Upon turning 30 I discovered that my metabolism had slowed to a crawl, and I found myself saddled with an extra few pounds that refused to disappear.
A friend had recently lost a good deal of weight over a period of several months by keeping track of what she ate using an app on her phone, which seemed like a pretty simple window to weight loss. The app, called MyFitnessPal, even let you scan in the barcodes on packaged foods to measure how many calories you were ingesting when you ate one serving of something. Exciting, right? In my innocence, I thought calorie counting with an app seemed like it might even be kind of fun! Like an Angry Birds that helps your pants fit better!
I downloaded MyFitnessPal, entered my stats, and was allotted 1,200 calories per day to lose a pound a week.
I later discovered that 1,200 calories a day is close to the minimum number of calories it is recommended that a woman eat in order to function normally. But at the time I didn’t question the wisdom of being immediately put on what players of the Oregon Trail would have referred to as ‘Bare-Bones Rations’.
After all, MyFitnessPal was the expert, right? Why would it want to do me harm? Plus, to ignorant, slightly flabby me, 1,200 seemed like a veritable wealth of calories!
In retrospect, the most amazing thing about MyFitnessPal was actually the way it demolished two decades of having a healthy attitude towards food in about half a day.
At first did enjoy using the app to track what I was eating. It was kind of like playing Food Jeopardy. I’ll take breakfast for 150 calories, Alex! What is one-half a toaster strudel? And so on.
I was also gratified to discover that by using the stationary bike at the gym for 30 minutes I could add over 200 calories back to my rapidly shrinking allotment. Forget about working out to feel good—now I could work out to earn more food. Healthy!
That first night I went to bed feeling smug because I still had 149 calories left in my daily allowance. I was totally winning at weight loss!
But the next day I awoke feeling terribly hungry. I also began hearing a strange new voice in my head every time I thought about eating, which was now constantly. “How many calories does that have?” it would ask sharply, about every food I considered eating, in a tone I had never before used when addressing myself in my own head.
In fact, the voice made eating lose much of its appeal even as I became increasingly obsessed with it. In the span of a single day, meals became mocking little food-shaped numbers of calories, and meal-planning devolved into a neurotic game of food Tetris, during which I dedicated much of my mental bandwidth to calculating how to fit a variety of low-calorie foods in throughout the day to most efficiently stave off relentless hunger pangs.
All my life I had I loved to cook and loved to eat. But once I began calorie-counting, every time I thought about eating something, I immediately thought about how many calories it had, and how many calories I would have left for the day if I ate it, and whether it was worth those calories. I became a sad, obsessive calorie miser.
The one positive was that I certainly did savor the food I allowed myself to eat. If you want to hide in your parked car eating an apple with the gymnastic fervor you would bring to a conjugal visit, by all means, count calories. You will find yourself clasping a granola bar to your face, leaning it back and passionately embracing it like you just arrived on shore leave.
On my sixth day of calorie counting, I found myself sitting on a park bench on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, despairing that I had just hedonistically consumed an entire turkey sub in about ten minutes. I had, the voice reminded me, barely 200 calories left for the entire day. Worse still, I had been invited to a friend’s barbeque that evening. How could I enjoy that party knowing I could only eat (and drink!) 200 calories the whole night?
Only 200 calories left until tomorrow, I thought sadly. If only I could just go to bed right now, skip the party, and wake up on Sunday with a whole 1,200 calories to eat!
That was the instant I decided it was time to stop counting.
I realized that if using MyFitnessPal was going to get me this worked-up about food; if it was going to dominate my waking thoughts, then I just couldn’t use it anymore. Life was difficult enough without this extra anxiety. Pleasure was hard enough to come by without wringing every bit of it from food.
In the months since I gave up calorie-counting, my weight has continued to fluctuate. I still haven’t figured out a diet and exercise plan that really works for me. Ultimately though, I’m glad I figured out that I’d rather buy new pants than be completely miserable from calorie counting. MyFitnessPal might have a friendly name, but it was definitely not my friend.