If you’re the kind of person who logically knows how to live a healthy lifestyle but you compulsively do the opposite, this workbook will illuminate what’s standing in the way. Then, you know exactly where to focus your energy.

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6 thoughts on "How to Stop Counting Calories & Find Peace with Food"

  1. D'Laynesays:

    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. ????

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      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!!! 😀

  2. Reginasays:

    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.

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      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 🙂

  3. Melaniesays:

    Wowweeewoweewow! This post describes my life to a tee. I’ve been seeing a therapist for a few months to help me with binge eating disorder. But just this week she came to the conclusion that what I actually have is a form or orthorexia. However I’m not as obsessed with clean eating as I am with counting calories. And after a new search, I found this post! If I eat a large chocolate chip cookie, my entire day is ruined.

    I haven’t missed a day of calorie counting in 10 years. But this weekend I’m going to try to stop. Unfortunately I already know the calorie count of everything I eat, so even if I don’t use the app, it’s still going to be in my brain. You’ve given me a little confidence and I’m looking forward to one day soon, not obsessing over everything I eat. Thanks for your insight!

    1. Kari Dahlgrensays:

      Hi Melanie! I love your enthusiasm, and I definitely empathize with the struggle of mentally knowing the calorie count of everything, which can indeed make it harder to stop counting, even without the app. Time will help ease the pattern 🙂 you are about to do something very courageous this weekend!! Good luck, and keep in touch!

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