Here's why she says you should stop turning meals into math problems.
Whether it was counting carbs, calories, fat grams, sugar grams, protein grams, or sodium, we all became counters of something, says mindful eating expert Michelle May, R.D., M.D.
Unfortunately, all of that counting can actually be harmful to your weight loss and healthy eating goals, says May.
Here, the nutritionist explains why she is not a fan of calorie tracking for weight loss—or any other eating goal—and what you should be focusing on instead.
“Foods cannot be labeled good or bad because they are just not intrinsically or inherently good or bad," says May. However, that doesn't stop us from judging certain foods based on their numbers.
And when you label a food as bad based on its calorie content (or carb content, or fat content...), you try like hell to avoid it, she says. “Because of that avoidance, we start to feel deprived," she says. As it turns out, deprivation is actually a very powerful trigger for cravings, which can eventually lead to overeating when you do “give in” to those doughnuts in the kitchen or takeout when you're tired.
When people base what they eat on calories, they end up eating more nutrient-poor foods (think: processed snacks with 100 calories or less per package), mindlessly snacking on them all day long without ever feeling satiated.
Obviously, noshing constantly—no matter how low-cal your snack is—is not great if you're trying to lose weight and can set you up for failure, says May. That's because choosing a lower-calorie treat is not actually breaking the habit of eating when you're not hungry, she points out. So instead of focusing on the calorie content of your go-to snack, the key to healthier eating is only chowing down when you're actually hungry—regardless of how many cals your food has.
Counting calories turns eating into a math problem, but eating is a very complex psychological, physical, and social activity. All the numbers, portion sizes, and measurements keep us focused on "being good" instead of feeling good.
“One of the big problems with calorie-counting or carb-counting or anything-counting is that it keeps you from living your life,” says May.
When you're tracking exactly how many calories you eat, it's hard to enjoy the foods you love without guilt or distraction. And that can keep you from focusing on what food is actually supposed to be: fuel for your body and for your soul. That prevents you from feeling satisfied, which is super-important for weight loss.
Focusing on calories to meet some predetermined goal that might not be in alignment with what your body needs each day doesn't make sense, she says. Since each day is different, it's kind of ridiculous for us to think that our bodies should have exactly the same number of calories daily, says May. “Some days you'll be more active. Some days there are hormonal fluctuations that change your appetite. And some days you’ll overeat and won’t be as hungry the next day,” she says. The most important thing is to tune into your hunger and fullness cues to decide whether you've hit your calorie quota or not. Which leads us to...
Anytime may have overeaten, your body tells you in no uncertain terms that yes, you really did. Whether it's heartburn or a food coma, you don't need to look at the calorie label to know you've gone too far, she says. But when we start looking to calories to tell us when we should be full, we lose track of the feedback our body gives us, says May.
“Your body will immediately say, ‘Wow. You're really full. This is uncomfortable. I don't have energy.’ And that feedback will help you make better choices in the future,” she said.
Regardless of whether you're on the calorie tracking train or not, the most important thing to remember is to listen to your body's hunger and fullness cues when deciding how much and when to eat. That's the key to mindful eating and sets you up for a healthy relationship with food and long-term weight loss.