Why I stopped counting calories – and why you should, too

counting calories

 counting calories

Although lots of popular diets now shy away from counting calories (dressing up the obsession they cause us to have with food in the form of points, sins and other bullshit), calories are still an issue for lots of men and women. Subconsciously I hear lots of people saying they assess the food they’re eating based on how many calories they think are in it – or worse, they look it up and check. But a calorie is not a measure of how healthy a food is – or how nourishing it is. And an obsession with calories could cause you to become very unhealthy – in more ways than one.  

What counting calories looks like

If you think counting calories keeps you slim, you’re wrong. What it does do however is cause you to obsess over food and be fearful of it, seeing it only as numbers which will make you ‘fat’ or ‘thin’ depending on whether they’re high or low. Do any of these sound familiar?

       Worrying about what you’re eating in case it’s ‘high calorie’

       Checking the back of packets without realising it

       Grouping foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on the calorie content

       Believing that if you limit your calorie intake you’ll be ‘healthy’ and ‘slim’

 

What not counting calories looks like

You probably already knew what counting calories was like. I did too – even after recovering from Anorexia I still had a vice grip on my daily calorie intake and believed that this was the key to being ‘healthy’. I associated ‘healthy’ with ‘thin’ – and worse than that I believed that the only way to be ‘thin’ was to limit my calorie intake as much as possible.

But three years ago I stopped counting calories. I started to read about nutrition and realised that the way I’d thought about food was all wrong. So what is it like not to count calories?

 

       I eat what I want without worrying about it

       I concentrate on the quality of my food, not the quantity

       I have no idea how many calories are in my food

       I don’t care how many calories I consume per day

       I’m healthy and happy

 

 Why are you counting calories?

I know a lot of people who are obsessed with calories know that it’s wrong – but I also know from personal experience that it can feel impossible to stop counting them!

The first thing to do once you decide to get healthy and start loving your body is to realise why you’re counting calories in the first place. Perhaps like me you were introduced to ‘nutrition’ by irresponsible diet companies and magazine articles – maybe you’ve been on yo-yo diets for years and have adopted their mentality. Whatever the reason, it’s definitely possible to stop – I did after a decade of thinking about food and my body in completely the wrong way. I did this because I knew why I thought the things I did – and eventually I understood why that way of thinking was wrong.

 

How can you stop counting calories?

Knowledge is power – and learning about nutrition (and crushing the false information I’d learnt over the years with fact) was the number one thing which helped me not to count calories or bother about the content of my food anymore. Reading blogs and articles written by qualified nutritionists (not irresponsible salespeople), I slowly learnt about how my body worked and how food was important if I wanted to live life to the full. I started to realise that the health issues I had were related to my poor diet and the damage I’d done over the years through unintentional abuse.  

It took me a year or so to formulate the more balanced, factual view of food and nutrition I have today – and that’s why I wrote my book Nutrition in a Nutshell to share the things I’ve learnt and offer my unique perspective on food and diets as someone who suffered from an eating disorder and various body image issues, but also to offer all the advice I gathered in one place.

 Start with knowledge and you’ll finally get there. It may take a week, it might take 6 months – but slowly you’ll undo the unhelpful, harmful things you’ve learnt and replace them with the good. And then you’ll be able to enjoy what you eat and be healthy without counting calories.

 

Have you got your own nutrition story to tell? I’d love to hear about it!

 

Want to learn more about nutrition and health? Take a look at Nutrition in a Nutshell here.

 

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Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds – Letting Go of Perfect

‘Perfect’ (in every sense – not just physically) has a massive role to play in the development of Anorexia, Bulimia and other mental health problems. I’m a perfectionist, and this has definitely contributed to and exacerbated my conditions over the years. Concentrating purely on our aesthetic perception of ourselves though, perfect is something we’re taught is attainable. We’re made to feel as though we ‘should’ be perfect, and anything less is ‘ugly’. But wait – there’s no such thing as perfect – so how can this be? It’s easy to know that you shouldn’t be striving for perfect – deep down, everyone knows it can’t exist, and everyone’s version of perfect differs from the next. But it’s harder to let go of that concept we’ve fallen in love with. In this video I briefly explain how I let go and how you can, too!

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Someone somewhere wants what you’ve got

whitening skin 

Recently I had a wobble over my skin tone, as I have many times in the past. My issue is that I’m never dark enough – even though I’m not pale and naturally have sallow, olive-y skin. If I get some sun I can go very dark, but I hate fake tan and never use it, and with the UK suffering from less and less sunshine (especially through the winter months) I’ve been starting to feel ‘pasty’.

Let me define ‘pasty’ for those who are looking at me thinking ‘you’re not pale?!’ My version of pasty isn’t actually pale at all. Because when I’m in that zone of perfectionism, nothing less than the ‘ideal colour’ I have in my head will do – therefore anything that doesn’t constitute that is ‘pasty’. It’s just like everything else – lips, boobs, arse, stomach tone. It’s very easy for anyone with body image issues to warp reality in their head to minimise their own positives and amplify the perceived ‘good things’ other people have.

Whilst reading an article on a beauty blog one day I noticed an advert. I constantly had a ‘golden caramel’ target in my head to banish the ‘pink and pasty’ image I (wrongfully) used to describe myself, but this banner actually advertised a pink and pasty skin tone. The lady in the advert had porcelain skin with a slight pink blush on either cheek. This cream was of course targeted at an Asian market – the writing was in Chinese underneath and the model was oriental looking.

Seeing the advert really made me stop and think about a point I raise both in Tough Love and here on the blog quite frequently – the fact that however bad you feel about yourself, someone somewhere wants something you’ve got that they feel they haven’t. So whilst I was sitting feeling bad (needlessly) about my ‘pasty’ skin, a girl in China was probably looking at me wishing she was even just a little bit lighter.

I discuss the lightening/darkening argument a lot – as it’s something I became very aware of when I worked as a make-up artist. Asian girls invariably wanted to be lighter, whilst European girls wanted to be darker. No-one was happy in their own skin, literally. This was a nightmare from a cosmetic perspective, because if your foundation’s lighter than your skin it looks chalky, and if it’s darker it looks patchy – so I’d always try and encourage them to stick close to their natural skin tone. When I worked for Estee Lauder in Duty Free customers from overseas bought the ‘brightening’ white-effect moisturisers, whilst those heading out on holiday stocked up on fake tanning creams.

Isn’t this all a bit crazy? Clearly this isn’t something which is going to change – at least not from the efforts of one person. But applying it to you personally can you see how ‘beauty’ is subjective? How the person you admire could hate themselves (more on this here)? Next time you’re fretting over some part of yourself you dislike, try and remember that many of us want what we can’t have. And that someone, somewhere envies you!

Like this post? You’ll love these

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The camera CAN lie – why photographs are different from real life 

photos body image

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Photographs caused me endless self-inflicted pain over the years (see my post here why I hated these photographs). Even though I modelled part-time for over 5 years, I often hated the pictures taken of me.

The problem for me was two-fold. On one hand I had a very rigid image in my head of how I should look – and somehow I created this picture in my head which then of course didn’t match up to the end result. I’d then feel bad, realising that in real life I looked far from how I wanted to. The second issue was trickier to understand, but easier to remedy – and this involved the way cameras process information, and how that differs from our own eyes (and other people’s).

If like me you struggle to love the photographs people take of you, let me explain these things and how understanding them can help you not to be affected so much by negative feelings caused by images of yourself.

You’re scrutinising them in a different way than others would

So, the first thing to address here is your own perception of yourself, and how that differs compared with what other people see when they look at you (or a photo of you).

I am often told that I have ‘nothing to worry about’ when it comes to how I look. But whilst I recognise that I’m lucky not to be horribly disfigured, don’t have poor skin and am not overweight, I find it very difficult to look at myself through the eyes of others and believe that I am ‘beautiful’ or ‘acceptable as I am’. I struggle not to feel as though I need some sort of improvement – regardless of what other people think or say (I cover this in more detail in this post here).

Maybe you have this too – your friends and family are often complimentary, but you always feel as though something’s missing. This could be better, that could be better. So you pick holes in yourself and identify the things you don’t like which need changing – and those are the bits which jump out at you when you look in the mirror or at a photograph of yourself.

It’s important to remember that although it’s difficult (but not impossible) to improve your perception of yourself, you can recognise that other people will see you more favourably. They’ll see the whole you – not just the bit you hate. So next time a picture of yourself makes you feel insecure, use this to help you to let it go and move on rather than dwelling on it and beating yourself up over your perceived ‘faults’.

Cameras process much less information than your eyes do

I could never understand why sometimes I’d get all ready to go out feeling great, only to be met by disappointment when someone took a selfie and my bronzed, carefully-contoured face ended up looking like a big white balloon. This was also true of photoshoots – when I’d spent hours in hair and make-up and felt confident, only to look at the images and wonder who the hell was looking back at me.

My lovely friend and photographer Neil cleared this up for me at a recent shoot for publicity shots for Tough Cookie. I’ve been working with Neil for years and he was one of the first photographers I worked with when I started modelling. We soon became friends and he has a good understanding of what goes on in my head, or at least the insecurities I struggle with in a photo situation (as well as unlimited tolerance and the patience of a saint when it comes to me choosing and liking images!) On this shoot in particular I was pleased with my hair and make-up and felt I looked good in the mirror. We started shooting and halfway through he let me peek in the back of the camera – and I was upset and disappointed by what I saw.

I looked pale, my face looked plump, my body seemed an odd shape – I just didn’t look like the ‘me’ I’d seen in the mirror just a few minutes earlier. What was going on? I asked Neil, who could see I was tearing myself to bits inside and didn’t like the photos, why this was happening.

Neil explained that a camera is only able to process a fraction of the visual information our eyes are able to (the human body is incredible and never ceases to amaze me!) Therefore my brain was displaying all sorts of information in the form of the image I saw in my mind, from the colour of my eyes and brightness of my skin to the definition in my face and thickness of my hair, that the camera simply couldn’t. This resulted in a flat image which only showed a small amount of the ‘me’ I’d seen in the mirror – hence why I wasn’t happy and didn’t recognise the same merits. Getting me to look like me was down to editing, placement and composition, he said.

Neil was using a top-range camera with a massive lens on it – so imagine how little information your smartphone or digital camera processes compared with your eyes. With this in mind don’t lose heart when you’re feeling great and suddenly a quick snap on a night out or on holiday gets you down. It’s likely you don’t look like that – so there’s the answer to your ‘do I REALLY look like that?’ question you’re beating yourself up with.

 What about models?

 As above, taking a flattering photograph is down to many elements of visual trickery – hence why photographers are so talented. And don’t forget that just because you think someone looks great in a photo, doesn’t mean to say that they feel the same (someone could be thinking that right now about a picture you hate!) I DO like some of the photographs taken of me whilst I was modelling. But there are many more that I dislike – and I’m sure lots of models and celebrities are just the same as you and me.

Like this? Check out Why selfies are toxic here.

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Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds – Find One Thing

Here’s my latest video for Self-Esteem in 60 Seconds, based on one of the chapters in my body image book Tough Love. I found that identifying just one thing I liked (a TINY thing!) forced me to believe that there could be other things, too. We’re often encouraged to ‘love ourselves’ – but self love is difficult when you’re battling personal demons which cause you to feel bad about yourself. So let’s start with like – and one thing, rather than everything!

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A reminder that an eating disorder isn’t a choice

Girl with Tape over Mouth --- Image by © Corbis
Girl with Tape over Mouth — Image by © Corbis

Recently comments were made by broadcaster Joan Bakewell, who outrageously claimed that ‘you don’t find people with Anorexia and Bulimia in Syria’ and went on to say that they are caused by ‘narcissism’ as people are now very self-concerned and self-absorbed, meaning these self-inflicted, self-indulgent eating disorders are inevitably now a ‘modern day’ illness. She’s since apologised after plenty of backlash from sufferers and those who have been through an eating disorder like me, who kindly pointed out to her that she was way, way off the mark with these wildly inconsiderate allegations.

The problem with this is that people with eating disorders already face plenty of backlash from ignorant people in their day-to-day lives. This ‘well you could just eat so don’t be so bloody selfish/ungrateful’ mentality is unfortunately shared by lots of people, young and old, who don’t properly understand what an eating disorder is like and how it affects someone. In fact, many mental illnesses are misunderstood in this way, because people think there is an element of choice involved. I often was told to ‘just eat’ or that I was being ‘selfish’ or ‘self-obsessed’.

Although Bakewell has since apologised and says she recognises that actually the things she said were hurtful, false and far from reality, the damage has already been done. What public comments (made by prominent people) like this do is reinforce the mistaken beliefs people hold about Anorexia and Bulimia, so they believe they’re justified then to try and ‘guilt’ a person into recovery by saying things like ‘you’ve got lots of food here, but they have nothing in third world countries, don’t be so wasteful’, or ‘you could eat and you choose not to, but think about all the people who can’t’ ‘people are so concerned with how they look these days’. The saddest thing for me is that her opinion mirrors that of many of a certain generation who inadvertently make recovery very difficult for someone really struggling with Anorexia or Bulimia.

Why is an eating disorder not a choice?

These mistaken opinions all come from one root cause – ignorance. And where eating disorders are concerned ignorance often manifests itself in the form of people assuming an eating disorder is a choice, or that the person involved has a choice in the matter and therefore wilfully decides not to eat – much to the inconvenience and frustration of everyone round them. And then they go taking up resources on the NHS and make themselves incredibly poorly. How selfish.

An eating disorder, like any other mental or physical health issue, is not contracted through choice. Nobody decides to get an eating disorder. They’re deadly and they’re a horrendous thing to go through – with lasting consequences for many. The idea that people are ‘playing up’ or ‘being selfish’ is just plain wrong – and it’s not something that should be publicly voiced to a large audience by someone who knows absolutely nothing about what it’s like to go through an eating disorder first-hand.

Anorexia and Bulimia aren’t ‘new’. Like many mental illnesses, learning difficulties and conditions such as Autism and ADHD, eating disorders are often made out to be ‘new’, when in fact they’ve afflicted people for hundreds of years, yet back then they weren’t recognised officially or treated appropriately. Years ago people with acute mental illness were packed off to asylums and concealed from the outside world, and those who could hide it did so for fear of being ostracised. And I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of people in refugee camps struggling with all sorts of mental illnesses, including eating disorders, as a consequence of the trauma they have been through and the dire living conditions and situation they are in.

So a little more consideration and sensitivity please Ms Bakewell. And a reminder that when you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s best not to open your mouth at all.

 

If you liked this blog, take a look at When will people realise eating disorders aren’t aesthetic?

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Why is it so hard to ‘be yourself’?

how to be yourself

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‘Be yourself’. It’s one of the best pieces of advice ever given – yet how many of us dish it out then fail to adhere to it ourselves?

At the end of the day we will always have different ‘sides’ of ourselves for different people or situations – you wouldn’t behave in the same way at work as you do when you’re out with your friends and vice versa. But on the whole we are one person, with likes, dislikes quirks and foibles. What is sad is that many people try to hide themselves, their true selves, in order to be liked by other people (just as I did for far too long). They project an image that they think other people want to see, in the hope that they will be accepted. But take it from me – this is a dangerous and pointless exercise.

Over the past ten years or so, I’ve been on a constant journey of self-discovery and concealment. I ended up with Anorexia because I was desperately trying to be liked and I knew that the person I was wasn’t somebody the people I went to school with wanted to be around. Even when I tried to be something else, I still wasn’t liked – but I was still sure that this was the way forward. It was only once I left school and discovered that not everybody is cruel and small-minded that I learnt it was okay to show my real self. But even then, I sometimes struggled to really express who I was and how I felt for fear of being ridiculed or ostracised for it.

Over the past few years and particularly over the past 12 months, I’ve learnt that being myself is the key to success in all areas of my life. It’s incredible to think that I have spent all of my adult life so far wishing I was someone else, feeling as though I wasn’t good enough, wanting to be more beautiful, more successful, in order to achieve my goals – when in actual fact doing all this was driving me further away from my goals and made me ill. My obsessive, perfectionistic nature and anxiety meant I’d manically search for ways to better myself or be the person I desperately thought I ‘should be’. These thoughts would keep me awake at night. I constantly strived for this ‘holy grail’ but never reached it – instead, I was unhappy. When my carefully constructed world (as I knew it) collapsed and I lost my job I was forced to rebuild myself and start all over again – and the mental and physical struggle I experienced forced me to re-evaluate what I was doing, why I was doing it and the way I was thinking – in the end, it truly was a blessing in disguise.

I feel so sad when I see people trying hard to be somebody they’re not. It isn’t always obvious – but little things they do and say give them away because it takes one to know one! Being someone other than who you are is exhausting – a waste of your energy and a waste of your life. It’s not until you unapologetically spend time being yourself that you really start to live your life. So why is it so difficult to ‘be yourself’, what have I learned so far, and how can you do the same?

Being yourself involves letting go

Letting go is increasingly difficult to do when you feel as though you want to control everything in your life. I developed a need for control when I was bullied and carried that through my eating disorder and even have it to this day – although I’m able to live with it now without it taking over my life. Many of us seek control because we live in a world which is unpredictable and fast-moving – we’re always ‘switched on’, always encouraged to be ‘better’ by clever adverts which deliberately tap into our existing low self-esteem. But letting go doesn’t mean you’ll completely lose control – it doesn’t mean you won’t do the things you want to do. Of course, if the things you want to do are really important to you, deep down…

Being yourself forces you to check your motives

I realised when I started to let go that it was difficult because I had an image in my head of ‘how life should be’ and ‘who I was’ in that life. That life was perfect, of course, and so was I. That meant that it didn’t exist!! The life was also someone else’s idea of perfect. Being an Instagram model and plastering details of my personal life all over social media aren’t actually high on my agenda – in fact, I just want to travel the world and live somewhere where the sun shines and the sea sparkles. I’m not materialistic – I like to spend more time than is normal in hoodies and pyjamas and I like to spend it with the people I love. Yet here was the so-called ‘perfect life’ I was striving for – complete with Louis Vuitton luggage and a Victoria’s Secret body. I realised that in reality, being the person I ‘thought I should be’ was no fun. It involved ruining every moment by taking endless selfies to get the right one, worrying needlessly about how I looked and revealing intimate details of my life in a narcissistic fashion – all things I just wasn’t comfortable with. Why was I beating myself up for not participating? Then I started to see that life could be amazing if I could let go – and when I realised that the motive wasn’t worth holding on to, that became easier.

Being yourself requires a leap of faith

Because self-loathing very easily becomes a habit, trying to reverse your negative mindset and the behaviours it encourages requires a venture into the unknown. At the moment you know how you react when you see a photograph of a model, you know how you feel scrolling through endless ‘perfect’ images on social media – and although you know it’s harmful you stick with it, because it’s familiar. I went cold turkey with the things that I found triggered my appearance-related anxieties – one by one. Gradually I cut out the things which I knew caused me to compare and be generally unhappy. At first I was tempted back into the familiar way of doing things, and sometimes I did, but it wasn’t difficult to see that they make me feel bad, when by comparison ignorance really is bliss.

Being yourself means not caring what others are thinking or doing

This is one I think we all find difficult. Even the people who say ‘oh I do my own thing, I don’t care what other people think’ definitely care a little bit, otherwise they’d walk around with nothing on speaking their mind all the time and pissing people off. It’s obviously not a good thing to really not give a shit what anyone else thinks – so this is more a task of caring less than not at all. The first hurdle is caring less about what other people think – about how they perceive you. It really, really doesn’t matter. I spent far too long believing that how I was perceived by others shaped me – if I wasn’t liked, then I couldn’t be happy and needed to improve. It’s impossible to please everyone, and it’s impossible to know if you’re liked or not, so I fought a losing battle for ten years. Then I realised that as long as I was true to myself and genuine I would be well received, and if I wasn’t, the problem was with the other person and not with me. I also realised that I was liked by a lot of people – people who knew me as I really was, not as a carefully constructed image I projected out like propaganda.

The second hurdle is not caring what other people are doing. That may feel impossible given that you are constantly exposed to other people’s lives, bodies and possessions on social media and television. So that’s the first step – ditch it. Ditch the social media – it’s poison. Stop scrolling through other people’s lives (which have been majorly exaggerated, by the way) and comparing yourself – it’s a sure fire way to unhappiness. Just get rid. I did, and I’ve never looked back. Now I only use social media for business purposes. Sometimes I have this niggle in the back of my mind and I worry – ‘Shouldn’t I be sharing all of this on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram’? Or a friend shows me a photo of some model on Twitter or Instagram and the urge to follow them and then compare and wish I could copy every single one of their photos returns. Then I remember that a) my private life is private and I don’t wish to share it, it’s fine just between friends and family, and b) I will never look like that model, who lives a privileged lifestyle and has probably had surgery (not to mention the clever editing software used on every image). Nor do I need to look like her – I’m fine just as I am. Getting rid of social media is a huge step. You may (like me) need to have a word with yourself now and again, but that’s normal.

Being yourself is liberating and exciting

Here’s the good bit. Once you stop living someone else’s life and start living your own, things start to fall into place. Good things happen because you’re genuinely passionate about what you are doing – you’re doing things because you WANT to – not because you believe you should. You wear the clothes you want, wear your make-up however you like, leave your pyjamas on all day (okay, maybe that’s just me). You suddenly become free to live life however you want and do whatever you like without worrying you’ll ‘mess up’ your perfect plan for a life you’d never have enjoyed anyway.

Being yourself allows you to live life the way you want to

Now you can plan for the future without irrelevant, superfluous stuff in the way. You can spend your time on energy on things you truly love. You can create memories and have experiences instead of collecting things (and photographs of things). I find I have so much more time (and a lot more positive energy) which I can then spend properly enjoying the time I have (non of us live forever, it’s limited!). For example, I used to spend all my holidays in beautiful places worrying about the amount of acceptable selfies I’d taken to post on social media, which led to me panicking about the colour of my skin, the size of my arse (you get the picture). When I wasn’t doing that, I’d compare myself unfavourably to most other women in the vicinity because in my opinion their figures, faces, hair and even bikinis were better than mine. Now I go on holiday and I hardly take any photos. I don’t share them on social media (because I don’t even look at what other people are doing on social media!). I eat, I laugh, I swim, I lie in the sun and I LIVE my life rather than wishing I was in someone else’s (there’s more about these experiences in Tough Love).

 

Being yourself is about more than just caring less about the way you look. It’s a state of mind which you develop about every part of yourself until you stop being ashamed and start living so hard you don’t even have time to think about what other people are doing! For more on why we think this way and how you can change things around you can take a look at my book Tough Love here.

For more on how to be yourself, take a look at my other body image blogs here. 

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