Is Counting Calories An Eating Disorder? What About Intuitive Eating?*

The general consensus about counting calories overwhelmingly seems to be that it's a pathology, anti-feminist, self-hating, a monumental task, deterrent to happy living, a form of self-abuse, inhumane, impossible and even shameful.

But let's start with a topic not as charged but equally taxing: money. It's no secret that Americans, overall, are Money Disordered. In the 1950s kids learned about managing a budget in home economics, people didn't have credit cards (only 20,000 Americans owned a "Diners Card" in 1950 and the balance had to be paid in full each month) or access to easy credit, so budgeting was very important. The health of the household depended upon it. Despite the  post-war boom, thrift and budget weren't bad words.

Suppose I propose that Americans need to learn how to manage a household budget. To do so they need to start accounting for where their money is being spent and cut back on unnecessary expenditures. The only way to do that is to make a daily tally of how much money is coming in, how much is being spent and in which categories (food, mortgage, dining out, fluff, so-called "diet foods," etc.) There are plenty of software options available that analyze the data enabling people to make informed choices about future spending. It's a snap, really. Otherwise it's a guessing game and decisions are emotionally based. 

Would you think I was promoting a form of "disordered" thinking about money? I would hope not. The basics of math don't change because you find it to be cumbersome or the results unfair. If you spend more than your income you will be in debt. If you spend less than your income you will have a surplus. Your bloated debt can be turned into a healthy savings for special occasions and peace of mind should you have unforeseen expenses. On your body, a bloated surplus is not a healthy state of being. Yet both situations can be rectified by being accountable to yourself.

So why does our thinking change when it comes to the sake of our health? Some Internet shrinks whose "education" comes from memes and collective consensus deem that counting calories is either a gateway to or in itself an eating disorder. Besides demonstrating a dangerous misunderstanding of what constitutes a disorder as defined by trained, qualified professionals they are oblivious to something very important called the Global Assessment of Functioning Scale. The entire person, their relationships to others and life needs to be assessed. In layman's terms that's: "How's that working for ya?"

There are millions of healthy, highly functioning people who keep track of their finances and/or calories and it's because of that data gathering that they are able to excel. I am not going to turn this into a psych class nor could I, but what I want to point out is that typing numbers into a spreadsheet or software program as a form of budget management, whether the numbers represent calories or dollars, is not a disorder when the end result is an improvement to your well-being. 

It's true that there are people who don't count calories and maintain a steady weight, or don't keep track of what they spend but always have enough. It's also a fact that they don't represent the majority of Americans. What matters to you personally is if your own budget and body is in order. I wasn't able to manage my food choices based upon any form of "intuitive eating." The same with a budget; I can't intuitively or emotionally spend. (For example: "I've been through a lot lately. I deserve to treat myself to that Tiffany bangle.")

If you burn more money than you bring in, you will go into debt.
If you save more money than you spend, you can bank it.
If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight.
If you save more calories than you burn, you can bank on gaining.

Of course there are people who find themselves in dire financial situations due to no fault of their own, whether it be due to a layoff, circumstances beyond their control, mental illness or medical condition. And there are people who may suffer from a glandular disorder, side effects of medication and numerous other possibilities (but again, the 1950s consensus was that that comprised a small percentage of the population).

In both scenarios, wouldn't it make even more sense to keep track of eating and spending so that you could make wise choices about what's in your best interest? The 1950s way would be an emphatic YES. To not do so could lead to the house going bankrupt including the house you live in-- your body! That would certainly be disorderly living.

Disclaimer: If you think your value as a person depends upon the final tally based upon how much you eat, weigh, or how much money you make, or you are underweight thinking you need to limit calories or have the means but don't spend enough on what you need, those are separate issues and I encourage you to explore them with a qualified mental health professional.

 *A modified version of this post originally appeared in my old blog American Women Didn't Get Fat in the 1950s but got lost in the shuffle when I merged it with this one.


  1. Counting calories not only ensures a proper ingestion of the right amount of nutrients, but is my "secret weapon" in sticking to my budget. Excess food, going to waist, is wasteful on more than one level!

    1. Hi Stephanie! It's terrific that it's a part of your arsenal! : )

  2. From what I've seen, many people who have issues with their weight also have issues with money.

    One of the more unfair things in life is you can't bank burned calories for a pudgy day :-)


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