Counting calories was the foundation of my weight loss plan. Recording what I ate did many things for me, not the least of which was creating accountability. Previously, I ate with no thought at all except for what sounded good and tasty. I paid no mind to the amount I ate and in retrospect, the majority of my meals, if not all of them, were absurdly over-sized. You don’t notice this when it’s just how you’ve always lived life. I think there’s also some credence to the idea that you can stretch and shrink your stomach by how much you usually eat. I found that when I overate constantly, I was constantly hungry. When I under-ate consistently, I was rarely hungry. Now that I eat the right amount, my hunger is regular and appropriate. I listen to it and it tells me when I should eat. It took me a long time to get to this point- years of practice, as a matter of fact.
You could approach calorie counting as a Diet with a capital D. You could plan to eat X number of calories, burn Y number of calories, and lose Z number of pounds. Aside from following this plan, you could give it no other thought and when you had lost Z number of pounds, you could go back to your old habits and gain the weight back.
Or you could approach it as I did, as a tool with which to educate yourself. I knew from the start that there was no chance I would spend the rest of my life entering the foods I ate into an app or online journal. I knew I would not meticulously weigh and measure every bite of food. It just wasn’t going to happen, and I knew that if I thought I was going to do that, I was kidding myself.
So while I entered foods into my food journal, I paid attention. What did 1 oz of cheese look like? How many nuts were in one serving? Which foods were very low calorie and which foods were calorie-dense? Which foods were mostly protein? Which were mostly fat? Which were mostly carbohydrates? What did a 400 calorie meal look like on my plate? How big was a single serving of orange juice?
I can now estimate the calories in any meal I cook without assistance. I don’t need to look anything up or use a calculator. This is another benefit of eating mostly whole real foods- no surprise ingredients mucking things up.
The only foods that can be eaten in pretty much limitless quantity are vegetables. Greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, radishes, squash, broccoli, cauliflower etc. There are some exceptions, of course. Potatoes and carrots are starchy and the calories do add up. Avocado is calorie-dense and full of healthy unsaturated fat. That doesn’t stop me from eating potatoes, carrots, and avocados though. It just means I know I have to pay attention to the quantity. (I always eat the whole avocado though- I just balance it out with the rest of the meal) But raw spinach? I know I can have as much as I would like.
Fruits, I believe, are also an essential piece of the healthy diet. I know some people are afraid of the sugars, but in whole fruit you get a balance of fiber with the sugar. It simply is not the same as eating a piece of candy, much as some low-carb plans would make it out to be. Fruit does indeed contain sugar though, and for that reason it is also something to be mindful of when choosing how much. Luckily, many fruits come in single serving packages via mother nature, such as bananas, apples, pears, peaches, and oranges. It is worth learning what a serving of grapes looks like compared to a serving of strawberries. There is actually a tremendous difference.
Oil is feared by many dieters, but again I believe this fear is misplaced. We need fats in our diet for a variety of reasons and oil needn’t be feared in moderation. I know how long a pour gets me 1 tbsp of oil, another lesson I learned by calorie counting.
A serving of grains, such as pasta or rice, turned out to be a lot smaller than I ever imagined. I have gotten used to it though, once I got over the initial disappointment. What’s the point of being frustrated by the truth? It is what it is.
It is amazingly freeing to be able to maintain my weight without counting or measuring. I am still present and accountable for what I eat, but I don’t need the crutch of writing it down anymore. I think you will know when you reach this stage- you will no longer try to cheat yourself on the days you don’t count. It took me a long time to absorb that even if I didn’t write it down, it still counted. I was only cheating myself when I used not counting as an excuse to eat more than I knew I should.
If you are calorie counting, here are some ideas for making it an Education and not a Diet, so someday you can eat in a more intuitive way and maintain your weight:
- Pay attention. When you measure things, get a sense of the size- how many spoonfuls, how it fills the dish, how many fit in your palm, etc. Through repetition, you will eventually know how to dish out 1 serving without measuring.
- Test yourself. Try dividing out one portion and then measure or weigh it to see how close you were.
- Use appropriately sized dishes. No huge plates, no huge bowls. Find dishes that force you to choose the right serving size. This works particularly well for things like cereal bowls, juice glasses, and snack dishes.
- Focus on what matters. I stopped weighing or measuring veggies long before I stopped calorie counting. The TBSP of oil I used to saute my spinach was much more important, in terms of calories, than the spinach itself.
- Accept the fallibility of calories. Calorie counting is all about estimation. There is no point in becoming distracted by the small details. You don’t REALLY know if that apple has 50 calories or 70 and that’s OK. You will underestimate some things and over estimate others. It will all even out in the end. This isn’t an hourly or even daily test- it’s a cumulative experience.
- Find the best options at restaurants you regularly frequent and remember them. If you’re trying to eat reasonably, you will likely find your options are limited so it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick out a few dishes as your “standby” meals at those locations and stick to those.
- Use logic and reason. If a dish is covered in a creamy, cheesy sauce- you know it is calorie-dense. If it’s raw or steamed veggies, you know it’s calorie-light. Still love creamy sauces? Me too. I still order enchiladas that are covered in cheesy creamy sauce, I just eat less.
- Learn which foods are calorie dangers. These are foods that sneak up on you because a serving size seems so small. Potato chips are an example of this. A serving is 8-10 chips, which to me seems ridiculously tiny. Because of this, I basically do not eat potato chips. It isn’t worth the calorie cost. I do eat ice cream, which is another calorie danger, however. I find the small serving to be plenty and satisfying occasionally. Find which foods are worth it and which aren’t.
These are skills you can work on from day one of your plan. It may take months and years for them to settle in as habit instead of chore, but if you have an open mind and are willing to change and learn, it can happen.