Are You Hooked on the Numbers?

By Anne Widga, University Health Center dietitian

Tracking health numbers has become a popular way to diet or maintain one’s current weight, especially for college students. Phone apps like MyFitnessPal have made it easier to watch what we eat, and fitness trackers like Fitbits can calculate an approximate number of calories burned through exercise.

Although this tracking can be helpful in some cases, it becomes fruitless and even dangerous if it leads to obsessive, over-the-top number tracking.

Why it can be unhealthy

Over tracking is when the numbers matter more than the food on your plate. You could be meeting your “unofficial caloric goal” for the day without eating the full breadth of nutrients your body needs to function properly. This can cause exhaustion, depression and leave you without enough energy to make it through your daily routine.

Setting your expectations on meeting an exact number of calories eaten or burned in one day actually sets you up for failure, not success. As a college student, there are many variables that can change the way your day plays out, so you may not always meet the rigid numbers you set in a phone app. This can lead to disappointment and cause you to lose sight of your goals.

It’s also important to know that labeling laws allow a 20 percent margin of error on the nutrition facts panel, just as there is wide variability in the accuracy of fitness wearables. So all the time spent on numbers could all be for naught!

A healthier approach

Here are some better ways to meet your goals and spend your time than over tracking:

  1. Listen to your body. Get acquainted with and pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues.
  2. Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. Be aware that it takes your brain about 20 minutes to register fullness, so if you’re done eating in 10 minutes, you won’t know if you’re full or not.
  3. Focus on eating when you’re eating. This means sitting down to eat and putting the phone or computer away. Pay attention to the taste and texture of foods. Take time to eat slowly and enjoy the foods you’re eating. Food serves to meet a physical need but also an emotional need for satisfaction.
  4. Give yourself some flexibility. Allow yourself to indulge in a favorite food now and then, knowing that it’s not something that would be supportive to your wellness goals if eaten daily.
  5. Learn to trust your body. It is your best friend when it comes to telling you when you’re eating well and when you’re balancing your activity and your rest appropriately.

Once you learn to trust your body and what it’s telling you rather than relying on a gadget that provides statistically-based numbers, you’ll feel a sense of freedom. You’ll realize how much time and emotional energy you wasted on being a slave to the numbers.

If you need additional nutritional help, make an appointment with me at the University Health Center. Remember, students who pay student fees receive their first nutrition counseling session at no additional cost! Call 402.472.5000 to schedule your appointment.

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