When I was in eighth grade, I started keeping a food journal. I’d read in People Magazine that Carrie Underwood did it, and if I could do something that would get me legs like hers, I would’ve done anything. So the goal was to keep my calorie intake under 1,200 a day — a number that other magazines had touted as a magic number for weight loss — and then, voila, I would be the person I’d always wanted to be.
Spoiler alert: This tracking did nothing to make me a better, healthier person. In fact, it may have done the exact opposite. It took me approximately one week to grow tired of the food journal, mainly because the act of logging felt like too much of a chore, but I worked to keep each meal’s calorie count to under 300 calories, with one or two small snacks during the day.
Did the extra baby weight come off? Yes. But did I feel better about myself? No. First off, middle school was a nightmare that no amount of calorie tracking could save me from. But on top of that, being that concerned about what I was eating was exhausting, and the restriction ultimately resulted in more binge eating whenever I let my guard down.
As I got older and food tracking became more sophisticated, I graduated from the journal to My Fitness Pal. If you’re unfamiliar, you use it to search and log each food that you eat throughout the day, and it will give you a goal of calories and macros to consume based on your health goals (e.g., lose, maintain, or gain weight). The app was much better since it offered a personalized goal for calories rather than the randomly chosen 1,200 I was consuming before (and, by the way, you need a minimum of 1,200 calories a day to stay healthy — not a maximum). I also started paying more attention to how many carbs, proteins, and fats I was taking in.
However, I still felt chained to my food log. I used to download Dunkin’s PDF of nutritional facts so that I could decide what flavor of coffee to get, I ate the same meals every day so that it would be easier to track in the app, and I always felt a sense of panic whenever I went out to eat at a restaurant or someone else’s house. What if I log it incorrectly? How will I know what my total calorie count for the day is?
The whole process wore me out. And time and time again, I would still revert to that binge eating behavior after a particularly long streak of eating “good” foods.
For reasons unrelated to weight loss, I became a pescatarian in college, meaning that I gave up eating all meat except for fish. I love animals and always wanted to be a vegetarian, but had loved buffalo wings and steak tips too much to give them up. It took traveling to Virginia and being stuck behind a truck transporting chickens to Tyson’s factory to change all of that for me for good.
This shift in my diet changed everything because it made me a more mindful eater. I was empowered by my commitment to a cause rather than my desire to be skinny, and it enabled the shift to stick. Ultimately, it led me to consider the nutrients I was absorbing rather than the calories.
Of course there are still times when I don’t order something on a menu because I’m thrown off by the calorie number next to it or I get stressed about eating “too much” the day before, but this is all a process, and taking calorie counting out of the equation has allowed me to enjoy food so much more than before.
I’m not saying that pescatarianism is the one-track route to achieving a healthy mindset or that calorie counting can’t be a viable option for someone. Quite the opposite — if your body feels good when you have a certain level of macros, or you love eating meat, more power to you! But eating food because of the way it makes you feel is the best gauge of what you should/shouldn’t be eating. I may not look like Carrie Underwood, but I have more freedom in my body and mind than I did before. That’s worth it to me.