Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my thoughts around food and calorie trackers. For many years, I was chained to a tracker called MyFitnessPal. In my fleeting pursuit of thinness, I believed that controlling my food was one of the only ways to control my body. If you aren’t familiar with calorie trackers, MyFitnessPal is a popular website/app where you’re supposed to track everything you eat. You have restricted calories for each day, all with the end goal of weight loss, gain, or maintenance. After many years of evolving in my relationship with food, I am now vehemently against tracking my food and calories. Here’s my reasoning:
Calorie trackers promote the “earn your food” mentality. By allowing you to add in your workouts and all the calories you burned in a day, MyFitnessPal would give you calories “back.” I remember thinking that if I was almost out of calories, I could go and run a few miles to earn back a few hundred. Then, I could have a bigger dinner, or have a late night snack. As you might be thinking, it almost never worked this way. I either under ate to keep myself within my calorie limit, or I overate because I was so hungry.
Trackers create restrictive cycles. By entering your height, weight, and goal weight, the program would give you a special calorie restriction. At the end of every day, it would tell you how many days it would take to reach your entered goal weight if you ate like that repetitively. A close friend and I were talking, and she told me MyFitness Pal put her on a strict 1200 calorie per day diet when she was in college. She was following this restriction, but also working out, going to class, and being on-the-go. I’m no dietitian, but I think we all know that so few calories can lead to fatigue, binges, and pure hunger.
Calorie trackers can lead to unhealthy, obsessive habits. We’re often told that the key to weight loss is to be vigilant about tracking our food. This vigilance, often masquerading as discipline, can lead to hyper-awareness of everything we eat. By tracking meals repetitively, the thoughts can get consuming. When there isn’t an opportunity to track, there can be feelings of anxiety or panic. I’ve heard this echoed from SO many people (both online and in person) who have used calorie trackers. After a while, the need to track food can eclipse more important needs.
Trackers take the joy out of eating. When you track calories for extended periods of time, it’s really easy to stop associating food with enjoyment and start associating it with numbers, morality (“good” foods versus “bad” foods), restriction, and stress. When tracking, I remember feeling constantly preoccupied with whatever meal I was going to eat next. Would I be able to accurately track it? How would my limit look after it was all entered? High-calorie food (like pizza or wine) freaked me out because I couldn’t bear the thought of entering it on the app. For so long, the happiness was taken out of what should be a social activity.
Food trackers can have negative long-lasting effects. This didn’t sink in for me until I was far-removed from tracking, but I see it clearly now. I see it when I know from memory exactly how many calories are in every brand of bread, how many grams of sugar are in an apple, or how many calories I burned in a certain workout without needing to use a fitness tracker. I once heard an ex-Weight Watcher participant say on a podcast that people who had been in the program associate food to points for the rest of their lives. Those point values are burned into their brains forever. To me, the same is true with calorie trackers when used long-term.
Calorie trackers inhibit intuitive eating. I remember the euphoric feeling when I was finally able to delete a food tracking app from my phone. It was a strange mix of fear and liberation. It felt like I just had my freedom returned to me, but I was afraid because for years, I had let an APP control my hunger and fullness. I hardly knew what my own body cues felt like anymore. With trackers, Instead of eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, you have to trust a computer to tell you. This is the complete antithesis of intuition and trusting your own body.
To this day, I’ve made the personal decision to stay away from food trackers. I know many people use them, and I would never shame anyone who does. I understand that everyone makes choices based on what works for their body, and calorie trackers just don’t work for me. That’s why when I do workout programs, I don’t track my food or go on rigid nutrition plans. I eat what feels good for my body, and avoiding trackers has been the best route for me to maintain food freedom - and it feels GOOD!