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

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When science fiction writers imagine great, grandiose methods of social control – matrices! Microchips! Big brothers indeed! – they ignore a powerful form that already exists: the humble calorie.

Very little is more distracting, irritating, soul-destroying or totalitarian than the seemingly random number (egg: 155! Freddo: 95!) assigned to everything we eat. It’s a number that will affect your body and – even if it shouldn’t – the way others around you value it. If you’ve ever counted your calories, and if you’ve ever restricted them, you’ve been living under a brutal regime. I’m really, really sorry. I wish no one had ever told you there are calories.

I feel this way because calories once consumed me. As an anorexic teenager, I knew the number assigned to lettuce leaves, clementine segments, plain yogurt-coated banana chips and a Haribo sweet sucked a second before it was spat into the toilet. I was wasting so much time doing mental math minute by minute; I was distracted in class, my breath smelling of hunger as I muttered numbers to myself.

It breaks my heart to think of the great minds who are likewise disappearing; fingers lift the flaps on the back of the packages before a morsel is placed back on the shelf. Think of all the other things that people—and yes, especially women—could be doing if they didn’t spend their time counting calories. Think about where those minds could have been put to use.

I started to recover properly from my eating disorder when I was 18, but even though I stopped counting calories carefully, I still made rough approximations in my head. I didn’t want to lose any more weight, but I didn’t want to gain weight: my new housemates in my student halls would comment on my couscous and salads. But slowly, slowly, the count fell from me. At 21, I fell deeper in love than I ever knew possible, and calories ceased to exist.

I mean it. In the early days of my eat-what-you-like era, I got into the habit of buying a tub of cake frosting, pouring in a few hundreds and thousands, and gobbling up the mass with a spoon. Have you ever heard of anything more amazing? It made me far happier than any number on a package or weight ever did. I don’t do it anymore – 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 bullshit. They are completely oversimplified to the point of being useless. Some guy in a lab in the 1800s came up with a system to add up calories in food—and almost 200 years later, the US government guessed that the typical adult needed 2,000 calories a day. In recent years, leading academics and obesity experts have called for the “antiquated” idea of ​​calorie counting to be dropped.

But don’t wait for food packaging to be updated – drop the calories yourself. Blur your eyes. Run through the red light at the traffic light! 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 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 is so disturbing 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 stop thinking about calories – especially if counting them has been part of your daily routine for decades. Still, I desperately wish everyone could break away from their tyranny, as I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever done. In the past decade, I have never woken up and missed a calorie count. I have never longed to look at a label and divide 100g by the weight of the package.

When I was a teenager, I got it into my head that all women have an eating disorder and that I would count calories for the rest of my life. It’s hard to describe how exciting 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 technology and internet phenomena

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, please email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com

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