What do you automatically think of when you see that phrase? Maybe "weight loss". "Obsession". "Unhealthy".
These are some of the things that used to come to MY mind when I thought about tracking my caloric intake. I did it here and there and always found myself obsessing over it. In the past, Ive mostly stuck to the "clean eating with a cheat meal slash day slash WEEKEND each week". Pretty standard, and its what a lot of people follow. I also suffered with an eating disorder and an array of unhealthy habits surrounding food and exercise for a long time.
So let me start this all by saying that I am not a fan of the "clean eating" and the cheat meal.
First of all, the cheat meal. The NAME ITSELF propagates an unhealthy relationship with food. If you are cheating, you're obviously doing something bad. How is eating food that you enjoy "bad"? What message does that send to our subconscious? And more importantly, how does that message we are sending ourselves impact our behaviors in the future?
Clean eating - this refers to eating whole grains, lean proteins, and plenty of fruits and veggies. Of COURSE I'm not telling you not to do that! You absolutely SHOULD. However convincing yourself that your diet should only consist of "clean" foods except for that weekly cheat, and that any small bit of candy or ice cream or heaven forbid WHITE PASTA is bad and should be avoided completely, could be a slippery slope, and in my opinion, is not sustainable. Key word here: sustainable. If you don't know already, that's what I am all about. I believe in a diet full of healthy and nutritious foods, but also eating fun things that you enjoy but that aren't necessarily chock full of nutrients also. I know for me, it keeps me mentally and emotionally healthy as well as physically. A little later I will talk about paying attention to what nutrients your body needs and filling up on those things, which is important.
Ok that was summary-time, now its personal-story time. I'll try to keep it quick because I really don't like talking about this. And honestly, this will be my first time sharing it in written form even though I have no problem talking about it in person. Weird.
I used to have an eating disorder. Bulimia to be exact. It kinda-sorta started when I was 16 and ended when I was about 21/22. However that was just the binging and purging. The unhealthy relationship with food and exercise and my distorted body image started way before then, probably in my preteen stages, and still lingers in the background of my life now at 32 (though I have an amazing grasp on it and definitely consider my current relationship with food to be healthy AF).
I also had slash have ADHD and was misdiagnosed as bipolar and depressed (stupid psychiatrists...thats a whole other story) when I was 18 and in a turmoil of not knowing what was going on with my brain. I mention the ADHD only because, often, people with ADHD have obsessive and addictive personalities and can easily get lost in things like drugs, drinking and eating disorders, and consequently, get misdiagnosed as something else when those unhealthy habits mixed with the ADHD brain comes across, to others, as a seriously disturbed individual needing medication and life intervention pronto. I say "to others" but this is how I viewed myself - seriously disturbed and looking for validation of my self-worth in anything I could find.
I would often find myself binging in the worst ways, locking myself in the closet at work stuffing my face with goldfish crackers or opening cans of soup in my pantry only to take one bite and throw it away. I would then purge, because of course that got rid of all the calories (NOT) and then I would cry, workout intensely, and make myself a nice "clean" meal so I could end my day feeling better about myself. I even remember one of my best friends and roommate at the time made me a sugar-free Jello "cake" for my 20th birthday party because she knew me and knew I wouldn't touch real cake. Weird right?! Gosh I hate it. I don't even want to talk about it anymore. Moving on.
You see, many people will say that tracking calories and/or macronutrients leads to viewing food as a tool for making your body look a certain way. That it can LEAD to an unhealthy relationship with food. I'll tell you right now, I don't disagree with that. It can certainly happen.
For me, the opposite is true.
You see, as long as Ive been aware of how I looked compared to others, I've viewed food as a tool to control that. As long as I can remember, food has been "good" or "bad". When I was 11, eggs were fine... but eggs with cheese? Oh hell no, yous gonna be fat. In high school, breakfast was ok I guess but lunch? Nope. I mean I was hangry so I'd take a bite of YOUR lunch, but buy my own?! Too many calories for that, I'll pass. I was once so proud of myself when the only thing I ate that day was peas. A cup of peas. Then I weighed myself, felt happy with my weight, so I decided to eat dinner. After dinner, I calculated that I had eaten 800 calories that day. EIGHT HUNDRED. Hey, as long as I was under 1,000 I was good. PSYCHO.
Timeline-time (you like that? those little paragraph intros? You're welcome.)
When I was 18, strength training entered my life. I didn't start taking it seriously until I was maybe 22. And honestly, this is what helped turn around my disordered thinking. I was able to focus on the number on the bar and less on the number on the scale. And for the next 7 years I chose strength training as my main source of exercise - but I never really gained much strength beyond beginner gains because I was always afraid to eat too much. I literally spent 7 years lifting the same weight. How does that even happen??! I met my amazing husband when I was 25, who also lifts, and working out together kept us both motivated (and still does). Finally around age 29 two things happened that pushed me to the healthy path I'm on now: the birth of my daughter, and learning about macros. *cue heavenly music from above*
The daughter thing is obvious - there was no way I was gonna raise a little me. She was going to see me as beautiful, and see me SEEING MYSELF as beautiful. No question about that.
And here we are, at the point of this blog post. After ALL THAT I'm just now arriving at the point. But everything else is so valid and so its worth all the reading to get here. Are you still here? I hope you are.
MACROS! Macronutrients. Carbs, fats and proteins. All food has em, in different amounts. And everybody needs them, again, in different amounts. Tracking daily macronutrient intake via an app like MyFitnessPal or MyMacros is more time consuming and requires more thought than tracking calories alone, but it is much more effective and healthier all around (if tracking is the route you're gonna take - there are certainly other options, like intuitive eating and/or portion control).
Our bodies need a certain amount of protein to build and maintain lean muscle mass. We need carbohydrates for energy, and we need fats for nutrient absorption and healthy brain function. The point of tracking the grams of proteins, fats and carbs each day is to make sure we are getting enough of each to reach our goals in the gym and maintain overall health, as well as fitting in foods we love within the overall context of meeting aesthetic goals.
Now obviously there is still some restriction involved. For example, when you want to lose body fat, you do need to eat a smaller amount of calories than someone who is trying to gain muscle mass. In order to meet the goal of fat loss it is important to make sure your calories are consistently lower than what you burn each day, living and exercising (your TDEE). However, even in "restriction" mode, tracking macronutrients is insanely helpful because I can still eat whatever I want, so long as it fits within my range. Ice cream is nothing but fats and carbs and a little protein. All three of those things are things that I need. I have a little chocolate every day with my afternoon coffee. When my kids and I want mac and cheese for lunch, we have it. It doesn't matter if its a Tuesday afternoon or a weekend evening, it doesn't matter if the day before was a crappy day of eating - there's no "catching up" or feeling guilty with this type of lifestyle.
Fun stuff aside, our bodies also need tons of micronutrients to maintain health and longevity. Things like fiber, vitamins C, B12 and D, and minerals like calcium, potassium and sodium. A diet with a wide variety of fruits, veggies, legumes and proteins is essential for meeting an acceptable intake of these micronutrients daily, and so just eating junk all day because "it fits in my macros" is not the way this works. My plan of attack is to always fill up on a meal of nutrient-dense foods and finish off with something I want that has little to do with nutrients after that. Example: a big salad with beans for fiber and lean protein and lots of veggies with a small tuna melt with american cheese on the side.
When I tracked calories alone, it was because I was trying to restrict myself (hello 800 calories). Tracking macronutrients and paying attention to micronutrients has helped force me to see food as fuel for my body and my muscles. It has forced me to look at food and instead of seeing "good" and "bad" I see a combination of carbs, fats, proteins, fiber and other micronutrients. I can look at a cup of lentils and think "carbs, protein, and lots of fiber. I need that to fuel my muscle recovery and keep my digestive track healthy". I also look at ice cream and think "carbs, fats, and a little protein. I'm set on protein today but have carbs and fats to kill, so I'll have some." See, ice cream is no longer bad. Its a tool within the grand scheme of my goals. And I LOVE that.
So yes, tracking these things can be time consuming (usually in the beginning when you're getting the hang of it - it takes me 5-10 minutes daily now). However it is totally worth it to me because I am reaching my aesthetic and strength goals while eating the foods I want and never restricting myself from certain foods. This is HUGE for me because it has essentially rewired the way I think about food which has helped my relationship with food and my body so much.
So yes, this works for me right now. Maybe one day it won't. Maybe one day I'll do something different, for a variety of possible reasons. But until now, tracking macros (combined with strength training) has literally has set me on a new path, for the better. Interested in trying it? You know where to find me!!!