Ask me any food and I will tell you how many calories it contains. Yes, it’s a spooky talent. Because it shows one thing: I’m obsessed.
Obsessed with my health. Obsessed with what I put into my body. Obsessed with the need to provide it with enough fuel for the day. Obsessed with not gaining weight, and better yet, getting fitter and fitter.
I concentrated more on numbers than on what my hunger or satiety was telling me. My relationship with food had become a simple matter of calculation.
It all started when I was fifteen years old. I ate exactly what I wanted to eat. It didn’t even occur to me that I could gain weight by eating overly sweet breakfasts composed of white bread with butter AND Nutella, eating a croissant at the morning break at school, before a whole sandwich and a small bag of M&M’s for lunch, and a big bowl of terrible cereal with milk when I got home. It was about an hour or two before dinner when I would gladly fill my stomach with the delicious — and thankfully healthy — food prepared by my parents. I often ended with a dessert, such as ice cream or some cake.
I’m amazed too. I did the math one day. I found a total of almost 3,500 calories in one day. As a reminder, a woman’s needs vary on average between 1900 and 2100 calories per day. I wasn’t even overweight.
Then came Instagram, and the whole issue of comparison. I started seeing parts of my body that I realized I didn’t like. I thought my legs were a little too big. Then the focus shifted to my hips.
With this awareness, I started looking for nutrition information on the internet. I read tons of articles, some of which were stupid and full of false advice. And I came across this saying: if you consume more calories than your body uses, you put on weight.
“Calories? What’s that?”
That’s where it started. This question was the basis of my awareness, and what was soon to become an obsession.
This day, I probably got out of my room and went down to the kitchen, just to check out the whole calorie thing. I grabbed the cereal packet and looked for the numbers. And I did the same thing with everything I could.
I looked up how many calories I had to put into my body in a day. Then I did a quick calculation. And I realized that I was ingesting way too much.
Slowly but surely, this awareness sank in my head and my brain started to make associations between food, exercise, and fat loss on the parts of my body that I was starting to hate.
At 16, I moved in on my own. This meant that I had to make my own choices. I could no longer eat what was in the cupboards or on the table. It was up to me to decide what to buy.
That’s when things got serious. I started to see food in numbers. I wanted to make sure that what I was putting into my body wasn’t too much compared to what I needed. Or too little. I needed to have that control.
That’s when I met my first serious girlfriend. She wasn’t overweight at all. But she was obsessed with losing weight. She exercised at 10 pm and ate less than 600 calories a day. She was mentally anorexic.
I couldn’t let her ruin her health. So I took control of her diet. I did some research. I explained to her that eating too little puts your body into economy mode. It slows down your metabolism, and your body stores everything it can get since it doesn’t know when the hunger period is going to end.
I made it my mission to make her eat 1,500 calories a day while promising her that she wouldn’t gain weight, on the contrary.
It worked. She became fitter and healthier. Her relationship with food slightly improved.
But for my part, I kept counting the calories. It had become a habit. I was afraid that if I stopped, I would start overeating again and regain the weight I had lost.
It was a habit. I would quickly add up the approximate amount of calories I ate at each meal and I would end my day around 1,600 calories. The thing is, I lived in Paris. There, if you don’t live near one of the two forests, you can’t go running. Cycling is complicated with all those cars. And all sports are expensive. I was a student. I couldn’t find any sport that suited me and was affordable. And I loved to eat.
My balance was hard to find.
So I compensated by not eating too much.
Every time I tried to stop counting, I gained weight. Every time, I felt like I was losing track of what I was putting into my body. As if I was losing control.
“By choosing healthy over skinny, you are choosing self-love over self-judgement.” — Steve Maraboli
That’s the way it has been for years. Until a year ago.
I finally found a routine that suited me. I analyzed everything that prevented me from working out, and I found solutions for each. That’s when I started training 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week.
My general well-being improved. I loved the post-training feeling. I felt fitter. More confident. And it freed me from too much negative energy.
The months went by. My sessions went from 20 minutes to 30, then to 40. And then quarantine began. I started working out every day for 40 minutes. I only kept one day a week to rest. The changes have been HUGE. My silhouette changed. I felt much calmer and more focused. Centered. I became addicted to working out.
It made me feel freer about food. I knew that my body was now consuming enough energy. I decided to try to stop counting calories.
I knew counting calories wasn’t healthy. I had even started to weigh some of my food. I concentrated more on numbers than on what my hunger or satiety was telling me. My relationship with food had become a simple matter of calculation. So I tried to stop counting.
Every time I started counting, I would stop my brain. I focused on the taste. On the sensations. It slowly got better.
I was getting back in touch with my body.
I don’t count calories anymore. Instead, I focus on the quality and balance of the food I eat.
Spoiler alert: I haven’t gained any weight.
I’ve read a lot about intuitive eating. It made me realize that I had lost this connection with my body. The sensations. I was hungry, but I didn’t eat because I was counting. When I was full, I continued to eat because I liked it too much and I knew I still had a bit of margin in terms of calories.
First of all, I tried to get the sensations back in my body. I paid attention to the feeling of hunger. I tried to separate it from emotional eating or boredom. And I tried to distinguish between “I’m hungry” and “I feel like eating”.
Then I tried to chew more slowly. To be more focused. To enjoy the food I was eating. This naturally led me to become aware of the feeling of satiety.
Why continue to eat when your body tells you that it has had enough?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu
Today, I still exercise. I really like it. I’ve gone from 40 minutes a day to 1 hour almost every day. With a little more cardio.
I don’t count calories anymore. Instead, I focus on the quality and balance of the food I eat. I make sure that I provide my body with enough protein so that it can build muscles, not lose them. I try to limit carbohydrates because that’s what makes you gain weight.
I now look at food as a fuel for my body. In the morning I eat a balanced, nutritious breakfast full of protein. They often consist of avocados, or eggs, and wholemeal bread. My lunches are made up of vegetables, fruits, and some proteins as well. Dinners are for soups and vegetables. I add to all this a bit of dairy products, but not cow’s milk.
I sometimes indulge in comfort food and I like to have a few drinks with my loved ones. Life is meant to be lived, and I feel that enjoying the pleasures of food is an important part of it.
But I am not gaining weight. Because I make sure to get enough exercise and to always return to a balanced diet, which is now my default diet.
To stop counting calories is to free yourself. No more overwhelming calculations. Just me, my hunger, my fullness, and a few delicious, well-chosen, portioned foods, and the freedom to fill my belly with a huge pizza or hamburger every now and then. And beer. And sushi. And the food I love.
Now that I am back in touch with my body, I even know what kind of food it needs. I know when I can finish my meal with just my plate, or when I need a piece of chocolate, just for the little sweet taste. My body knows that. By extension, I know.
Food has to be intuitive. The problem is that we live in a society that is anything but balanced when it comes to food. Our grocery shops are full of industrial food, ready-made, full of bad ingredients, and not nutritious. We have lost all connection with our bodies. That’s where the problem lies.
I’ve never been so obsessed with food that it becomes a problem. I ate enough. I enjoyed it. But still, my relationship wasn’t the healthiest. I’m glad that has changed. I’m happy with the general well-being I can feel day after day.
Some days are not as good as others. But still. Stopping counting calories has done me a lot of good. And so has working out.
Find your balance. That’s all that matters.