A Nutritionist On Why This Is The Year To Stop Counting Calories
It can feel like an impossibility to resist the diet and weight loss pressure that has become synonymous with the start of a new year. And yet, reclaiming your health and finding peace with food often happens in the absence of counting calories, or manipulating body shape and size. Diet culture takes a reductionist view by quantifying food as a series of numbers, which effectively robs us of the natural pleasure inherent in the eating experience.
This is the year to resist setting goals for calorie counting and instead build a strong foundation for long-lasting health and well-being. As a functional medicine dietitian who specializes in eating disorders, here are my steps for finding a true sense of fulfillment in your relationship with food:
1. Become aware of patterns.
The first step to creating change is to develop awareness around your current patterns of behavior. Spend time reflecting on the following questions: What is the flow of your typical day? How would you ideally like your days to unfold in the new year? Highlight the areas that need your attention, particularly around your connection with food.
The following are examples of healthful habits to create this year:
Schedule meals and snacks: Establish a consistent routine around meal and snack times to fit your daily schedule. Focus on eating about every three to four hours throughout the day to maintain stable blood sugar levels and balance mood. Your eating schedule is closely linked with sleep patterns, so be sure to implement a consistent sleep cycle.
Increase nutrient variety: The goal is to add, as opposed to restrict! On weekly grocery trips, try at least one new fruit or vegetable to vary your typical selection. Incorporate produce from the full color spectrum, as each color is associated with a specific profile of micronutrients and phytochemicals.
2. Approach the table with intention.
Our mindset while eating affects not only the quantity of food we consume but also how well our bodies are able to digest and absorb the nutrients present in the meal. Simply put: How we eat is just as important as what we eat. Mindful eating is a process of training yourself to become more conscious of each bite by noticing the cues of your body during mealtimes. Researchers are reporting powerful evidence that mindful eating improves health indicators and decreases stress-related bingeing.
A recent study looked at whether mindfulness-based eating practices and stress management techniques could improve the health of 194 adults with metabolic syndrome. Compared to the control group, there was no significant difference in weight loss, but the mindfulness group had higher levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol, lower levels of triglycerides (blood fat that can clog arteries and increase risk of heart disease), and improved blood sugar control.
In addition to improving nutrition-related lab values, mindful eating can also reduce emotional eating. In a study published in Psychology & Health, findings support an eating style that promotes self-compassion rather than self-punishment and weight loss. Researchers report, "By promoting self-compassion, mindful eating may inhibit stress-related bingeing."
3. Change the way you talk about food.
Carefully selecting the words used to describe meals and snacks will help you create a more gentle, nourishing relationship with food and your body. Although it has become the cultural norm, morality has no place in describing food, which is not inherently "good" or "bad." Yet the shame that accompanies eating a so-called bad food is one that takes a physical and psychological toll on the body.
Shift your language to focus on whether food is "effective" or "ineffective" at meeting your body's needs. We all experience a range of physical and emotional hunger, both of which influence food choice. Rather than placing judgment on your body's internal cues, reflect on the value being received from your meal or snack: Is the food providing nutritional value, social value, or emotional value?
4. Ditch perfection & embrace the possible.
Rebecca Solnit offers my favorite definition of perfection in her essay "Coyote" published in The New Yorker, stating, "So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun."
Her words could not be more true when describing our everyday diets! Don't we all wish to experience the realistic, the possible, and the fun at mealtimes?
This lighthearted relationship to food can only occur when we ditch the illusion that the "perfect diet" exists in the latest fad of restrictions and regulations. Whether you are reaching for something out of physical or emotional hunger, remain present to the eating experience and take a gentle approach to feeding. Building a tolerance for life's imperfection will help prevent the reactive spiral that results from a sense of failing to meet the unattainable illusion of a "perfect" diet or body size.