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Quick post: answering email

November 10, 2008

Usual calorie/dieting/weight loss trigger warnings apply

Have a big test on Wed so no time for big posts (don’t cry.) But I got a nice email from Kathleen who had some lovely things to say and also asked a question that I thought I could post a quick answer to.

Kathleen asked me about counting calories and weighing/measuring foods. Do I do it? Is there a way to do it without becoming obsessive? Do I think it’s necessary for weight loss?

First, yes, I do sometimes count calories, but not all the time. I believe that part of changing my lifestyle is being able to actually adapt to these changes, not just keep them going with obsessive behavior. What I do is count calories for a week and by count, I mean just that. I don’t stop eating if I hit the number of calories I’m trying to eat that day and it’s still early or I get hungry later. Basically, what I’m trying to do is get used to what X amount of calories per day feels like. If I go way over or way under, I try to figure out where I might be able to change something to prevent it in the future.

Really, I don’t think about counting calories in terms of setting strict limits on what I can eat and beating myself up if a go above these limits. I want to develop enduring habits that are flexible enough for the real world. And I want to eat real food without being hungry all the time or feeling deprived of the things I like to eat.

After that week of counting, I try my best to continue eating in the same range of calories without having to count.

As I lose weight and my energy needs get a bit lower, I repeat the process. Probably every six weeks or so. That means I spend about 1 week out of 6 keeping track of the sugar in my oatmeal or the amount of dressing I put on my salad.

As for measuring, again, the answer is yes and no. The way I see measuring is that it’s not a way to figure out how much I should eat – really, you need to eat enough not be hungry – but rather so I know how much of a food I generally need to eat to be satisfied. Then I can use that information as part of figuring out how to eat a healthier diet. For example, I like to eat dry cereal in the morning while I drink my coffee. If I try a new brand, I pour myself a bowl and then get the measuring cup and see how much I’ve served myself. Knowing how much energy is in what I would consider an average serving allows me to plan for the rest of breakfast in a way that can maximize satiety while not eating more calories than I’d like to. I don’t have to ‘cut back’ on the cereal, just learn how to best fit it into my day. Again, I only really measure foods during periods where I am counting calories – it’s a way to check in and make sure I’m where I’d like to be.

Can I count calories without becoming obsessive? Yes. Can everyone? No. This is really an individual thing. I’m kind of a nutrition geek. I even took a nutrition course that had nothing to do with my major just because I find it interesting. For the most part, or maybe as much as is possible in our society, I’ve let go of the automatic calories=bad mindset. Lots of people feel like counting calories leads to obsessive and/or damaging behavior for themselves though.

Also it helps me to remember that any calorie counting is just going to be an estimation. How much dressing stuck to the bowl where I tossed the salad? Does the smaller heel of the loaf of bread have less calories than the piece in the middle? How many calories were in those three bites of oatmeal I left in the bowl? Maybe one day I think I ate 2,300 calories when I really ate 2,400 and the next day I think I ate 2,200 but really ate 2,000.

I am attempting to fall into a specific range most days, but most people regardless of size don’t eat the same amount every day. Plus, I’m more concerned about sustainable changes to my lifestyle so I’d rather it take weeks for me to find a ‘groove’ in terms of eating in a particular range than to constantly count calories and lose 2lbs/week.

Does everyone need to count calories if they want to lose weight? No. If there’s one thing I feel pretty sure about when it comes to weight loss, it is that people need to figure out what works for them. I’m a geek who loves nutrition, science and math so formulas and numbers don’t feel like work to me. That doesn’t mean reading endless papers about the thermic effect of different macronutrients and counting calories won’t make you (general you) want to tear your hair out.

Gee, this post turned out way longer than I thought it would. Hope that answers your questions, Kathleen.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. gnomeprincess permalink
    November 11, 2008 8:32 am

    I think this is really interesting. I lost 110lbs once in my life of dieting, and I kind of did this in a way. Basically I spent about a month or so counting calories, and then I just remembered roughly how much each food was, or how much I would eat on a normal day and went with that.

    Unfortunately I did become obsessive when this started to not produce the results I felt I needed, and started counting calories again obsessively. But it was really nice to know how to eat “normally” for awhile.

    I have never been able to maintain ANY weight for longer than a couple months. Since I turned 18 my body has either been gaining or losing at any given time, it gained up to 260lbs, lost down to 148lbs, gained up to 190, lost to 180, gained to 215, lost to 202, gained to 222, lost to 208, gained to 230, lost to 202, gained to 235.. You get the picture. I have never been stable in weight, I know we supposedly have a “set point” but I have never in my life found it. I did have “stalls” in my weight loss and weight gain at 155, 180, 210, 230. But obviously they can’t all be “set points”

  2. November 11, 2008 10:29 am

    When I first began trying to lose weight (before it became obsessive and disordered), I weighed and measured food just because I really didn’t know what a portion size looked like and thus, was unable to accurately calculate its nutritional information. Despite the wealth of dieting information bombarding us all every day, I find that most people are generally ignorant of nutrition basics overall. I mean, there are people who actually think that those 100-calorie junk food packs are healthier than a potato, i.e. my sister-in-law. I didn’t even know what a calorie was until my early 20s and I had no idea what the numbers on food nutritional labels meant or how to read them until about 5 years ago. We’re seeing more nutrition information presented in schools today, which is a good thing, but lessons often takes the wrong approach in the presentation of that information and end up reinforcing the good food/bad food ideology — as seen here.

    During my eating disorder, I memorized the caloric counts of most foods, so it’s hard not to be aware of calories today, even if I don’t look at the nutritional labels. But I find that calories aren’t as triggering for me now as they used to be, so its manageable. I try not to think of them as evil numbers to be avoided, but as fuel for my body and remember that like a car, a body can’t run on an empty tank. I check calorie counts (and other nutritional information) before dining out at new restaurants just to be aware of what it is I’m eating, but I generally don’t count every calorie I eat every day. I primarily eat a healthy vegetarian plant-based diet with whole grains in moderation and I’m physically active, so there’s generally no need to keep a running tally of calories. Like Attrice, I spot-check every once in a while, but I generally try to take my hunger/satiety cues from my body. Intuitive eating can be difficult — especially for people with past histories of eating disorders — and I’m no pro at it, but I find that it gets easier with time and a concerted effort.

    I don’t focus on calories so much now as I focus on the glycemic index of foods. I have hypothyroidism and like folks with diabetes, a low-glycemic diet is best for me and my condition. If you have a similar condition or disorder, following a low-glycemic diet can be better for health and weight management than relying solely on calorie counts. As Attrice has emphasized, weight management is all relative to the individual. I’ve maintained a 100-pound weight loss for going on five years now, but what works for me may not work for you and your lifestyle.

    Gnomeprincess: I believe that there exists a natural set point weight range, but I don’t think that this number is set in stone. Weight fluctuations, especially with such wide ranges as yours, can alter your set point weight to a higher weight, thus making it more difficult to lose weight, even if you eat and burn the same amounts of calories as you did when you were at that lower weight. And some people suffer from metabolic resistance, which can also influence a body’s set point weight range. Yes, it is all very frustrating, and is why weight alone shouldn’t necessarily be considered the end-all-be-all of health.

  3. November 11, 2008 9:45 pm


    That’s really interesting (and maybe frustrating at the very least from a clothing perspective) about the constant weight fluctuations. Rachel is definitely right that it just shows how we can’t use weight as the final word when it comes to health.

    I think a lot of people who start out losing weight with healthy habits and intentions end up having problems when their weight loss stalls/stops. Again, a good reason not to see weight as the ultimate measure of health or self-worth.

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