Opinion

After years of torture, I broke free of the tyranny of calorie counting

When science fiction writers imagine great, grandiose methods of social control – matrixes! Microchips! Really big bros! – they ignore one powerful form that already exists: the humble calorie.

Very little is more distracting, maddening, soul-destroying or totalitarian than the seemingly random number (egg: 155! Freddo: 95!) that is assigned to everything we eat. It is a number that will affect your body and – although it shouldn’t be the case – the way others around you value it. If you have ever counted your calories, and if you ever restricted them, then you have lived under a brutal regime. I’m really, truly sorry. I wish no one had ever told you that calories exist.

I feel this way because calories once consumed me. As an anorexic teenager I knew the number assigned to lettuce leaves, clementine segments, single yoghurt-coated banana chips and a Haribo sweet sucked for a second before being spat into the loo. I wasted so much time on minute-by-minute mental maths; I was distracted in class, my breath reeking of hunger as I muttered numbers to myself.

It breaks my heart to think of the great minds similarly wasting away; the fingers lifting up flaps on the backs of packets before a snack is returned to its shelf. Think of all of the other things that humans – and yes, especially women – could have done if they didn’t spend their time counting calories. Think of where those minds could have been put to use.

I began to properly recover from my eating disorder when I was 18, but although I stopped meticulously counting calories I still made rough approximations in my head. I didn’t want to lose weight any more, but I didn’t want to gain it: my new housemates in my student halls would remark on my couscous and salads. But slowly, slowly, counting slipped my mind. At 21, I fell deeper in love than I ever knew was possible, and calories ceased to exist.

I mean it. At the beginning of my eat-whatever-you-like era, I got into the habit of buying a tub of cake icing, pouring in some hundreds and thousands and devouring the lot with a spoon. Have you ever heard of anything more wonderful? It made me far happier than any number on a packet or scale ever did. I don’t do it any more – mainly because I don’t want to die – but what a perfect end to calorie counting.

Because here’s the thing about calories: they’re bollocks. They’re completely oversimplified to the point of uselessness. Some dude in a laboratory in the 1800s came up with a system for totting up calories in food – and then almost 200 years later the US government basically guessed that a typical adult needed 2,000 calories a day. In recent years, leading academics and obesity experts have asked for the “antiquated” idea of calorie counting to be dropped.

But don’t wait for food packaging to be updated – drop calories yourself. Blur your eyes. Run through the red light of the traffic light label! Today, it’s my firm belief that calories don’t exist unless you look at them, like some kind of Doctor Who villain.

It’s only when you start thinking about calories that they gain any power over you – and what they do to your brain is far worse than what they could ever do to your body. This is why it’s so distressing that the government has forced large restaurants to display calories on their menus, despite evidence that this policy has little effect on obesity but is demonstrably dangerous for people with eating disorders.

I know it’s not easy to wake up one day and just give up thinking about calories – especially if counting them has been a part of your daily life for decades. Still, I desperately wish everyone could break free from their tyranny, as I consider it one of the best things I ever did. In the last decade, I have never once woken up and missed calorie counting. I have never longed to look at a label and divide 100g by the weight of the packet.

When I was a teenager, I got it into my head that every woman has an eating disorder, and that I’d be counting calories for the rest of my life. It’s difficult to describe how thrilling it is that these numbers no longer have a hold on me. It feels like freedom, it feels like weightlessness, it feels like hundreds and thousands cascading into a tub of soft sugar.

  • Amelia Tait is a writer on tech and internet phenomena

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