Let me say right up front, that I have lost 60ish pounds and kept it off by counting calories. I know these days we are supposed to apply all the principles of rocket science to that of weight loss and healthy eating and that calories counting is supposed to be wrong. (Go ahead . . Google it. I’ll wait.)
Oh . . you’re back? Now let’s talk reality. If you want to track fuel mileage in your car, you keep track of how much fuel you add versus how much you burn and how far you can go. Why then is it such a surprise that counting calories can be a useful weight loss tool? Calories are fuel for the body. From a weight loss perspective, the idea is very simple: Burn more calories than you consume. I assure you by doing so the weight will come off.
First of all, there isn’t any weight loss or healthy eating plan that is that much different from another. It isn’t really about how much or how little you are eating but rather what you are eating. Things like calorie counting become flawed when your calories include a Snickers bar. Or worse, when you have no idea how many calories you are really consuming or burning.
As an example, go pour yourself what you think is a serving (1 cup) of cereal. Don’t cheat. Just go pour it into a bowl. Okay? Now get your measuring cup out and measure it. I’ll bet the measuring cup over-flowed. (And it doesn’t count if you regularly measure your food and really know what a cup is.
When calorie counting you need to know how much you are eating. This means research and measuring. Read the label and know how much is in a serving and then know how big that serving really is. Be accurate and honest.
So you counted your 1 cup of cereal and banana you had for breakfast. You counted your 3 oz. glass of orange juice. Then at work rushing between meetings you grabbed a couple of mints out of someone’s candy dish. What could that hurt right? You need to be thorough.
Let’s say you grabbed 2 Lifesaver peppermints. There goes about 30 calories out of your day for 2 little pieces of candy that did what for you? You are still hungry and other than a whole bunch of processed sugar you got zero nutritional value. If we put this in terms of money it would be like taking a couple bucks, folding them into a paper airplane and then setting them on fire. You got a few seconds of entertainment and no other return on the investment and now you are out $2.00.
You move on to lunch. Again, be wary of your portion sizes here. Feeling good about having that salad for lunch? Do you know really how much dressing you used? Most dressings specify 2 tablespoons as a serving. That isn’t a lot of dressing. Most people will typically apply a LOT more than that if it isn’t being measured. Again, know your portions and be honest with yourself. If you like a lot of dressing seek out products that have less sugar and more flavor. Vinaigrette, balsamic, or oil based dressings give you more bang for the caloric buck than creamy dressings.
Let’s assume you accurately logged your lunchtime salad, greek yogurt, and fruit. Now it’s mid-afternoon and your stomach is growling, you are having a stressful day and need comfort. You run to the vending machine and quickly choose a big 3 Musketeers bar. Yummy. The milk chocolate and nougat (whatever the hell that is) briefly provide some comfort. Very briefly. In a few seconds and a couple quick bites, the bar is gone. The stress remains and you just knocked nearly 300 calories out of your day. Poof. Gone. And you are still hungry! Plus you ate nougat. Ew.
Now we start to see how calorie counting isn’t so different from other nutrition plans. Most nutritionists stress making good food choices. This is where calorie counting can help. Let’s rewind to the moments before you made that candy bar disappear. Instead, you planned ahead and brought a bag of baby carrots.
You can eat an entire cup of baby carrots (about 12 pieces) for the cost of only about 4 calories. I guarantee you that if you nibble away on those carrots they will last a lot longer than the 3 Musketeers bar. If you add a nice glass of water, all that fiber and water will quell that growling stomach and the best part is there is no nougat involved! Additionally, you will have 250 (or so) more calories extra in your budget.
Let’s talk about workouts and recovery. Just like food intake, do you really know how many calories that workout is burning? You were on that elliptical machine a long time and it said you burned 1000 calories. Yep. I’d put that on there too if I were making such machines and trying to sell them. I’ve found that most gym equipment is very optimistic when it comes to calorie burn. I’m not the only one either. They are well meaning but try to use generic formulas to calculate calories used and these don’t work all that well. There are a lot of calculators out there you can use but whatever you do, don’t trust the machine!
At my old gym, they had a food bar that offered some brand of recovery shakes. One of the most popular was some chocolate peanut butter affair that anywhere else would be considered a milkshake (minus the ice cream). But since it was at the gym it was called a “recovery shake”. The consumption of such shakes was highly encouraged by all the trainers whether that was because they really believed in these or the fact that the gym they worked for sold them, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I would see well-meaning enthusiasts go participate in a 1 hour Les Mills Body Pump class and then stop on the way out for one of these chocolaty wonders. In the best case scenario, Body Pump (a great class BTW) will burn about 600 calories. For most of us more likely 300-400 calories. The shake in question was about 900 calories. From a weight loss perspective, the participants would have been better going to McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin and skipping class.
“I can have that chocolate sundae. I earned it”! This is where calorie counting is great. When someone decides to “get in shape” or lose weight, they go out and do a hard workout. The mentality starts right away with “I worked hard, I deserve a treat”. This is a recipe for failure. Know your workout. Know your reward. Yes, you should eat something after a workout but keep it healthy, and small. Provide your body what it needs. Don’t use the occasion to pig out. Chances are you are consuming way more calories than you are burning or enough that you will not see any changes any time soon.
There are tons of great tools out there to track your day. Ideally choose one that makes it easy to enter data. Myfitnessepal is a great example. It has an app for the phone, a rich database of foods making it easy to enter data, and track macro and micronutrients as well as exercise, steps, etc. Be sure you can add your own recipes too. Remember when logging your salad there is more than lettuce or spinach in that bowl. By having the ability to create recipes you can create your own version of “salad” to include whatever you put in there. This will help keep you from cheating on your log. I am currently using a tool called LoseIt! that I have used for several years. I can enter data on the website, the app from my phone or iPad, and even scan bar codes to quickly enter an item. It tracks steps via my phone, and lets me easily add exercise as well. While it’s calories per workout are relatively accurate it is easy to adjust to the correct amount by shortening or lengthening times, or adjusting intensity. I don’t have the Premium version but it gets much more in-depth into micronutrients.
Counting calories is not the end all and be all of weight loss and healthy eating but I promise you it is a good start and a useful tool. It will get you started in thinking about your food day and what you eat. The “what you eat” is so important. By tracking your daily intake you will soon begin to notice key things like salt and sugar intake (and how ridiculously high they are). Once you start taking careful note of what you are eating you can start to focus on the quality and begin making changes to eliminate the unhealthy parts of you diet. There are tomes and pages of nutrition information out there. But common sense can prevail and a bit of research will point you toward good choices. But it can’t hurt to know what you are eating everyday. If you begin to keep track and then look at the data I think the problem areas will become glaringly obvious.