Picture of woman making a smoothie and counting her calories with the title "6 tips to stop counting calories as a former athlete"

March 17, 2023

How to Stop Counting Calories (as a Former Athlete)

Do you feel consumed by thoughts of calories day in and day out? Maybe you’ve tried to stop counting calories, but you still find your way back time and time again. The reasoning behind why you start counting calories may be to improve your health and to look and feel good, but it often leads to guilt, shame and obsession around food and calories. In this blog, I’m going to share why I don’t recommend calorie counting for former athletes and 6 tried and true tips for how to stop counting calories. 

Women looking at a green juice and her phone trying to stop calorie counting

Why I recommend to stop calorie counting

As a former athlete, I know how tempting it is to track your calories. You’ve spent years working out for hours every day and not having to worry about what you eat because you’ll just “burn it off” at your next practice. But the transition to retirement isn’t quite that easy. Now you’re moving less so therefore you believe you need to eat less. It’s difficult to cut back since you’ve never had this issue before, so you decide to download a calorie counting app to stay on track. 

Except now you can’t go out to eat without looking at the menu beforehand and finding the lowest calorie option. You can’t enjoy girls’ night without mentally tallying up every calorie you eat and feeling guilty the entire time. If you go slightly over your calorie limit, you now go to bed shaming yourself and pre-planning your entire next day of meals to ensure that you stay within your limit. 

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Research shows that calorie restriction leads to food obsession, increased cravings for food, increased hunger and loss of control eating later. In one study that looked at female college athletes specifically, they found that weight-related shame and guilt led to binge eating. They also found that those who practiced intuitive eating were less likely to experience weight related shame and binge eating. But don’t just take it from me, what has been your experience?

What has been your experience? 

I often ask clients to reflect on their own experiences with food and calorie restriction. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, did following the calorie restriction help you lose weight? Did you hit a plateau of weight loss eventually? Did you gain back the weight or even more? Was there a lot of guilt and shame involved? Did it impact your ability to enjoy social aspects of life? 

Ask yourself these questions and decide for yourself if calorie counting has truly been beneficial for you and your health. If it hasn’t, please don’t feel ashamed for trying. Many female athletes and former athletes battle with this as well. It truly is difficult navigating life and nutrition after sport. But there is a better way. I talk more about intuitive eating for former athletes in this blog post! If you want to learn how to stop counting calories, read on! 

6 tips for stopping counting calories

Delete the app

They always say the first step to making a change is awareness of the problem. If you have the app on your phone, it may be more tempting to casually type in what you ate. Just to see! But, this can lead to guilt and shame and become a negative motivator to continue tracking. The best thing you can do is to just delete the app from your phone. Some of my clients have shared how freeing and empowering this can feel! 

Throw out your scale

Another negative motivator is weighing yourself consistently. I call these both negative motivators because they likely will motivate you to “eat less, move more”, but they are often tied to negative feelings towards yourself. For example, if you step on the scale and see that it’s went down, you’ll likely be motivated to continue punishing yourself with food restriction and exercise. Rather than viewing food and exercise as something that helps you feel good. 

On the other hand, maybe you step on the scale and it shows you’ve stayed the same after all your hard work or maybe even that you’ve gained a few pounds. This leads to a spiral of either going harder on yourself or saying “screw it” and binge eating. Again, the best thing you can do is to throw out your scale and focus on how you feel when you nourish your body with nutrient-dense foods, listen to your body’s innate hunger and fullness cues and incorporate movement consistently. 

Reframe how you view calories

Calories are often viewed as “bad” and something that you should try to get as little as possible of. When choosing foods, you may try to find the lowest calorie option or find ways to manipulate meals to make them lower calorie. This often leads to an all or nothing mindset around calories and foods that are deemed “bad” because they are higher in calories. For example, have you ever had the thought “better enjoy the ice cream now, because when you retire you’ll never get to eat it again”? Or even as a former athlete when you go over your calories, have you ever thought “might as well eat it all now because I’ll have to start over tomorrow anyways”? Both of these are examples of the all or nothing mentality that says you are either all in eating “perfectly” or all out binge eating. 

Instead, I encourage you to shift the way you think about calories as a whole. Calories are essentially just energy. Ice cream gets broken down into energy the same as an apple. Of course, the apple is more nutrient dense and may feel differently inside your body than ice cream. But that is where intuitive eating comes in. There’s no need to rigidly track calories when you can trust your body to tell you when, what and how much to eat. 

Start eating meals every 3-5 hours

When counting calories and following a strict calorie limit, there is often this idea that we have to “save up” calories when there is something we want that is going to take up a lot of our calorie limit. I see this often when someone has plans to go out to eat. You may even feel the need to skip lunch to ensure you have enough calories at dinner to order what you want without going over. The problem with this is that you get to the restaurant feeling starved and then likely eat to a point of discomfort. 

Instead, I suggest eating consistently throughout the day. Think every 3-5 hours because that is when our body’s likely to become physically hungry again. This ensures that you are consistently fed and energized so that you don’t get to a state of ravenous hunger. Then you are more likely to naturally stop at a comfortable level of fullness rather than eating until you’re sick. 

Tune into your own hunger/fullness cues

Now, you’ve heard me mention your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues several times. These are really important and we were born with the innate ability to utilize them to tell us when, what and how much to eat. But throughout years of food and calorie restriction, we’ve lost touch with what they feel like. Maybe you know what hunger feels like, but you often suppress it. Then you feel full, but you can’t stop. 

This is where consistently tuning into what they feel like and giving yourself permission to honor comes in. Just like your body signals when you have the urge to pee and you go to the bathroom. Your hunger and fullness cues are similar. I recommend doing this by checking in with yourself throughout the day and rating your hunger on a scale from 1-10. One being starving and ten being stuffed. The goal is to eat around a 4, subtle hunger, and a 7, comfortable fullness. The more you tune in, the easier it will become to naturally honor those cues. 

Shift your focus when calories pop back in your mind

One things you may come across when you stop counting calories is mentally knowing all of the calories in your head. You may never not know the calories in something, but there are ways to shift your focus away from them. Soon, you’ll start to care less how many calories are in things because you trust yourself and your body. 

An easy way to shift your focus when calories pop back in your mind is to look at something and identify the color. For example, if you’re eating in your kitchen, are there any paintings on the walls? What about your cabinets? The objects outside your window? Taking your attention away from the calories prevents the spiral into what or how much you’re eating and onto something else. 

The Truth 

Counting calories can be tempting, especially for a former athlete. But, if you feel guilt, shame or obsession around food and calories and it’s leading to feeling out of control around food, it may be time to stop counting calories. I hope these 6 tips are helpful for you as they have helped me and hundreds of others whom I’ve worked with. If you want more support on your intuitive eating journey as a former athlete, check out my Fueled Former Athlete Academy.

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