When Food Is Just Numbers, I Never Win

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Michelle Leigh)

Our Personal History series invites cooks and eaters to tell the stories of their lives through food. Arianna’s journey is one of learning (and relearning) food through the lens of numbers.

I know there was a time in my life when food was simply food and not just a bunch of numbers, but getting there requires some memory mining. I’d just turned 13, and was starting a new school in the fall. June through August were set aside for crafting a better version of myself — more mature, more outgoing, more popular — and the key to becoming this better self, I knew, was losing weight. This wasn’t a new endeavor. I’d been unhappy with my body for as long as I’d been conscious of it, but I’d never had success in changing it.

I knew if I wanted to shrink my tummy, which had only expanded as I got older despite my mother’s regular assurances that it was “baby fat,” I’d need to get serious and regimented about what I ate. I needed a reliable system.

And then, as if by magic, Atkins happened.

I discovered Atkins maybe six months before it would become ubiquitous, during my family’s annual summer vacation in California. Each year, we’d spend a week visiting my parents’ longtime friends, whose family mirrored my own (parents from the Bronx having settled out West, two daughters, two sons), and this year I was especially fixated on Sandy, who was a week older than me. I saw her the way I saw most girls in my orbit, which is to say she was the personification of everything I wasn’t: energetic, unrestrained, happy, and, most importantly, thin.

I wouldn’t eat a thing without first scrutinizing the nutrition label and then diligently measuring or weighing my portion.

When we arrived, Sandy and her mother were already a few weeks into Atkins, and they were quick to evangelize for their new way of eating. It was all about avoiding carbohydrates, a word I’d never really considered in the context of dieting, but which, were I to follow the plan, I would have to limit to 20 grams per day. The pounds would drop quickly, they said, and I wouldn’t have to feel like I was denying myself. This wasn’t like other diets, which were all about restriction. Here I could eat fat — delectable, melt-in-your-mouth fat — and not just a little bit! I could eat all the meat I wanted, all the cheese I could stomach. I was sold.

That week, we went to the beach with coolers full of turkey and cheese roll-ups, which the others would insist were every bit as satisfying as a sandwich, and I’d nod in agreement while trying to swallow quickly enough so that I wouldn’t linger on the cold clamminess of bare cold cuts on my tongue. For dessert, every night, we had sugar-free Jell-O cups and sugar-free whipped cream. For breakfast, a simple cheese omelet. Every day the same.

(Image credit: Michelle Leigh)

As it turned out, most foods — even those I’d always understood to be good, safe, like my beloved bananas and frozen grapes — were made of carbs, and somewhat surprisingly, it was possible to tire of endless cheese and meat. But I figured maybe I was tiring simply of Sandy’s version of Atkins, and it would be easier once I got back home. I would have 20 grams to work with, after all, not zero; surely I could make a bowl of cereal fit.

How heartbreaking to learn, back in my own kitchen, that one cup of Honey Bunches of Oats had more than double my daily allowed amount. I could eat one slice of bread, but not two; roughly two-thirds of an apple was safe. I became obsessed. I wouldn’t eat a thing without first scrutinizing the nutrition label and then diligently measuring or weighing my portion.

Atkins worked at first, the way any diet which requires an abrupt removal of a huge class of foods does. I lost five pounds in the first week, fewer in those that followed, in which the daily grams of carbs allowed would increase incrementally. After a few months, I gave up. It was too time-consuming during the school year, and the weight loss had waned.

But I’d learned that stripping food of of all its virtues — nourishment, flavor, texture — and assigning, in their stead, quantifiable, numerical value was a way of getting the upper hand in what had long been a contentious relationship.

Atkins taught me to translate ingredients into numbers, meals into transactions. The diet faded (in my life, but also in general society; the plan as it existed in the ’90s is often dismissed as a recipe for heart disease), but the habit stuck.

Atkins taught me to translate ingredients into numbers, meals into transactions.

It’s what led me to Weight Watchers, those quickly memorized point values of various snacks nestled deeply in my mind. It’s what fueled my anorexia, my endless strain toward the magical calorie count to finally get me to my desired weight. It’s the drive behind the muscle memory that flips a package over before I even realize I’m doing so; it’s followed, and failed, me throughout decades of abandoned diets and fluctuating weight.

That my battle with food as numbers is so deeply ingrained is baffling, given its proven ineffectuality, but I suppose there’s a sense of comfort in it. It was, after all, born in my first, giddy experience of weight loss.

(Image credit: Michelle Leigh)

Which is why I reacted, the first time a nutritionist told me to avoid nutrition labels completely, with an immediate physical shutdown.

I’d decided to see a nutritionist 10 years after going through an outpatient program to learn how to eat without restricting or purging. In that decade, I’d experienced the usual ups and downs of recovery and went through relapses that emerged with decreasing frequency, but I hadn’t really figured out how to eat well. I’d thought obsessively about food for the entirety of my life, but only in terms of what made it bad. I wanted someone to help me see the good.

My friend suggested Stephanie Middleberg. A quick Google search turned up impressive results. Middleberg, a registered dietitian who got her master’s in Clinical Science from NYU, has been written up in Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Fitness, Glamour, Shape, Self, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Marie Claire — basically, she’s everywhere.

At our first appointment two weeks later, I talked to her like I had only ever talked with therapists, discussing triggers, foods that scared me, foods I wanted to learn how to love again.

“How do you decide what to eat?” Stephanie asked during that intake.

“Calories, mostly,” I said, knowing the answer was wrong.

She held up her hand like a stop sign. “How many calories do you think you need in a day, if you want to lose weight?”


She shook her head. “No. I’m going to tell you right now you probably need double that.”

I saw the number in my head, on my tracking apps, in the food those calories could manifest as, and felt a familiar nausea rising, the sensation of my throat closing up.

“Just trust me,” Stephanie said. “Calories are not the key here.”

I was miserable, and had been for a while, so I tried Stephanie’s plan. I tried ignoring the labels and numbers. Instead, I balanced types of foods. Each meal would have one source of protein and one to two servings of fats. My stomach no longer takes well to dairy, so I’d have one serving of that per day; ditto those notorious carbs. Servings would be eyeballed — one closed fist was one serving of rice; six ounces of salmon would be roughly the size of my phone.

No longer was I considering food as a value to be added or subtracted or substituted, and for as long as I could push those numbers out of my head, I was able to experience food as food.

It felt silly — weren’t these just different ways of doing the same kind of limiting and categorizing as I’d always done? — but something shifted, ideologically, by refusing to acknowledge numbers. No longer was I considering food as a value to be added or subtracted or substituted, and for as long as I could push those numbers out of my head, I was able to experience food as food. I could evaluate my likes and dislikes based on the way something tastes or sits in my (now very sensitive) stomach. It’s the freedom I need in order to learn how to feed myself.

(Image credit: Michelle Leigh)

I’m doing that by cooking, for the first time in my adult life. Before, putting a meal together felt like balancing too many figures. What if I measured wrong? I relied mostly on packaged food, things that offered just one nutrition label, but the downside of that was rarely eating fresh food and having no real concept of which ingredients I liked and which I didn’t.

And as it turns out, I love cooking. I love food shopping; I love the mental clarity of focusing on nothing but the recipe in front of me; I love holding and washing and cutting fresh produce. I’ve explored my likes and dislikes enough to know that if a recipe calls for cilantro, I should substitute parsley, and if another one calls for radishes, I should avoid it entirely. Mostly I love eating something I made with my own two hands.

Unlearning specific values of food has been, and continues to be, a tedious and strenuous task, especially when much of the conversation on health is still centered on calorie counts. But for me, it is also a monumental one. I don’t know if I’ve lost weight (the number on the scale is another I’ve tossed out — too easy to get obsessed), but that’s no longer the goal anyway. My head is clearest, and my body happiest, when numbers are out of the equation — when meals aren’t equations at all. It’s about rejecting the idea that if I have to eat I will do so begrudgingly, and instead remembering what it’s like to enjoy what nourishes me.