There I was, finishing my lunch of measured-out tuna fish and carefully counted crackers. My mom joined me at the table with the entire bowl of tuna fish salad she had made and a box of cheese crackers. I was so completely and utterly tired of measuring any food before I dared to consume it. I started eating the cheese crackers by the handful and scooping the tuna fish salad in my mouth, no measuring, no counting. My mom sat back with an incredulous look on her face. “Tiffany,” she started, “I have never seen you like this. You have got to quit this calorie-counting!”
Allow me to rewind and place into context this entire episode. I’ve always been an intuitive eater. Seriously. Before I was ten, I was telling my mom that I should substitute carrots for my Oreo cookie snack. She probably looked at me as incredulously as she did when I was shovelling the cheese crackers into my mouth. From then on, she realized that I had this innate sense about healthy foods and nutrition. I would balance my own intake and eat the cookie when I felt like it, and with as much ease would switch back to carrots when I felt the need. Carrots nourished my body in a way the cookie could not. And the cookie provided a sweet treat and a level of comfort that the carrot could not. Is one superior to the other? Not necessarily. They each have their purpose.
I’ve spent my entire life observing people’s relationship with food — how we come to the table, the emotions we carry with us, how other cultures relate to their food, etc. Why is the table a place of ease and enjoyment for some, and a place of anxiety and guilt for others? That’s a large burden, don’t you think, for something we do three times per day to carry such negativity? In researching for my current book, I wanted to understand the myriad ways in which people come to the table. I’ve long been against calorie-counting because I fail to believe that we were meant to have science or math degrees in order to know how to feed ourselves. When I earned my Master’s degree in Gastronomy, I went to university in Italy and travelled the world as part of my studies. I travelled to Italy, France, Spain, Thailand, and Japan to better understand how and why people eat and how they come to the table. Time and time again, I saw healthy relationships with food. You might ask, what does that even mean? You wouldn’t be the first one.
Healthy relationships with food are characterized by an ease and balance at the table. The food is fresh, minimally processed, and eating is a convivial activity. The table is a place that joins people together. They understand the importance of a celebratory meal. And they are not counting calories. So, why are we? We have some warped relationships with food in the States.
We return to my aversion of calorie-counting. My older sister, wisely, mentioned that I should understand why people calorie-count if I want to do the work to repair our relationships with food. For the first time ever, I joined a calorie-counting app. It dutifully told me that I should be eating 1,200 calories per day. OK. Sounds easy enough. I, in turn, began dutifully inputting my meals and having the app track my calories. Wow, these calories really add up quickly. But I’m determined to give this a try, and so I measure out food and research serving sizes to get accurate calorie counts. It’s in the dark-hole of calorie-counting forums where everything begins to unwind.
That’s an ounce of cheese? You’ve got to be kidding me. Who even eats that small amount of cheese? Can you even taste it as those small cubes go down your throat? I just returned from living in the land of good cheese and I can’t remember a single time I ate that small of an amount of cheese. I’d rather just eat cheese less often than have a chiclet-sized portion. And why are people talking about low-calorie options in these forums? I mean, I get it after seeing how small an ounce of cheese really is and the calories contained within it. But why are we not talking about the quality of the cheese?
Warning sign #1: these calorie-counting apps make you focus on the calories more than the quality of the food
This is problematic. I’ve been fighting my whole life to have people turn to real foods and turn away from the industrial food model. I even conducted my thesis research in Japan to analyze a society that highly emphasizes work ethic but doesn’t compromise on food quality the way we do in the States. And here I am in calorie-counting hell, researching the calories in two cubes of cheese. My paradigm shifted from gleefully eating freshly smoked mozzarella di bufala outside Naples to counting and weighing cheese back in the States. But I’m doing this. I committed. OK, so a small portion of cheese it is. Another week passes and I’m finding that my exercise routine is becoming more frenetic.
Warning sign #2: exercise became a way to ‘earn’ more calories in a day
Exercise was something that made me feel good. I did it to care for my body, not earn extra calories. The app made that link in a way my brain never did before. “You earned 223 extra calories from exercise today!” it exclaimed. Hmm. I never thought of it that way. But good. Because 1,200 calories, I’m coming to learn, is for the birds.
I hate being hungry (who doesn’t) and will always bring food with me if I’m heading out around lunchtime. During this experiment, I had one of those days. I didn’t have a lot of time and so made my old faithful: a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I threw it in a sandwich bag with an apple. It’s something I do so that I’m never caught in the throes of hunger in a world that is all too happy to provide pretty crappy options in my book. When I returned home, always proud of my foresight to incorporate good food into a busy schedule, I entered it into the app. 535 calories?! For a PB and banana sandwich. My goodness.
Warning sign #3: the app placed into question healthy habits that have served me well for many years
I never ended up eating the apple. If I added that to the app then I’d have around 250 calories for dinner. Nuts. But not the kind you eat, because those would be too many calories. And don’t even get me started on the macros. Peanut butter in the same day as a handful of nuts? My fat macros would be way over. I never thought about these things before. I trusted my ability to feed myself, still being the girl who would effortlessly balance her carrots and cookies.
As the holidays approached, more and more cookies appeared in the house. I’ve admittedly never had much of a sweet tooth. I’d take mac and cheese any day over a cookie. One day, I found the Oreo truffles my mom made and crushed two of them. Oreos. We meet again, my old friend.
Warning sign #4: my cravings for sweets increased
My mom asked, “Did you just eat the truffles?” The incredulous tone was again present. “Yes,” I muttered through a full mouth. “This is really unlike you,” she said. And she’s right. I’ve almost never reached uncontrollably for a sweet. It’s typically a conscious decision for me, as simple as: Oh, I haven’t had a cookie in a while. These look good. End of conversation.
We return to the tuna fish lunch. I was a few weeks into the calorie-counting experiment at this point. The restriction. The counting. The measuring. The deep-hole research episodes into cheese cubes. I broke. I snapped in a way I never had at the table before. Give.me.the.cheese.crackers.
Warning sign #5: binging
So, this is what it feels like. The rubber band of binging and restricting. Stretch it too far in one direction and it will inevitably snap. It has to. The body isn’t meant to be manipulated by the daily discourse of whatever diet culture tells us to do. Our bodies are beautifully made bio-computers that do self-regulate, if we learn to listen to them. Who we are as eaters is incredibly complex, but the table provides the opportunity to tap into that, three times a day.
I’m done with the app, and I’m grateful I have a lifetime of healthy habits and a strong relationship with food to fall back on. But it worries me for people who struggle to develop a healthy relationship with the table. It makes me worry for the people who don’t know there’s a better way. These apps are a slippery slope. I recognize that it has helped many, like my sister, and for that I’m grateful. It can turn people away from processed food and steer them in the direction of real food. But when it moves away from that and has us counting our calories and macros like mad scientists, then something has gone astray. If it works for you, then I can honestly say I’m glad. The path to intuitive eating is personal and looks different for each eater. Learn what foods work for your body. Learn portion sizes for your body. Get the help of a health coach for extra support. But also learn to listen to your body. When you’re ready, put down the app. Trust yourself and your body to pick it up from there.
And know that there’s so much life on the other end of that cookie. Or carrot. It’s not that serious.