Should You Count Calories or Listen to Your Body?

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Is it better to count calories or listen to your body?

Plan out all your meals, snacks, and treats, or enjoy everything in moderation?

Restrict yourself more or give yourself more permission to enjoy?

The truth is that we need both. Both structure and freedom are required and when we prioritize one over the other for too long, we struggle.

What does that look like when you have too much structure or too much freedom in your eating habits? How do you know when you’re out of balance?


Too Much Structure

Too much structure looks like becoming obsessed with counting calories or counting points; planning every morsel of food you eat; or constantly weighing your food or yourself. 

This excessive structure leaves us feeling deprived. It feels incredibly hard. We feel like we’re constantly focusing on all of the things we can’t have. 

And what happens? We rebel and end up going too far the other way. We binge and sabotage ourselves and end up feeling angry and frustrated. It was too much structure.

If you’re feeling that way right now, think about how you can invite in a little freedom around your relationship with food. Where can you relax a little bit? 


Too Much Freedom

On the other hand, if we have too much freedom around food, then we’re not planning ahead at all. We’re just eating whatever we feel like whenever we feel like it. We’re using food to manage our feelings and we’re not even aware of how much we’re eating or what we’re putting in our mouths.

Too much freedom leads to us hurting our bodies, compromising our health, taking ourselves further away from our goals and again feeling angry and frustrated with ourselves.

If you’re struggling with too much freedom right now, consider where you might introduce a little bit of structure to balance things out.


Structure vs Freedom With Exercise

The same thing might be happening around exercise. Sometimes we have too much structure. We say, “I’m going to do 45 minutes on the treadmill at level eight and two incline even if I’m puking my guts out, even if I’m exhausted, even if my adrenal glands are begging me to stop.” 

It’s actually counterproductive. It leads to burnout and injury. And so then, could there be a way to invite in more freedom? Not stop exercising entirely, but rather balance the rigid structure with some freedom and ease?

Or maybe we have too much freedom around how we’re moving our bodies. Maybe we say we want to walk four days a week, but we don’t really figure out when that’s going to happen, or for how long, or what steps we need to take to make sure that we’re making that possible for ourselves and so it just never happens. 

And suddenly it’s the weekend again and we only got out for one walk because we had no structure.

It’s not about beating yourself up about not walking, but it’s about noticing that perhaps you’ve leaned too far into freedom and need to invite in a little bit of structure around your walks. 

Whether we’re aware of it or not, this dance between structure and freedom is one that we’re all doing all the time. 


Structure vs. Freedom Everywhere In Your Life

This dance isn’t just limited to our relationship with food and our health. If you look around you’ll notice that we’re trying to play this balancing game between structure and freedom in other areas of our lives as well. 

Think about parenting, where you’re always trying to balance how much structure versus how much freedom to give your kids, especially as they get older.

Or if you’re planning a vacation, it’s always a balance between how much are we going to plan ahead and how much are we going to leave room for adventure and spontaneity?

Or in our personal finances, we need a balance between structure and freedom. We need to have a budget. We need to know where the money’s coming from and where it’s going, but we also need to leave some room for splurging and for having some fun. 

You can see that, in all of those areas – eating, exercise, parenting, vacation planning, finances – too much structure or too much freedom is going to cause problems. 

And that’s why we dance. 

It’s not that one is better or worse; we need both. But it’s about always being aware of these two ends of the spectrum that we’re moving within and figuring out what is the right balance for you and what do you need right now? 


Structure vs. Freedom Throughout History

In fact, this ongoing dance between structure and freedom is so ubiquitous that cultures and ideologies dating back centuries have been keenly aware of it.

In yoga, students are encouraged to find both the “Sthira and Sukha” in every pose, which translates to the strength and the sweetness or the steadiness and the ease. Every single pose in yoga contains both and the student’s work is to be aware of each.

In ancient Chinese philosophy this dance can be found in the idea of “yin and yang.” The structure and grounded container of yin balances with the fiery potential of yang. 

Or, in the concept of divine masculine and feminine energy, with the masculine being about logic and assessment, and the feminine being about creativity and intuition. 


Structure and freedom. The boat and the wind. Both are required for any journey.

Balance is what we’re seeking, but balance is tricky. That’s why I don’t think it’s ever about finding a static sweet spot between the two. You lean into one until you realize that you’ve gone too far and now you need to lean into the other. Back and forth. Always checking in, always being curious, always course-correcting.


Do You Need More Structure Or More Freedom? 

If it’s feeling constantly hard, like you’re fighting yourself, or like it’s too constrictive, too prescriptive, or like you can’t enjoy your life, then maybe you’ve gone too far into structure and need to seek out a little freedom. 

Or, if it’s feeling overwhelming, confusing and like you don’t know where you’re supposed to be, or what to do next, then maybe you’ve gone too far into freedom and need to seek out a little structure. 


Too much structure means you feel deprived. Too much freedom means you feel overwhelmed. The question is how do you dance towards balance?


You’re never going to find this perfect place of balance, like, “Okay, good. I’ve got it. Just do this. It’s perfectly balanced.” That’s not how it works. It’s an ebb and flow. It’s never going to be consistent.

But I think what we can consistently do is be aware of this and consistently ask ourselves the questions, “Where am I at right now? And what do I need to invite in?” 


Consistency isn’t about always doing the same thing; it’s about always doing the best thing for you.

Think about this dance between structure and freedom and if you’re feeling imbalanced in some area, whether it’s food, or exercise, or self-care, or anything else in your life, ask yourself, “Could I be out of balance here?”

And if the answer is “yes,” how could you invite in a little more structure or a little more freedom? 

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Sara Best

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