‘Well my life just got a whole lot easier…’. That was my main reaction while enjoying my first restaurant meal since calorie count menus have been introduced. As someone who has habitually calorie-counted every day for the past 18 months, knowing how many calories are in each item on the menu simply saves me the guesswork.
If you pity me for the “miserable existence” that is counting every calorie, then think again. Because doing so has allowed me to have the healthiest, happiest relationship with food that I’ve had my whole life. I’ve remained within a kilo of the same healthy weight (calculated according to my BMI); I feel able to eat whatever I’d like, within moderation; and, crucially, I think less about food than ever – save for the 5-10 minutes I spent recording it into an app each day.
For most of my life, I’ve had a tendency to comfort eat. While I’ve never been (technically, from a BMI perspective) overweight, I have been at the upper end of the scale for my petite 5”2 frame – making it hard to find clothes that fit properly, and meaning I lack confidence around exercise or on the beach.
Unsurprisingly, emotional eating took hold during the pandemic. Faced with the anxiety of worrying about my loved ones’ health, together with the stress of navigating a newly-freelance career at that time, I turned to food – occasionally bingeing when I felt overwhelmed.
Once the world opened up again, I found myself a stone-and-a-half heavier, my confidence eroded, and unable to savour the joy of restaurant meals with my friends – because I was riddled with guilt and a feeling that I lacked control. Food had, more than ever, become emotionally-loaded – a coping mechanism in a time of crisis.
In October 2020, I changed my approach. I was feeling particularly vulnerable after someone I’d been dating called things off, and I realised I needed to build up my self-esteem again. I began by addressing my weight gain and the unhealthy relationship I’d developed with food. While I’d been experimenting with healthy-eating strategies (like eating less white carbohydrates), I was frankly tired of the guesswork this required at every meal time.
Besides, as a one-time wellness journalist, I’ve always eaten healthily – it’s just portion control that would go out the window when I was eating my feelings. I needed something more simple and fool-proof, to take the emotion out of food and to remind me, objectively, how much energy my body required.
So I turned to a calorie-counting app, instead – reasoning, “What could be more straightforward than input versus output?’ It was a strategy I’d used effectively in the past. The only thing that had deterred me this time around, really, was the unpopularity of calorie counting – as the health brigade had turned more towards terms like “intuitive eating”, which many might find useful, but had simply confused me as an emotional eater.
Tracking everything I ate was uncomfortable at first – less so because I was adjusting to eating less, more because it forced me to address my emotions. I became aware of the “snacks” motivated by fear (for instance, towards starting a new work project) or stress (for instance, I’d sometimes turn to comfort eating if I felt overwhelmed in a social situation).
Keeping a calorie log was less of a weight-loss strategy, more of an enforced mindful-eating approach. But it worked – both in allowing me to lose the unwanted weight I’d gained, and in encouraging me to find better (ultimately, more rewarding) ways to cope with my emotions rather than eating them away, which had only led to a guilt cycle.
It’s no coincidence that I took up meditation and started therapy during that time. Three months later, I was back at a comfortable weight for me – and, more importantly, I felt more calm and in control of my diet (and mental health) than ever.
Still – up until now, I’ve been reluctant to admit to the success, both mental and physical, of my calorie-counting strategy. Calories have almost become a dirty word in recent years – and there’s been a substantial backlash towards the calories on menus policy from eating disorder charities and eating disorder sufferers.
These concerns are of course valid – and there should absolutely be a provision for calorie-free menus for sufferers, especially as conditions such as anorexia are on the rise after the pandemic. But a statistic that has got lost is that this move was backed by a Public Health England survey that found 79 per cent were in favour of adding calorie counts to menus.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
Now this move has passed, I consider it important to stick up for how much calorie-counting has helped me – and might help others too.
According to NHS data, the majority of adults in the UK are overweight or obese – 67 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women – who knows how many suffer from the same emotionally-drive, disordered eating that I did?
No, calorie-counting isn’t a “perfect” measure, we can never guarantee that the counts on menus will have been calculated with precise accuracy.
But information is power – particularly when the alternative is emotionally-driven eating. Let’s remember food is one of the greatest joys in life and, in my lived experience, never more so than when enjoyed in mindful, guilt-free moderation.