Counting Calories? Seriously?

Clearly Not Everyone is a Fan
Photo: Plan 59

Last week, as I was bemoaning the unfortunate connection between menopause and weight gain, I mentioned that I had started using a different approach to weight management that seemed to be working out well for me.

Yep, it's true! I'm now one of those scary women scurrying around the kitchen with tablespoons and measuring cups and a food scale and a little spiral notebook, weighing and measuring and scrawling numbers and scheming and plotting and cackling with demented glee when the numbers add up just right.

Counting calories?  It's almost embarrassing to admit.  How naive! How passe! How unevolved! How... weird is it that I'm losing weight, not feeling deprived, and even having fun?

I did the same thing back in my thirties, and it worked for me then too.  I don't know how long I plan to do it--but long enough to reset my "intuition" to a more appropriate intake. Say, enough food for a 51 year old woman and not a ravenous 600 lb grizzly bear intent on storing up enough fat for a very long, cold, hard winter.

But is counting calories healthy?  Or it an inherently messed-up way to deal with weight management? Are there ways to optimize nutrition, mental health, and hedonism while still managing to make the numbers add up the way you want them to?

Counting Calories Isn't For Everyone

Many of you have been there, done that, and found it didn't prevent weight gain. Or maybe it did but the results weren't worth it because of the resulting anxiety, depression, frustration, self-loathing, eating disorders, homicidal rages, catatonia, or spontaneous combustion. I imagine you must be thinking: Holy crap, what happened to Crabby? Perhaps the killer amoebas ate her brain?

I know too many lifelong calorie-obsessed, trying-their-hardest-yet-still-overweight dieters to believe that calorie counting is any sort of universal answer. But for someone like me, who has a reasonable metabolism, is very active, eats healthy food, and yet finds the clothes dryer has suddenly grown crazily aggressive and is shrinking all her jeans... calorie counting can be a very handy tool for portion control and accountability.

Crabby's Semi-Obvious Tips for Healthy Calorie Counting

For those of you who are calorie counting veterans, this list will seem laughably incomplete and over-simplified. But just in case there are others who like, me, are joining the party late, here are some thoughts:

1. Honesty Above All Else

If you are human, you will have days where you go way over what you've allowed yourself. (In fact, the whole first week my numbers were hilarious!) But for me, accounting for every damn thing I ate, whether it was a virtuous vegetable smoothie or an ill-advised third S'more at a beach bonfire, made me feel like I was still on track. As long as I wasn't lying to myself and undercounting or leaving things off, I could congratulate myself for being on the right path. And sure enough, staying accountable to my own process got me through the "Duh, I'm going to need to eat less" transition. As the daily calorie totals started dropping, the tallying itself became weirdly rewarding.

2. Allow Yourself Enough Damn Calories!

So many people have written about this that I won't belabor the point, but if you aren't eating enough (a) you will convince your body it's starving and thus screw up your metabolism and (b) you will feel hungry, crappy and deprived. It's not one of those things where "more" is better.

3. Prioritize Health

I hate to see dieters shunning healthy whole foods and opting for low-cal junky processed stuff instead.  But wow, now that I'm seeing how the numbers add up, I suddenly see the temptation!  Some of my favorite staples, like fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, grass-fed dairy, olive oil, avocados, etc can seem mighty "expensive" when on a calorie budget.  And conversely, a 150 calorie Skinny Cow chocolate peanut butter ice cream sandwich can seem like a great bargain!

A couple things I like to keep in mind, when tempted to prioritize naked calorie totals over nutritional quality and diversity:  there's more to weight (and especially belly fat) management than just calories in, calories out.  Healthy whole foods aren't just good for you, they keep you feeling full longer. Also, I just read about a recent study in an article entitled "Still Counting Calories? Your Weight Loss Plan May Be Outdated." (Thank you very much, Jane Brody, for calling my brand new shiny plan outdated!) Anyway, the study was full of interesting food and weight correlations. Turns out, independent of calories, there are indeed "bad" foods particularly linked to weight gain. (These include French fries, potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, red meats and processed meats, other forms of potatoes, sweets and desserts, refined grains, other fried foods, 100-percent fruit juice, and butter). Conversely, there are "good" foods linked to more successful weight management. Some of these were fruits, vegetables, whole grains, yogurt, and nuts, including peanut butter. And intake of dairy products, whether low-fat or full-fat, had a neutral effect on weight.

But how to take this into consideration when trying to hit a target calorie count? This leads to the next tip:

4. Creative Accounting

So in my calorie counting, I permit a "fudge factor." (Which, unfortunately, does not mean I get to eat extra fudge). I consciously round up calories a bit on "bad" foods, and round down a bit on "good" foods. I don't consider this cheating under the "honesty" rule, because I think it more accurately reflects the real differences in how our bodies handle what we eat. My calorie goal is arbitrary anyway; if over time my slight undercounting of good foods is skewing the results and I'm not reaching my target waist size, then I'll weep a few bitter tears and adjust downwards again. But otherwise, I might be too tempted to say goodbye forever to old friends like guacamole and trail mix, and hello to some artificially sweetened, fake-fat "lite" treat that makes the numbers look pretty at the end of the day.

5. Don't Forget Exercise

Some people track this separately, but my calorie target is based in part on how much I exercise. If I do more, I can eat more. If I do less... well, no dark chocolate and merlot for you tonight Crabby!

For me, I get best results making sure my workouts include a variety of cardio activities, high intensity intervals, strength training, flexibility, and balance training.  I've cut way back on the amount I sit during the day by using stand up desk and finding excuses to walk around. Plus, figuring in exercise to the calorie targets has resulted in my taking more after-dinner walks, riding my bike more on errands, and even going out dancing more. I'm a simple, easily manipulated creature: I love getting "credit," especially for things I enjoying doing anyway.

6. Allow Yourself Treats!

I function better knowing that nothing is truly forbidden. I can earn treats by making smart choices most of the time and having enough "in the bank" to withdraw on something frivolous. Some of these are relatively healthy expenditures (like dark chocolate or a low-sugar brand of kettlecorn) and some of them must go unnamed here because they are Ridiculously Evil and Indefensible. But I feel far less guilty when I do have something decadent now that it's part of an overall plan. Strangely enough, I'm finding the "restrictions" of calorie counting actually feel quite liberating.

However, it's only been a little over a month. Who knows, the novelty might wear off any moment, and the Grizzly Bear could emerge again, terrorizing nearby bakeries, ice cream parlors and burger joints.

Must. Have. Cupcakes.

So, does anyone else count calories? Or have I jumped on the bandwagon after everyone else in the world has jumped off?

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