New Food Math

I got an e-mail today questioning my choice of intuitive eating over dieting.  It said “This idea that you eat what you think your body wants is horrible – being on a diet would tell you what to eat and how much and what is good or bad to eat.” That inspired me to do some new food math.

Food math for me used to be about obsessively counting calories, weighing food, calculating and recalculating my basal metabolic rate when I didn’t lose what I was “supposed” to based on the calories in/calories out model that I used to believe in.  If I spent half the time on calculus that I spent memorizing the serving size and nutritional information of almost every food that exists and calculating how that food would supposedly affect my body, I’d be working for NASA right now.

We’ve talked before about how our society is set up to create dysfunctional relationships with food.  I decided to try to quantify exactly how much that had affected me.  So I did some math. I’m 35 years old, assuming 3 meals a day I’ve eaten about 38,325 meals.  I spent a good 10 of those years dieting so that’s about 10,950 meals. And those dieting meals were not about health for me. They were about obsessing, about living with being constantly hungry, with giving my body less food than it needed and then overcoming the barrage of physical and psychological symptoms that my body activated to try to convince me to feed it appropriately. They were about eliminating entire food groups, and eventually about starving myself and ending up in a hospital bed. That was not physically healthy, and it sure as hell wasn’t mentally healthy.

So let’s just say that I live to be 80. That’s 49,275 more meals.  And if I’m going to do something almost fifty thousand times, I want to make it an experience that is going to be good for me both physically and mentally.  Therefore, dieting is out. Remember, I’m not trying to tell anyone else how to live, I am simply making choices for myself here.  Which, as the boss of my underpants, is my right.

I used to treat my fat body like it was a problem – a limitation to be overcome through mental toughness.  What I learned was that my body wasn’t the limitation.  Our cultural views of bodies and food relationships, our obsession with thinness and dieting were the limitations that needed to be overcome. My body was fine the whole time.  There was a time in my life when I lost my physical and mental health because I believed that I couldn’t possibly know what was best for me and that letting someone else tell me how to eat would guarantee my future health and a long life.  Now I know that there are no guarantees, and I believe in a new equation:

Nourishing my body + moving it in ways that I enjoy + loving and caring it = my best chance for physical and mental health.

That’s my new food math.

59 thoughts on “New Food Math

  1. I have a suspicion that the person who wrote that note may be someone in Overeaters Anonymous. In OA, we work with the tools, one of which is “a plan of eating.” The tools help us find freedom from obsessing about food.

    What can be hard for people to understand is that not everyone is the same when it comes to compulsive overeating. I am an OA, but I am also under the care of a nutritionist whose ultimate goal is to help me become an intuitive eater because that means we listen to the needs of our body, not just the insatiable food desires of our disordered brains. When I am in recovery, that is what my “plan of eating” will look like.

    There are some folks who need a written plan of eating for the rest of their lives in order to gain freedom from the obsession. That’s OK. There are some folks who need to be able to be intuitive eaters in order to feel whole and like they are not being controlled by a piece of paper. That’s OK, too.

    My point is that we are not all alike, even in how we process our eating disorders, and that diversity is just as worthwhile and beautiful as the diversity in our bodies. God made us all individuals.

    God, grant me the serenity to ACCEPT the things I cannot change (other people), COURAGE to change the things I can (me and only me), and WISDOM to know the difference (boundaries).

    God bless!

  2. And PS – I think your new food math is fantastic. 🙂 Bravo to you for not taking those comments to heart! It amazes me how folks think that they know what’s best for me, when they’ve barely met me.

  3. – being on a diet would tell you what to eat and how much and what is good or bad to eat.

    And for me, being on a diet often meant that my body was telling me, “Dude” — my body calls me that sometimes — “you are not eating enough food to stay awake!” But the diet was telling me, “Eat less, fatso!”

    Being on a diet often meant viewing entire categories of nutrients as Teh Ebul when in reality, my brain needs these to work.

    Being on diets means I’ve had to unlearn equating food with morality — because I’ve been so conditioned to think about food in terms of “what is good or bad to eat.”

    So, yes, I suppose being on a diet would do those things — but I think that for me, those are not positive attributes of being on a diet.

    1. Exactly! Being on a diet tells you how much some formula thinks is enough, and what some plan thinks is good or bad. It tells you freaking nothing about what would actually be helpful for you personally in terms of nourishing yourself, and is usually actively against actually taking good care of yourself (for example, giving your brain enough carbs to function).

  4. Being on a diet meant that I ended up with an eating disorder. Then I decided that dieting wasn’t worth it!

  5. I would be interested to hear more about intuitive eating and how you are sure your body is getting what it really needs. For example, I exercise regularly (Zumba instructor) and I tend to crave chocolate a LOT. Now I know it’s not the chocolate I need, but I’m low on magnesium from sweating so much. How do you actually target what your body is really wanting versus food cues and eating what you think it wants (ie, the chocolate). I have similar cravings for high sugary stuff when in fact I need protein (both are energy so my body is trying to get energy in there). This is an honest inquiry. 🙂

    1. Hi Beth,

      The way that I practice it at least, Intuitive eating is a process – it’s not just focusing your what I crave but also on how you feel after eating certain foods etc. It’s a process of giving myself permission to eat whatever I want, and then using the ensuing feedback from my body to understand what it needs. It also means that when I choose to eat something for pleasure that may not be nourishing, or I accidentally make the wrong choice I don’t feel guilty about it.



      1. Ok, that’s cool and makes some sense. I can get where you eat something and listen to the response. But I’m still trying to work out the science behind it. Making sure you eat enough of the nutrients you need on any day. I’m definitely curious how you do it. I’ve been a dancer myself so I know the rigors of training and you have to eat a bit differently but you still have to make sure you get enough protein, carbs and fat to do the workouts. Now I know in my particular case, intuitive eating would be extremely difficult given food allergies and auto-immune stuffs, but I’m still very interested.

        1. Hi Beth,

          I eat based on how I like to feel and after some practice that becomes predictable. For me it comes down to the fact that I don’t believe that there is an external source that knows more about what my body needs than my body does, so I think it’s actually more likely that I’d end up eating in a way that doesn’t support my body if I were following external guidelines.


      1. I wonder where these food “correspondences” come from? Most often, I crave leafy greens and protein so I eat… leafy greens and protein. I think part of intuitive eating is trusting ourselves to eat what our bodies say we need, even if that is fatty things or simple carbs. If I crave sweets or chocolate, then I will eat enough of that, not something else according to some chart!

      2. That chart is kind of funny (craving tobacco may mean you need silicone!) And it says “you need 8 to 10 glasses [of water] per day,” which (a) a glass is not a unit of measure and (b) I’m pretty sure this has been debunked; 64 oz. or whatever was actually water from all sources, including food.

        Some of the suggestions are baffling to me. If you crave “burned food,” you should eat fresh fruit? Pretty sure my craving for a char-grilled turkey burger would not be appeased!

    2. Hi Beth,

      For me, intuitive eating includes the learning process Ragen described in her reply, and that definitely means continuing to self-educate about nutrition and health, so that I understand non-intuitive body signals, such as those sugar cravings that signal a need for protein.

      Especially while I’m in full-on-athlete mode or feeling an illness come on, it also means, for me, leaning my diet in various directions to see how overall changes make me feel mentally and emotionally–making a habit of eating several “goo” packets on every long run, or, if I feel a yeast infection coming on, cutting out most starches, sugars, and fruit for a couple of weeks until the candida die back. Sometimes those changes are pleasurable in the moment and sometimes they’re not–the three-burrito-lunch training diet was awesomelicious and effective, the goo packets gross and effective.

      I know that for a lot of people, some of these restrictions would be totally unhealthy or triggering. Until I went through “food permissioning” and took the moral judgments out of food and started being OK with my body as it is, everything around diet and exercise I did, no matter how in line with what my body wanted, would have been with the desperate wish that I would get thinner by doing it. Now, for me, the important things are that I’m doing my best to care for my body without judging myself or my appearance, or making my diet into an emotional game. Sometimes I sacrifice my pleasure and endure pain for a larger goal. However, it’s not to get thin and it’s not about being OK–it’s about what I want and my overall life.

  6. Well, I *have* worked for NASA, and believe me, I never could remember the calorie and nutritional counts of every food that existed. I’ve only dieted a few times, but I’ve hated every minute of it, so I am with you WHOLEHEARTEDLY. Diets are not cool. Dieting is not worth it. Life is too short to waste one minute obsessing about calorie counts.

  7. I like your math much better! The inherent assumption of that e-mail is that we’re too dumb to recognize when we’re full or to pay attention to how we feel after a meal to have an idea what foods are good or bad *for us.* So we need to have it spelled out by some so-called expert who is focused on making us smaller and doesn’t give a crap what we actually feel like.

  8. I like the idea of intuitive eating. The only flaw I see with it is that a lot of people seem to interpret it as giving into whatever cravings hits them and then they pass that off as “But my body told me I should eat it and I should listen to my body and not restrict.” And I think that’s why whoever wrote you that email thinks it’s such a horrible idea, because whoever that person was probably has the idea that most people will use it as an excuse to overindulge. It will take time and a lot of education to relearn how to tell the difference between true hunger and emotional eating.

    1. Exactly. I think a lot of people believe that not dieting/eating intuitively = giving up/eating everything in your path from one end of the United States to the other. And it isn’t. My understanding of intuitive eating is that it takes time, work, and awareness to learn what your body wants vs. what your mind wants – when you’re eating because you’re hungry and when you’re eating for other reasons. In my case, that means eating when bored, sad, happy, nervous, etc. I suspect that’s why there was such an uproar over the Jess Weiner article about how “loving her body almost killed her.” Clearly, a lot of people think that, loving your body means stapling yourself to the couch, eating junk food all day, and ignoring your health…which then gets into the whole “health=thin” idea that’s so ingrained in our society.

    2. Intuative eating is hard, at least starting out! I agree wity you and Mary-Ellin, people have the wrong impression of it. I’m terrible at it so far, but at least I’ve ditched the Lean Cuisine and started eating wholesome food. It’s a start. Listening to my hunger cues has been harder.

      Anybody know any good resources to help? I’ve already read Health at Every Size, which changed my life.

      1. Two things I’d say to that MissMeaghan. One is that intuitive eating is definitely hard at first but becomes easier over time. The best way I heard it described is that changing from external queues to internal queues is difficult. At first when listening to your body, it may tell you that it wants a burrito for dinner every day. You may actually eat a burrito for dinner for a few days in a row (and it’s your right to do so and no one needs to give you permission) but we all know you’ll eventually get tired of burritos and want to eat something else because we all crave variety.

        The second I’d say is if you’re having trouble listening to your body, check out Dr. Michelle May’s program Am I Hungry. Among the many excellent tips she gives over the course of the book that goes with it, she mentions asking yourself ‘what do I want, what do I need, and what do I have?’ each time before you eat to help tune into your body. Yes, she mentions weight management but you can take or leave that and just focus on health and intuitive eating and still get a lot from the book/program.

      2. My journey to intuitive eating (which is still always a work in progress!) started with “Overcoming Overeating” – they have some fantastic tools for learning how to eat intuitively.

    3. For me, the toughest lesson to learn was how to really feed myself. Sometimes, I would want a certain kind of food but didn’t have it around, or didn’t want to cook it; I would eat other things, and I would overeat because it wasn’t satisfying.

      Emotional eating is okay sometimes! Using food as comfort is okay sometimes too. I ain’t judgin if you need chocolate to get through a hellish day– it happens!

  9. Why did this person bother to take the time to write that email? Doesn’t he/she have anything better to do? What a troll.

  10. “This idea that you eat what you think your body wants is horrible – being on a diet would tell you what to eat and how much and what is good or bad to eat.”

    It’s hard to believe any one out of the womb could think, let alone believe this. Babies suck the breast or the bottle and know what to eat according to their needs.

    This person has regressed from there. The sooner these people get out of everyone else’s lives and go off into their little corner and play master and serf the better. Heck aren’t there supposed to be clubs for this kind of predilection?

  11. Great post!

    I think the person who asked the question may need to do a little research on Intuitive Eating! Many people assume we eat chocolate cake and fast food and bags of Doritos everyday. If s/he were to actually read Intuitive Eating or Health at Every Size, s/he would see an emphasis on “honoring health.” Diets aren’t about health. They are unnatural and leave you more unhealthy than you were to begin with. I’ve been intuitive eating for about 6 months, and I have never felt better.

    1. I think the person who asked the question may need to do a little research on Intuitive Eating!

      I think this is a fair point. If some people misunderstand what intuitive eating entails, then that’s an issue with interpretation — not necessarily evidence that intuitive eating itself is ungood.

    2. This person probably has the usual fat stereotypes in mind- that left to our own devices, we’ll eat mountains of fast food, candy and ice cream all day long. Cause that’s how fatties get so fat, doncha know.

  12. Greast post! For clarification for those not well versed on the subject, intuitive eating is not a free for all. I often see reference to it on blogs as a means of having whatever you want, as much as you want, without regard to need. That is not, in my view, the intent of intuitive eating. Yes,what ever you’d like to eat (and letting go of those rules which restrain you); yes, whenever you need it and as much as you need. The key is need. It is not just about “I can eat anything–I’m not dieting” but rather respecting your body’s signals and trusting that you can eat again, any time, when you need to again. Yes, even after 8 PM.
    For weight management, intuitive eating is not the end all. Environmental triggers, awareness of things that buffer our hunger and prevent us from eating, and non-hunger factors which lead to overeating need to also be addressed. Hope that helps!

    Lori Lieberman, RD, CDE, MPH, LDN

  13. The underlying message I got from the email you received was that because you are not thin you are not competent and need a diet to guide you. It is just another instance of someone telling us that we are not able to take care of our own lives without “help.” What an insulting, patronising load of… balderdash.

    I finally got a clue that diets were not my roadmap to the good life when I literally chased down a single pea that rolled off my plate onto the floor and under the table. And yes, I and ate it.

    Life is much better now that I don’t spend all my time thinking about food the way I did when I was constantly hungry. I have time in my head for other things I find more gratifying and far more important.

    1. Eselle, I’d just like to note that ‘balderdash’ is one of my all-time favorite words in the entire lexicon.

      So is lexicon, for that matter.

  14. Yes, intuitive eating was easy when we were babies. When we were hungry we cried and got fed. Intuitive eating is difficult as adults because we’ve had years and years to learn that we can’t be trusted with our own bodies. So we have to UNlearn all the unhelpful stuff about needing to weigh a certain amount and how many starch exchanges are in catsup and then RElearn that our bodies are amazing self-regulating machines–more complex than anything on earth. It’s such a shame that we can’t just hold on to what we learned at birth.

  15. I have to admit that I have learned a few things from the various diets I have been on.
    1) I REQUIRE fat in my diet (diet as in the foods I eat…not a weight-loss plan).
    2) Bread is not my friend (gluten sensitivity)
    3) You can’t take away my vino – it’s healthy a-holes!
    Sooo, thanks for that various low-fat and low-carb diets!
    I eat too much and I know why: because I learned at a young age to ignore my body’s signals that it was full (clean your plate! There are starving children in Africa! C’mon….you don’t want to lose your Eager Eater membership do you???) and equate the feeling of being OVER full with being done (and with approval). On top of that, I learned how to eat really really really fast. Not a good combo. Like several people have posted…it’s about UNlearning these unhealthy behaviors and RElearning how to listen to my body. It’s a struggle every day for me still…but this blog and the commentors inspire me every day.

  16. The way I think of this is (sorry if this is TMI): In the mid 20th century, books and doctors were telling people how often, and sometimes at what times of day, they should go to the bathroom. We now recognize that it’s safest to let your body deal with that particular function, and that trying to artificially regulate or mess around with it causes all sorts of problems (I’ve known a fair few older people who were still a bit obsessive about their bowels). But it was the pet medical craze of that era – as to some extent, sex was for the Victorians.

    I like to think that future doctors will come to realize that appetite is a natural function which varies from person to person and time to time, and that trying to put artificial restrictions on it leads to trouble. The fact that some people don’t know what to eat, or whether they even feel hungry or full or somewhere in between, is a symptom of exactly that kind of restriction. Dieting is the problem, not the solution.

  17. Another bit of … it’s not really math, but another thing I like to think of sometimes: If this was my last meal on Earth, would I really want it to be pre-fab, fat-free, low-carb, artificially-sweetened, and Weight Watchers approved?

    No. No, I would not.

    On the other hand, if the final meal I eat is the delicious romaine salad with heirloom tomatoes, pancetta, caramelized onions and just-whipped-up-from-scratch vinaigrette and a small crusty roll I had for lunch today… yeah, that I’d be okay with.

  18. My favourite ever calorie counting moment was looking through food values on Sparkpeople – where people electronically log how much they eat and work out the energy value – and discovering that about five different people had logged the calorie count of a blow job. ‘Steve’s sperm’ is apparently worth seven calories.

    Who knew? And, more importantly, how did they find out?

      1. Possibly the funniest comment ever on this blog. Remember when the “negative food” diets were in, where you were supposed to eat foods where the effort of eating them burned more calories than they contained? Maybe this is like that and they just forgot to put it on the list.


  19. It sounds like the email is from someone who’s just stumbled onto your blog and never even heard of the concept of intuitive eating or anything like that before. There seems to be zero critical thinking involved in this type of blind faith in the popular concept of a ‘diet’ and the idea of things that are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to eat without even questioning what that means: good or bad for what exactly? Your blood pressure? Your pant size? The level of social approval you get for being ‘good’ and eating enough salads?

    I’ve spent a decade trying various diets, advice from magazines, what I thought of as ‘healthy eating’, and torturing myself at the gym. I never lost a pound and of course only blamed myself for not putting in enough effort. I finally realized it was all utter bullshit when the only thing that actually did result in weight loss was a month of severe food restriction bordering on starvation caused by an injury that rendered me mostly immobile with no one around to bring me meals. I had achieved this thing that everyone considers such an accomplishment for your health by doing something that was obviously very unhealthy, when I’d never managed it by any sort of healthy means like everyone and their dog proclaims you should be able to easily do.

    I buy full-fat, non diet versions of everything now, and don’t feel any guilt for regularly indulging my sweet tooth with as much candy, ice-cream, doughnuts and cake as I like and can afford. I feel much less miserable and the world hasn’t ended.

  20. I’m too scared to try intuitive eating because with my diet and ED history I have very distorted signals.

    I am eating some of the “junk” that I have denied myself for so long. Trying to learn that it is okay to have this stuff, it isn’t great but it isn’t the end of the world either.

    But mostly I am still eating on a plan and a schedule to make sure I get my physical needs met. The thing is, though, which your commenter doesn’t seem to get, this isn’t because I am fat! It is because I dieted and because I starved myself. The diets/ED are what ruined my ability to eat properly.

  21. Whoever sent you that comment, Regan, needs to go check out the Blog: Drop the Diet, And EAT! Written by a very respected RD who owns and operates an ED recovery clinic outside of Boston. A major part of the therapy she uses is to teach her patients intuitive eating. Her approach is that a patient cannot recover and have a normal life without it. I totally agree! Part of my volunteer work as a professional chef is to work with a few of the ED recovery centers in my city to teach patients how to cook and look at food in a totally new light than what they grew up with. Food is the first path to a nourished life. Having any kind of “food issue” blocks that path and leads to unhappiness and negativity.

      1. Hi Lori,

        Your comment ended up in the spam queue. I just released it so it should post soon. I’m not sure why that happened and I’m glad that you said something because I rarely check that queue. Sorry!


  22. “Nourishing my body + moving it in ways that I enjoy + loving and caring it = my best chance for physical and mental health.

    That’s my new food math.”

    You said it sista! Something I’ve only recently begun to truly understand.

  23. “This idea that you eat what you think your body wants is horrible – being on a diet would tell you what to eat and how much and what is good or bad to eat.”

    Lol. If that’s the case, then why can’t everyone agree on one diet that “just works” (hint: because they don’t, in the long run)? You’ve got a ton of different diets out there, and some of them have totally different approaches. No-carb, slow-carb, liquid detox nonsense, etc — or the total BS (IMHO) that is stuff like Nutrisystem. You’ve got diets that focus on calories without regard to the actual ingredients or how processed they are, and you’ve got diets that promote wholesome, natural, less-processed foods.

    Like others have said, when we were born we ate when we were hungry and didn’t when we weren’t. We *listened* to our bodies. Then as we grew, our culture’s screwed-over food industry came along and messed it all up. Intuitive eating doesn’t mean eating to satisfy cravings or emotional voids. It means recognizing when we’re really hungry, when we’re really full, what our body is REALLY trying to tell us it needs (or doesn’t need) — and listening to it. Developing a healthy relationship with food — and with the idea of health and weight.

    Does this person who sent the email think that diets existed back in the cavemen days, or something? Our bodies are DESIGNED to tell us what to eat and how much — and it’s designed to regulate our weight. It’s as much a basic (but complicated) function as our body telling us when we’re cold, hot, or tired. The issue is that often times growing up we learn to override or not listen to that function. We just need to work to UNlearn it.

    I just started reading Linda Bacon’s book on HAES last week and I’m about 1/3 of the way through it so far, and learning what I’ve learned so far (which is a lot), I think the person who wrote the email could really do to open their mind a bit and pick up Dr Bacon’s book too.

  24. It said “This idea that you eat what you think your body wants is horrible – being on a diet would tell you what to eat and how much and what is good or bad to eat.”

    I remember back when I was dieting a lot and would wish for someone to tell me exactly what and how much to eat. Plotting diets is a lot of effort and a lot of math to add up all of those calories. (Ironically, it’s much harder for people who eat a lot of unprocessed homemade food. There are a lot of restaurant meals and package meals with calorie counts, but trying to do the math on an improvised recipe I made myself would drive me up the wall.) And I’d keep ‘failing’ by not getting any thinner, and feel the need for increased precision and effort. Therefore, having someone else take away the responsibility of tracking every calorie, and knowing that if I ‘fail’ again it would be their fault, not mine, would be a huge relief.

    But now I know that I don’t have to count calories at all, I’m not failing at eating, I can throw together a homemade bruschetta without worrying about the precise size of the portion I ate or exactly how many calories worth of vinegar I put in the batch, and me not becoming smaller isn’t anyone’s failure and doesn’t need to be blamed on anyone.

  25. It really makes me sad that people have come to demonize “calories.” We tell people to count calories, to make sure you’re putting less in than you’re putting out, but if you can ever opt for something with “zero” calories, that’s the right path to take. At some point, I have to stop and wonder, “Do y’all know what calories are?” Of course I know you do, Ragen, but I really think much of the population as lost touch with the fact that calories are what fuel our bodies. No calories = no activity. Running a body on zero calories is like trying to run a car with no gas in the engine– and you would never do that to you car, because it would cause irreparable damage. But our bodies? Well, they aren’t nearly as important as our cars, apparently.

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