On Calorie Counting

21 Nov

I did noooot feel like going for my daily run today. But I made myself get out the door and go anyway. No ipod, no iphone, just me and Henry. It was a beautiful day, and once I was out there things were fine. It wasn’t my favorite run, it wasn’t my least favorite run, but afterward I was glad I went. I’m always grateful afterward!

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my goals lately has been to drop a few of the extra pounds I picked up last year after entering the working world. At my job last year, it was expected that we all eat lunch out together. Since I was the only girl in a small office, we seldom went anywhere where there were healthy choices. Even when we did go somewhere that offered healthy choices, I had a hard time making those healthy choices. When every one around you is eating french fries, it’s hard to be the one with a salad. Sure, I would make a healthy choice every once in a while, but I could not make myself order the healthy thing day in and day out. My waistline and my wallet both suffered. I was also having to get used to fitting exercise around an 8-5 job. (Oh how I missed “free” access to my university’s awesome gym and a flexible schedule that allowed me to go work out at 10:00 on a week day!) Add in a new relationship for the better part of the year, and I was sitting at about 10 pounds over my normal size. All of my pants were too tight all of the time, and I was frustrated. 

At my new job, I’m on my own for lunch, which is how I like it. Except now, I no longer have any excuses for not getting my eating in gear. I expected those ten pounds to just fall off once I stopped eating lunches out. I know at this point you are probably shaking your head and thinking “bless her heart,” because shock of all shocks, no, ten pounds did not just “fall off.” Enter calorie counting.

Calorie counting is one of those things like weighing yourself. It has it’s uses, it can be a tool for success, but it can also be something that gets way out of hand and makes you miserable. Up until a couple of weeks ago, my calorie counting went a little something like this: Eat within my prescribed calorie budget for four days. Log everything dutifully. Go out to dinner/drinks/party/whatever and totally bust on daily calories. Lose the heart to log my failures. Quit calorie counting for the next two days and eat whatever I want. Start up again at the beginning of a new week. Repeat cycle.

I wouldn’t recommend this strategy for calorie counting. It doesn’t work. My bestie started having success calorie counting and she basically told me what her eating model has been. In a nutshell, she eats egg-whites + veggies for breakfast, chicken salad and one serving of potato chips for lunch, chicken or some other meat and veggies for dinner. Wash, rinse, repeat. It was the potato chips that gave me sort of an aha moment. So no. Eating processed foods is never ideal, but that little treat at lunch was helping to get her through the day. And the fact that she knew she could have a serving of chips kept her from downing a whole bag of chips in frustration later. (Which is what kept happening to me!) So I’ve been loosely following this guide — except that I can’t do the egg whites. I hate breakfast foods for the most part, so I usually make a protein smoothie. Also, I don’t eat chicken, and try not to eat other meat, so I usually sub in fish or tofu for lunch and dinner. And it’s been working! So here are just a few of my tips for calorie counting successfully:

1. Measure what you eat. This was my biggest down-fall for the first few months. It’s hard to log your food if you have no idea how much of it you are eating. If you aren’t measuring, you’re guessing. And you’re probably guessing wrong. Measuring also prevents me from, say, planning to eat a serving of carrots and hummus, then finishing off the tub of hummus with my finger.

2. Don’t deprive yourself. This is sort of the trickiest balancing act of trying to lose weight, and one I still struggle with. (See, e.g. my undying love for Taco Bell.) Obviously you have to deprive yourself a little. But you also need to eat in a way that is sustainable for weeks, or months, or even years. So, for example, if you love Taco Bell like a fat kid loves cake, get a taco! But don’t get two taco supremes, a cheesy gordita crunch, and a mexican pizza (a purely hypothetical order, of course!) Choose your indulgence wisely. And don’t eat Taco Bell for lunch, grab some co-worker birthday cake in the afternoon, and eat chicken alfredo for dinner. Obviously, it would be lovely to be able to eat whatever you want whenever you want, but that’s what put the pounds on. To take them off some things need to change.

3. Certain foods give you more bang for your caloric buck. Vegetables and lean protein have very low calories for the most part. Starches, alcohol, and dairy have fairly high calories. You may need to adjust the prominence these different foods play in your diet. For me, before I started calorie counting I used cheese the way some people use salt, or ketchup. I was using it to flavor my foods. Now, before I add cheese to something, I ask myself whether it will actually enhance the dish or not. Cheese is a calorie luxury, not a necessity. 

4. One “bust” on your calorie budget won’t kill you. Last week I had a day where I just ate everything in sight. It started off with me probably not eating as much as I should have for breakfast and lunch, followed up with me making a not-very-good meal for dinner. I ate about half of it, but I wanted to eat something that tasted better, so I had a few chips, then a few more, and before I knew it I had eaten the rest of the bag. Then I went to a gas station, bought a bag of gummi bears and polished those off as well. By the end of it all, I was about 1000 calories over the daily budget my calorie-counting app gives me. I fretted about it the next day, but then I realized something. My app gives me a calorie budget for me to lose 2 pounds per week. Since there are 3500 calories in a pound, that is a calorie deficit of 7000 calories. So even if I go over my calorie budget by 1000 calories one day, I’ve still lost nearly two pounds that week. So one splurge (embarrassing as it is) won’t hurt me.

5. It takes a long time. A couple of weeks ago, I thought “man, I’ve been eating really well this week. I should reward myself with some Taco Bell.” Then I realized I had only been tracking my calories for two days. Losing weight takes work because it takes consistency. It means having the will-power to make good choices all day, every day, for weeks, months, and years. As I’ve learned the hard way, those ten pounds aren’t going to just fall off on their own. I need to change the choices I’ve been making in order for that to happen.

6. It gets easier. At first it is so hard. When you’ve been letting yourself have whatever you want whenever you want, it is hard to change. Your body will not want to change. Your mind will start telling you that you “deserve” this that or the other thing. If there is a point where it is smooth sailing, I’m not there yet, but I will say that mostly, it is easy. After two weeks, I no longer act like every meal has to be something that is going to “wow” my taste buds. The good thing about meals is that there is always another one coming. I don’t have to treat every meal as though it is my last one.

So that’s my sage advice for the week. This has been a long post, but it’s something that has been on my mind lately, and I wanted to speak about it.

How do you feel about counting calories?

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