Move-it Monday: To count calories or not to count count calories? That is the question…

After a wonderful birthday weekend away in Dallas, the best I can do is straddle the Monday-attitude fence this week. I’m not glad the weekend is over, but I am looking forward to the start of another week, rife with possibilities for productivity and enjoyment. 

Also, I really need a restart after this weekend’s indulgence. Let’s just say that Tex-Mex + State Fair vittles + one of the most glorious breakfasts I’ve ever eaten + the tastiest Italian food I’ve ever had make for a very happy tummy but a very disgruntled waistline.

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Speaking of waistlines, how’s about we get down to Move-it Monday business, which is whether or not to count calories.

My best friend and exercising partner, Mandy, has a saying, which goes something like: “You can’t out-exercise your mouth.”

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While we have different approaches to food, I definitely agree with the sentiment that you can do a lot of moving it, but if you are eating more than you need on a regular basis, you probably won’t be able to exercise enough to maintain your weight, reach a goal weight, or just generally stay healthy.

So, what’s one way to know whether you’re eating too much?

You guessed it! Counting calories.

For me, it’s a non-question. I can’t remember exactly when I started, but it was at least ten years ago, and now it’s such a habit that I catch myself subconsciously tallying a meal’s total long before I ever take a bite.

Now, I know that may sound a bit OCD to some of you, but I assure you that I do not count calories to limit myself to unreasonable portions or because I see food as the enemy.

I love food, but I also like maintaining a size that I feel good about (which is different than “being skinny”), and keeping track of approximately how many calories I consume in a day helps me to know what my body needs and how it responds when it gets too much or too little. 

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I know that other people count fat grams or points, and I may devote a post one day to how all of the various methods compare and which, if any, is best.  But today we’re talking calorie-counting because it’s what I have the most personal experience with.

So, how many calories do I attempt to consume in one day (notice I did not say limit myself to)?

About 2,000.

If you look on the back of any cereal box, bag of chips, container of yogurt, etc. it will give you the nutritional information for that product based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet, and it just so happens that this number is about right for me as well.  If I eat this amount, I will not gain weight (with exercise), but I will not lose it either. This is my “maintaining” number.

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I have read numbers as low as a recommended daily caloric consumption of only 1,800 for women, but with the amount of exercise I do, I need more fuel than an 1,800 calorie diet can provide.

I’m also still nursing my daughter, which ups the number considerably, so if I eat my allotted 2,000 and am still hungry by the end of the day, I’ll eat an extra bowl of cereal, yogurt, carrot sticks, or lunchmeat (okay, okay…sometimes it’s an extra helping of Oreos).

What that looks like for me on most days is this:

Breakfast: Raisin Bran, 1 1/2 cups + 1 cup of 1% milk = 400 calories

10 AM Snack: baby carrots + 6 oz. of yogurt = 200 calories

Lunch: Salad with 2 TBSP vinaigrette, 1/4 cup 2% cheddar, a fist-sized chicken breast, 10 croutons, and LOTS of veggies = 350-400 calories

3 PM snack: 1/2 a peanut butter/honey sandwich (90 calorie bread, 1 tbsp of pb, and 1/2 tbsp of honey) + 1/2 cup of milk = 300 calories

Dinner: Turkey lasagna + large salad = 550 calories

Dessert: 1/2 cup of Braum’s Chocolate Almond frozen yogurt = 150 calories

Total: 1,950-2,000

Now, this is is just an example “menu,” but it’s pretty similar to what I eat each day, and if I stick to it, I am almost never truly hungry before it’s time to eat again (at least when I’m not breastfeeding).

Am I always as disciplined as the above list would seem to imply?

No. Definitely not.

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But knowing where I need to stop at the end of the day helps as a guideline for what I consume starting at breakfast time. 

I’m not looking to provide you with an exhaustive source of information on calorie-counting today, but I’ll add these few tips if you want to give it a shot:

1) Start with the 2,000 calorie goal. You can always adjust based on your body’s metabolism and your level of physical activity.

2) Begin familiarizing yourself with the average caloric value of the foods you most commonly consume by reading the labels the next time you’re at the supermarket

3) Use online tools to help you count. There are numerous site with huge databases of the food/caloric content/portions already listed for you. One reader mentioned My Fitness Pal, which is a free online calorie counter.

4) If you run out of calories after only a few of your favorite items, it’s time to reevaluate your diet and see what you can cut back on and what other naturally lower-calorie options like fruits and veggies, turkey, and homemade goodness you can sub in for higher calorie/fat riddled fare like fried foods and takeout. Conversely, if you find that all you eat is salad + whatever you can find with a no-fat/reduced fat label on the package, it’s probably time to see if you get anywhere near the 2,000 calorie mark when you’ve eaten everything you normally consume in a day.

5) It won’t do any good to know how many calories are in a particular item if you don’t have a feel for the serving size.

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This cartoon made me chuckle. Seriously, folks. If the package tells you that that mouth-watering Italian crème cupcake only has 100 calories/’serving, I’ve got news for you—the fine print says that a serving = 1/4 of the cupcake. Depressing, but you just can’t beat the old “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is” adage…even (or maybe especially) when it comes to food.

6) Make your calories count. That may sounds confusing considering we’re supposed to be the ones counting the calories, but what I mean is this: you may only consume X number of calories, but if you successfully limit yourself but don’t manage to consume anything worthwhile, you will have missed the entire point. Some people are able to subsist off of soda, cookies, and candy, stopping when they reach 1,800 or so, but said folks are not practicing the art of calorie counting in a healthy way.  At all. Have I done it? Yup. And it’s no good, folks. No good at all.  So make sure the calories you’re counting aren’t “empty,” or that’s about how you’ll feel—not to mention sluggish, hungry, and just plain gross.

7) If you choose to calorie count, don’t calorie obsess. When I wrote about our weekend in San Antonio and the importance of taking breaks from exercising, I made it abundantly clear that I had also taken a break from my usual calorie-counting. It took me a long time to get to the point of just turning the automatic food-counter that’s pretty much constantly buzzing in my brain OFF. I could still probably add up everything I ate this weekend if I really thought about it, but I’m making a choice not to (partly because I think it would be a very scary number).  I enjoyed every highly caloric bite (chocolate-dipped turtle cheesecake..mmm) that went in my mouth, and now I am back on track at 1,200 calories so far for the day and only dinner left to eat (plus, I’m subbing a class tonight, which means back-to-back exercise classes to teach tonight).

Those weekends “off-duty” may mean that you gain a pound, but that’s okay. More than okay, even, because you won’t have built your entire weekend around avoiding certain foods and worrying about how much you “have” to eat. Believe me, I’ve been there, and it’s just as unhealthy as overeating.

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to at least consider some method of tracking what goes in your body and made a case for calorie-counting’s being a reasonable, helpful, and effective method.

But I’m always up for suggestions! So tell me…is there a method that works best for you or something you’re dying to try? I’m all ears (plus a full tummy! : )). 

**All food images courtesy of actual things we ate this weekend.

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20 thoughts on “Move-it Monday: To count calories or not to count count calories? That is the question…

  1. I feel your pain! I do cook a lot, and we don’t eat out very much (except for small spurts at a time), but sometimes it’s hard with everything else going on. I have been known to do a once-a-month cooking marathon day with a friend, but I haven’t done it often because it is a pretty big commitment. However, I will say that it’s one of the cheapest, handiest, and healthiest ways of having something ready to go from the freezer whenever you need it. So! That’s a suggestion. Another would be what I do the rest of the time, which is keeping my dishes very simple and relatively healthy by cooking with lots of chicken and ground turkey. My go-to weekday meals are turkey spaghetti (the sauce recipe for my lasagna is that same for my spaghetti if you want to search for the lasagna), chicken pot pie, burritos, pesto quesadillas (grilled chicken, tomatoes, pesto spread, and cheese), and maybe meatloaf. At least one night, we’ll have leftovers. If I make meat for burritos (I always use ground turkey), then I make enough for nachos the next night. We do mix it up a little more than that, but my kids eat all of these things really well (they have to or they don’t eat, and they know it), and none of them take more than an hour to prepare at a time, and several can be done ahead of time so they’re ready when I get home from teaching classes. A couple of other quick, easy, tasties are turkey-burgers and crockpot barbecue chicken, with mashed potatoes, and chicken enchiladas. I used to be more adventurous with food, but I really can’t be right now, so I stick to what we like, and the above is a pretty good sampling of that.

  2. I’m also recovering from an eating disorder and calorie counting is dangerous for me. Anytime I try it again I become obsessed and guilty. I focus on eating when I’m hungry, getting enough healthy fat(as a previous commenter mentioned), getting color on my plate and portion control. I don’t beat myself up when I eat something less healthy. I think honoring my hunger and allowing myself what I’m craving is key.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Heidi! I’d never heard of HAES before, but it looks like a cool organization. And yes, I agree that calorie counting can definitely be a very fine line to walk. While I have never experienced an eating disorder, there have definitely been certain times where I was abusing the process or much too preoccupied with both it and my shape.
    At this point, it works as a helpful guideline rather than a strict rule and is more of a subconscious habit than anything else.

    I definitely advocate health over being small and am glad to hear there are so many alternatives to achieving it.

    I’m sorry you have such bad associations with tracking food consumption but am happy to hear you’ve found something that works for you!

  4. Personally, calorie-counting (and dieting) from a young age left me with an eating disorder. There was nothing helpful about it. I find Health At Every Size (HAES) a far more body-positive (and emotion/self-esteem-positive) way to deal with eating and health.

  5. PS: Not sure if you have posted about this before, but could you mention how you handle cooking with all that you do? I used to be a super healthful eater with little frozen foods–lots of salads, fresh soups, veggie dishes; but my husband and I both have a full-time job so we often eat something frozen foods from Trader Joes. Not the healthiest or lowest salt, but I still think it’s better than take out. Any tips?
    Thanks.

  6. Hi Abbie: This is my first comment but I’ve been stalking both of your blogs for the last 2 weeks. :) And it’s funny because I mostly dress from GW and I love totaling up in my head how much an outfit costs.

    Anyway, thanks for these fitness posts! I have a 2.5 year old and my time and energy to exercise has gone way down. This is helpful. You look amazing.
    Edie

  7. Best way to never gain weight: Keep your carbs from grains sugars and potatoes to a minimum. Don’t eat polyunsaturated oils, but eat as much butter, coconut oil, red meat, and other healthy animal fats that you want. Eat full-fat dairy. Don’t eat processed food. Again, DONT EAT PROCESSED FOOD!.

    I probably eat 2500 plus calories a day (Don’t know…don’t count, but I eat A LOT of fat) I am 29 y.o., 112 lbs and 5’3″. I just got my cholesterol checked and my numbers are way down (and HDL is UP!) since my last check when it was 205 and I was eating a low-fat diet. I exercise by doing circuit weight training about 1-3 times a week, but I don’t kill myself with cardio. I only walk (uphill, sometime) a few times a week. My job is not active. Calories don’t matter. Nutrition matters….make sure your body gets the fat that it craves and you won’t crave carbs and sugar. The diet doctors are WRONG.

  8. You are absolutely right, Leah. Waiting til you’re actually hungry is one of the best ways of avoiding overeating. (Unfortunately for me, with the whole nursing thing, I spend most of of my days in a constant state of hungry, stomach growling and all, so I have to set times to eat or I’d be eating constantly : )).

  9. Yeah, I hear ya, Leigh Anne. I’m not nearly as precise as I used to be since I have a pretty good feel for how many calories are in the portions/foods that I eat, but I think the idea of using a website is brilliant! And way to go, girl, on losing the baby weight! It’s tough but so rewarding!

  10. I KNOW! Portions…I tell ya! They’re dangerous! And I’ve definitely been guilty of the calorie-obsessing as well as empty-calorie eating for sure. (I actually went back and used that phrase– “empty calories”– to make sure that everyone understood that I wasn’t advocating just stopping at an arbitrary number).

  11. I know…it was kind of evil, wasn’t it, Kelli? And yes, I’ve noticed that I have more of a struggle with staying in my calorie limit when I don’t watch the sugar-intake, even though I don’t have any sugar complications other than liking it too much. ; )

  12. I used to calorie count and found it was successful at helping me lose some weight but now I just eat to my hunger, meaning I wait all the way til my stomach growls at me (believe me…it develops A LOT of self-control!) The calorie counting was a great way to teach me proper portions but I think I prefer this way because then I’m not stressing about whether or not I have any calories left in my day. My body knows what it needs and when and I love that!

  13. I’ve recently started calorie counting while trying to lose baby weight from baby #3. She is 6 mos old and I’ve lost 23 lbs by just calorie counting and exercise. I’m am also still breastfeeding. I’ve found it the most effective way to lose weight. No food is off limits – just gotta keep it w/in the goal for the day :) Now that I’ve done it for a while, I don’t have to count exactly each day. I know the foods I consume and how many calories they have. When I started I was using http://www.myfitnesspal.com – a free website to count calories. It helped me so much. Thanks for this post! I always appreciate your advice on fitness :) All those food pics are making me hungry – BTW!

  14. I’ve found that listening to my body is the only thing that works for me. Sometimes I eat an outrageous amount and other days I’ll hardly eat at all. I also try to listen to what my body wants to eat. Turns out my brain loves bread, but my body… not so much. It takes practice but for me it is so worth it!!

  15. I’m the opposite- HATE calorie counting probably because I hate math lol. I look at calories when I’m buying foods at the store to make sure that this produce doesn’t have more calories than I think it should for what it is (i.e.- a slice of brad should be less than 120 calories) but then I don’t count daily. I know people who swear by it tough, and I think if it works for you that’s awesome!
    http://www.saysskippy.blogspot.com

  16. Umm, the cartoon is hilarious. I can’t tell you the times I’ve been half way through a bag of something only to realize I had already consumed 13 servings in one sitting.

    I used to be a little too obsessed about the calories, so I’ve had to let go the last few years and watch what I’m eating to make sure that whatever calories I am eating aren’t empty.

  17. Great post Abbie! I’ve been calorie/cholesterol counting for a few months. I WISH I had a 2,000 allotment of calories right now…but since my goal is to lose weight and not gain it, I’m stuck somewhere just under 1,100. That means there’s very little wiggle room – try as I might! I appreciate this post. Thanks!

  18. Not nice, Abbie, to write a post about calorie-counting with pics of all that yummy food! :)
    I find that watching my sugar intake is the best way for me to lose weight- but that is because I have something else going on that makes sugar the enemy. :(
    Glad you had a fab birthday weekend! Where was the Italian food, BTW?

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