With the summer months approaching, there can be external pressures to get fit. Whether it’s rocking bathing suits, shorts, or tank tops, it feels as if there’s no room for extra baggage. This mindset is where subconscious and underlying issues may arise.
These can be dangerous and detrimental to our mental health, as well as our physical health. This is where individuals tend to obsess over calories and begin to count them. At first, it can seem harmless and health conscious. However, over time this behavior can lead to obsessive counting and mental or behavioral issues.
Below, we speak to Licensed Health Counselor Rachel Relkin, LMHC, M.S.Ed, about the fundamentals behind counting calories and how it can affect our mental state.
We’ll review the risk of unhealthy counting, as well as talk through healthy habits like balancing nutrition and staying active with exercise (like an intense cardio session or gentle yoga flow on the Aaptiv app).
It Affects Everyone Differently
“Counting calories can be a healthy eating pattern depending on the individual and their needs and intentions,” says Relkin. On the other hand, Relkin goes on to explain that counting calories can also be a behavior or symptom of those who suffer from eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, or even anxiety. “It really depends on the individual and the extent of counting calories,” she adds.
It’s also against human nature to lose weight drastically. Our bodies can go through a state of mild emergency when we shed pounds. When looking to diet or monitor eating habits, look into how you’re feeling. Also pay attention to which tendencies you swing to during times of change or distress.
Why You Are Counting Calories
If it’s still unclear as to whether or not you’re entering a healthy mindset when deciding to count your daily calorie limit, ask yourself why you’re making this decision. With her patients, Relkin says that her “first step, is to [have them] ask themselves why they are counting calories, what their goal or purpose is in doing so, and if it’s possible to count in a healthy manner as part of a regulated or monitored diet.”
Share Your Journey
Before embarking on calorie counting, talk to someone about what you’re looking to do in your weight loss or weight management journey. While it may seem like a personal decision, it’s safe to have an accountability buddy and someone to check in with (or someone to check in on you), when trying something different with your body.
It Can Bring on Underlying Mental Health Disorders
You may go into counting calories with a healthy and positive attitude. But, counting calories (as a behavior) can actually create or develop mental health issues. “Counting calories can create anxiety and stress for an individual it if begins to impact their daily life in a way that is not conducive to their health or diet,” says Relkin. “For instance, if a person will not eat lunch or dinner since they met their ‘calorie limit’ for the day, this can be considered an unhealthy eating behavior and symptom of anorexia nervosa eating disorder.”
Others may come to find that they like the power that comes with counting calories and implementing a calorie in/out method. “A trigger for eating disorders can be caused by [an] individual needing control, and, by counting calories, they are controlling their eating habits,” says Relkin. “This is why eating disorders are common in trauma survivors, as it can be a coping mechanism in dealing with events that were out of their control, or daily stressors [that] they deem are out of their control.”
What to Do Instead of Fixating on Counting Calories
Relkin suggests, “Instead, create a consistent routine that includes some type of exercise (like one of the many varieties of classes offered on Aaptiv’s Fitness app) and a balanced diet. Also, set realistic goals and not high expectations (primarily at beginning). This will help avoid feelings of disappointment if [the] desired weight is not maintained in the time the person would like.”
She goes on to say, “If the individual or anyone close to [the] individual begins to notice unhealthy eating behaviors, including excessive working out, skipping meals, binge eating, [and] purging after meals, treatment and counseling would be highly recommended. These behaviors can cause severe negative impact physically and mentally.”
Instead of going into a diet or lifestyle change that requires counting calories, try practicing mindful eating. Rather than grabbing a bag chips with a certain amount of calories when you feel peckish, grab carrots and fresh fruit, and eat until you feel satisfied.