Counting Calories

Why Counting Calories Is The Best Thing I’ve Done For My Mental Health

“Umm,” started a recent anonymous message I received on Tumblr, which is never a good beginning for anything. “It’s kind of obnoxious that you alternate between skinny outfit pictures and fat food pictures on Instagram. We get it, you can eat whatever you want.”


I always knew that the phenomenon of thinking someone could eat anything they want, in any quantity, with no consequence was something people held onto. But I’d never had it directed at me. You see, as I’ve talked about before here, I only recently slimmed down by about 22 pounds, going from the top of my “normal” BMI – which read as a little doughy, and not anyone’s definition of “skinny” – to the middle of my BMI, which puts me at 5’6, 130, and about a size six. It might not seem like a huge difference, but it’s apparently enough of a chasm that people will go from never remarking on your body to actively referring to it as skinny. And it also means I’m now being lumped in with the size-00 models who, to maintain a severely underweight BMI, are very likely Not Eating That. But the truth is that, yes, I did very much eat that pie or that fried chicken.

I can eat whatever I want, but the great thing is that so can you. So can literally fucking anyone. As long as you practice moderation and monitor your intake vs output, you can eat literally whatever you want and maintain/lose weight to your goals.

For the longest time, like many people, my weight and food choices were hugely tied up in my emotions, and I regarded a day that I ate a sleeve of those delicious supermarket frosted sugar cookies as a “bad day,” one where I felt – besides just physically gross – incredibly guilty. I was wracked with this sense of self-sabotage, and felt the need to atone over the next few days in an unsustainable way. (Or, worse, I would just consider the entire week shot and eat whatever I wanted, in an effort to double down on my “badness.”) Being constantly emotionally caught up in my eating habits, and using them to render some kind of judgment on who I was as a person, was more than just exhausting. It was, mentally, extremely unhealthy, and despite its constant presence in my life, it never resulted in me actually losing weight. I just got doughier, more lethargic, and hated myself more in the process.

When I started counting calories – learning exactly how many I was expending, on average, and how many I needed to consume to either lose or maintain my weight – all of the emotion suddenly slipped away. I realized that, no matter how much I wanted to berate myself for having a “bad” day, it wasn’t going to override the laws of thermodynamics, and guilt tripping doesn’t burn calories. I got used to actually being aware of portion sizes, understanding how calorie-dense little meals and snacks could be, and deciding where I wanted to “spend” vs. “save” in my day-to-day diet. For the first six months or so, I counted calories and measured my food pretty seriously to get a clear picture of how I needed to eat, but it’s since loosened up to the point where I can pretty much eyeball it. I have learned that, if I want to weigh a certain amount, it’s literally a math equation to get me there – the hard part is learning how to deal with cravings, impulse, and the (very frequent) desire to eat out of boredom.

And while losing weight has been a huge result of this, and being able to maintain my new weight has been nice, too, the biggest positive has been my general confidence and serenity when it comes to food.

I no longer tie up my emotions in these things, and I understand that the body (and heightened sense of energy and healthfulness) that I desire are totally within my reach. One “bad” day doesn’t break me, just as one “good” day is not enough to justify a junk food binge afterward. It’s all a simple equation, and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

All it takes is being honest with myself, and understanding that treating certain foods as special treats isn’t punishment, it’s a sane and healthy way to live. I no longer need to oscillate between the extremes, because there is room for everything in a balanced diet.

Which is why comments like that anonymous message annoy me so profoundly. The thing is, all of the food we eat can fit within our goals. If I wanted to, tomorrow, I could eat two Big Macs and a side of fries with Diet Coke and still, after a moderate walk, come in within my “maintenance” calories. Of course, I wouldn’t probably do that, because I’d feel like crap and be hungry as hell for the rest of the day. But I could, if I wanted to. And so could the person who left me that message, and so could any of the rest of us. While some people might associate “counting calories” with “being unnecessarily obsessed with your food,” I’ve found that it’s been the exact opposite.

It’s allowed me to be free of moralizing food, and just enjoy it for what it is.

Counting calories has made so much room in my mental health to just live, without worrying about what my dinner says about me as a person – and that, to me, is worth way more than any dress size. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

About the author

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.