05/09/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Chasing Numbers, Escaping Food: Why I Stopped Using MyFitnessPal

First appeared on Food Riot, by Dana Staves

It's fair to say that one of the best ways to ensure healthy eating is to eat consciously. Much like the scene in Never Been Kissed, where a stoned Drew Barrymore wakes up, lifts her head from a (now) empty pie plate, and exclaims, "Someone ate my whole pie!", there is danger in eating unconsciously, in not considering the value of the food we put in our bodies. Candy and soda will fuel you, but not the way fresh veggies and whole grains and good meat will.

And thankfully, there's an app for that. I've been using a tracking app called MyFitnessPal, off and on, for about a year. It's a fantastic app that allows me to track my calories consumed, as well as my calories burned. It shows me how my intake of nutrients shakes down, how balanced my fat-carb-protein intake is for the day, and what nutrients I need to boost - when I'm skimping on calcium or not getting enough protein.

I've warned people in the past that the app will, in a way, ruin your life. The first time you log a slice of pizza or start plugging in the two beers you had with dinner, you'll realize the fun is over. In my more positive moments, I say that the app helps you budget. The same way I need to budget for vacations or gifts, I also need to budget for daily calories. It is here that M.F.K. Fisher's advice comes in handy: "Balance the day, not each meal in the day."

Since becoming a vegetarian almost two months ago, I have turned to MyFitnessPal again to help me make sure I'm eating smart. I didn't find the transition to vegetarianism all that challenging, but it did require me to eat mindfully: it's easy to just carb-load all day long, but then I wake up hungry in the middle of the night. I had to be smart about how much protein I was getting, how many calories I was consuming.

Or rather, let me phrase is this way: the app was helpful until it wasn't.

In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan explains an "unexamined assumption of nutritionism: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocrates' famous injunction to 'let food be thy medicine' is ritually invoked to support this notion." We begin to break down food into its parts - its nutrients - rather than looking at the food as a whole. This avocado is high in fat, but it's good fat, so it's okay. But it's also high in calories, so maybe I should only eat half of it and then add a poached egg. But eggs are high in fat, too, though they do contain protein that I need and are relatively low in calories.

Come with me, folks. Join me down this rabbit hole where even the lettuce is picked apart and examined scrupulously for its benefits to our overall health.

Pollan continues, "It follows from the premise that food is foremost about promoting physical health that nutrients in food should be divided into the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones - good nutrients and bad." This battle over which ones are good and which ones are bad often remind me of that old trick of suspense in movies and TV shows. A good guy has an evil twin or clone, and by some trick of fate, both are being held at gunpoint by the innocent bystander who knows he must shoot the evil one. But which one is the evil one? They both say they're good. They plead. They play innocent.

Which nutrient do we shoot? Which one do we decide is evil? Who can we believe?

I'm a food writer. I know not all fats are created equal. I know that food isn't supposed to be looked at merely as a set of coded labels on the side of a box. Food broken down into its nutritional components ceases to really be food. I know the rules, and yet, as I plugged dinner scenarios in my MyFitnessPal app the other night, I lost all of that. I fell prey to nutritionism. I realized I was chasing numbers, and instead of gaining on health and wellness and fullness and enjoyment, I was only escaping food. I should have been gaining on food, but I wasn't. And in the process, I was losing joy.

We talk a lot about food anxiety on Food Riot - Kit writes about it brilliantly in her investigations of our protein intake, and sugar intake, and when we should eat fruit. But should it really be this difficult? Michael Pollan outlines the rules so simply: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." But I find myself drawn to Tamar Adler's characterization of how to eat well:

"We do know that people have always found ways to eat and live well, whether on boiling water or bread or beans, and that some of our best eating hasn't been our most foreign or expensive or elaborate, but quite plain and quite familiar. And knowing that is probably the best way to cook, and certainly the best way to live."

I put my app away. I pushed thoughts of protein and fat and calories from my head. Balance the day. Eat food. Go with what you know will nourish you, body and soul. Go with your taste. Be present enough to know what you want, and disciplined enough to know if it will serve you well.