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.
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.”
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.
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)?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.