When Counting Calories Becomes an Obsession

Whe counting calories becomes an obsession

Most people have considered counting calories at some point in their adult lives. You might’ve focused on your calorie intake leading up to a significant life event, like a wedding or vacation, or simply felt the pressure to watch your weight as the summer months and swimsuit season approached. There are plenty of apps available that not only make it easy to count calories but encourage you to do so. In a world where so much emphasis is placed on appearance, at what point does counting calories become dangerous? Is counting calories an eating disorder if you don’t do it all the time? Find out how to stop obsessing over calories and create a healthy relationship between your mind and body. 

Is Counting Calories Unhealthy?

Counting calories is often promoted in Western culture as a trendy way to lose weight. However, there are potential problems with focusing on calorie counting in daily life. While watching what you eat in order to maintain a healthy diet is unproblematic, it becomes troublesome when you start restricting your calorie intake to the point that you’re no longer nourishing your body. Too much focus on cutting calories can also result in feelings of guilt, stress and anxiety surrounding eating and food.

Calorie tracking apps like My Fitness Pal have been proven in studies to contribute to disordered eating. In a 2017 study, 75% of participants in an eating disorder study reported using My Fitness Pal to track calories, and 73% of them said the app contributed to their disorder. 

Is Counting Calories Ever Healthy?

Counting calories can be a beneficial weight loss technique by helping you gain awareness of what you’re eating and how much you’re consuming at each meal. As a short-term weight loss strategy, especially when overseen by a nutritionist or dietician, calories counting may result in some benefits. However, calorie counting as a long-term mindset towards food is often unhealthy for the mind and body. Many registered dieticians recommend against counting calories as a weight loss technique. 

When Is Counting Calories an Eating Disorder?

A calorie counting disorder develops in several ways. Counting calories can be unhealthy from the outset if the goal behind this decision is unhealthy — for example, counting calories as a way to lose weight with a target goal weight that’s below the recommended weight bracket for your height. An eating disorder is when there are severe and persistent behavioral conditions surrounding eating that result in distressing thoughts and feelings. Anytime you experience negative emotions or anxiety regarding food consumption, you may be exhibiting signs of an eating disorder or disordered eating.

Eating Disorder vs. Disordered Eating: What’s the Difference?

Non-disordered eating occurs when someone is able to mindfully eat their food when they’re hungry and make the decision to stop eating when they become full. Eating disorders are typically classified by extreme concerns in mental health, body weight, body image and overall health. Examples are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. 

Disordered eating is a much broader term that encompasses a wide range of irregular eating habits or patterns that aren’t severe or problematic enough to be categorized as an eating disorder. Counting calories can result in disordered eating if any of these criteria are present: 

  • A distorted body image
  • Calorie intake is the primary measure of self-worth 
  • Restricting many foods or eliminating entire food groups from your diet 
  • Skipping meals 
  • Feeling like you’re out of control when you consume calories or excess calories 
  • Feeling guilt or shame if you exceed your desired calorie intake 

How to Stop Obsessing Over Your Calorie Intake

The best way to stop obsessing over calorie intake is to stop counting them. Delete the calorie tracking apps like My Fitness Pal from your phone and focus on consuming foods that nourish your body rather than focusing on how many calories they have. Nutritionist Dr. Rachel Paul, Ph.D., R.D., recommends acknowledging that food isn’t good or bad as a starting point for no longer obsessing over calories intake. Instead, she recommends eating a balanced diet based on concepts like the 80/20 rule, which suggests eating nutritious foods the majority of the time (80%) and still enjoying treats in moderation (20% of the time). 

To overcome obsessive behavior surrounding calorie counting, it’s also critical to check in with yourself about your emotions and thoughts towards food. If you tell yourself you’re a bad person when you eat a treat, this is a sign of disordered eating that requires further attention. 

Indicators That Your Calorie Counting Is a Mental Health Problem 

If you become aware that your calorie counting is a problem, you might wonder what this issue is stemming from and what state your mental health is in. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are common in the United States. In fact, 1 in 200 American women has anorexia. The eating disorder associated with obsessive calorie counting is called orthorexia. However, eating disorders as the primary health concern aren’t the only instances when your mental health can impact your calorie counting habits.

Other mental health conditions, like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can contribute to individuals developing obsessive behavior or a dependency on calorie counting. Studies indicate that tendencies towards orthorexic behavior (obsessive calorie counting) is associated with symptoms of OCD. This is because people with OCD experience catastrophic thinking without the comfort of performing ritualistic behaviors. The same issue can result when they attempt to stop calorie counting and it becomes a ritual or dependency. 

A 2022 study in Turkey found there was a significant relationship between individuals having an anxiety disorder and exhibiting patterns of obsessive calorie counting or orthorexia. This could be partially attributed to the low self-esteem in these individuals. 

How to Seek Help for Obsessive Calorie Counting 

If you or someone you love is struggling with obsessive calorie counting, you’re not alone. Up to 71% of college students exhibit tendencies that are characteristic of orthorexia, while anywhere from 21% to 57.6% of the general population struggles with symptoms of orthorexia in America. Overcoming disordered eating behaviors may require professional support, and the team at Restore is here to help. 

Contact our experienced team of counselors 24/7 by calling (877) 594-3566. We have inpatient and outpatient programs to support your recovery and can help you identify if there are underlying mental health disorders contributing to your calorie counting tendencies.