Calories In, Part II: Taking the Frustration Out of Calorie Counting
Calorie counting is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misapplied weight loss strategies out there.
The idea of calorie tracking has gotten some bad press, understandably. People who have done decades of Weight Watchers are typically fatigued from tracking points, and, in general, diet trends tend to come and go. In that cycle, calorie tracking has come, and now it’s gone.
This shift is largely positive, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge that. As a culture, we’ve become much more educated about food quality, macronutrients, nutrition chemistry, human health, and eating psychology, which means that our toolbox for health management has expanded.
In other words, I’m glad that women no longer aim to hit their WW points on nothing but 100-calorie packs of popcorn and pretzels and crackers.
However, the overwhelming trend has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater and assume that “calories don’t count,” or even that it is counterproductive to be aware of calorie intake. It doesn’t help that there have been several bestsellers, like Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, that have further driven the nail into the coffin of public opinion.
In this sense, I am always intrigued by zeitgeist – the concept of a prevailing collective consciousness. The recent campaign against calories has been so effective, that – in general – my newest clients seem to be almost programmed to be resistant to the idea of calorie counting. Those who have struggled with eating disorders have a legitimate reason to be wary of creating too much dietary restraint, but in general, most people could benefit from more food awareness, not less.
In fact, counting calories with an app like MyFitnessPal can be one of the sharpest tools in the box when it comes to making small yet meaningful shifts in your lifestyle. For the smallest investment, it can yield disproportionately “wow” results in terms of health, habits, and physique. Yet so many people resist it, and I see the reasoning come from three different camps:
- A fear of becoming obsessive, micro-managing, or restrictive; or
- A general sense of being “over it” with attempts at dieting, and wanting something simpler and lower-effort; or
- A reaction to seeing a coworker, friend, or relative get impressive results with a non-calorie-oriented diet, like the ketogenic diet or intermittent fasting
I want to be clear that – in this post – I am addressing the above three groups, not:
- Someone who has been diagnosed with a clinical eating disorder, or
- Someone who knows they have struggled in the past with extremely disordered eating
This is crucial to the discussion, because before we get into the discussion of using calorie counting as a strategy to interact with metabolism, we need to clear the air that eating disorders are mental illnesses, not body image issues. Just like someone with a very clean house and impeccable personal hygiene does not necessarily have obsessive compulsive disorder, someone who is observant and restrained in their eating does not necessarily have an eating disorder. There’s an incalculably wide gulf in between.
However, there’s no doubt that once someone starts wading into the calorie-counting waters, there’s potential for all sorts of complicated experiences – frustration, confusion, over-focus, mis-directed focus, and more. This is often because of a lack of mindset guidance, not because of calorie tracking itself. With the appropriate perspective, a loose hand on the reins, and a solution-oriented focus, calorie-counting can be an empowering and freeing tool, not a path to obsession.
Why Calorie Tracking Can Be So Helpful
We tend to separate foods into “healthy” and “unhealthy.” This is sometimes critical strategy error. Here’s why:
If a 6’2″, 250-pound man decides to start “eating clean,” the great likelihood is that he is going to immediately start losing weight, because his “caloric budget” is quite large. Even if he only exercises three times a week, it’s quite likely that his total metabolic burn is going to be around 3000 calories a day. If he only takes in 2,200 calories a day with his new “clean eating” lifestyle, he’s going to lose weight, probably dramatically.
When someone like that starts “eating clean,” they are often quickly dropping a lot of peripheral junk from their diets, and the loss of those calories alone is enough to put a person like this into a deficit.
However, when a 5’2″, 130-pound woman decides to “eat clean” to lose weight, she might not see a lot of progress, even if she’s quite active. This is because, assuming her metabolism is average and healthy, she would probably have to dip well below 1800 calories a day to lose any weight. If you’ve ever tracked calories, you know that 1800 calories can easily be hit with all “healthy” foods in normal amounts, and is easily exceeded with “weekend eating,” even if intake is moderate and balanced and there is no binging behavior present.
How often have you seen this with a husband and wife who start a new healthy lifestyle together? They do the exact same things, but the husband seems to drop 20 pounds almost overnight, while the woman gains a pound. It’s so incredibly common.
This is why using some generalized diet approaches can be exceedingly frustrating for women, especially smaller women. The standard American diet, which heavily influences our food culture and environments, tends to cultivate a “normal” setting of eating 2000+ calories per day. Again, this can even happen with “healthy” foods. If you are petite, you are simply not going to lose weight without adjusting your eating below this point.
This is where calorie tracking can help you establish your “normal” – the one that works for you, and helps you achieve your goals. Instead of deploying random diet tactics to restrict intake, you can develop a set of routines that are personalized, reliable, and livable.
But, like I said, mindset guidance is essential.
To best use calorie tracking as a tool, here are five mindset shifts that will help you re-orient your thinking around calories and tracking.
1. Tracking is for Observing Behavior, Not Driving Behavior.
Tracking can be a sort of “chicken or the egg” issue.
Many women fall into a relationship with tracking that is primarily reactive. They eat, and they track what they eat, and if they have calories left over, they eat more. If they go over, they feel like a failure.
You can see that that strategy does not really go anywhere, and could definitely create over-focus or micro-managing.
MyFitnessPal is not meant to be your digital food conscience, following you around and judging your choices. Although it can help with willpower in a moment of indecision, that should not be its primary role. Ideally, tracking should be a tool for helping you spot the strengths and weaknesses of your lifestyle, making changes to the way you prep and plan, and measuring the success of these changes as you implement them.
It’s not meant to be an external method of self-regulation – an angel on your shoulder to help you make better choices.
Instead, I use the analogy of a map. When we are driving somewhere new, we use the map to help with directions, but the map is not driving the car. We consult the map, but keep our eyes on the road. Similarly, we consult calorie information, but keep our eyes on the big picture and moving forward.
My advice: track for a week, and then begin to use the information you’ve gathered to make strategic shifts in your eating. Then, tracking is for the purpose of measuring the success of these shifts over time. First, you could focus on calories. Then, you could focus on protein within calories. Then, you could focus on fiber within calories, then saturated fat, and so on and so forth.
If tracking doesn’t evolve with you and doesn’t change the way you plan your food, you’re stuck in a reactive mode, and the map is driving the car.
2. “Don’t Worry, Be Crappy.”
Many people say that calorie counting isn’t accurate.
However, I have to quote Guy Kawasaki, who originally worked with Apple in the 80’s when they were releasing their first computers: “Don’t worry, be crappy.”
‘Revolutionary’ means you ship and then test… Lots of things made the first Mac in 1984 a piece of crap – but it was a revolutionary piece of crap.”
The approach to calorie counting needs to be similar. You don’t have to worry about being perfect – you just need to do it. It could be revolutionary. Ship, and then test. You only improve through practice.
However, if you are truly worried about the inaccuracy of the method, let me offer one more idea: the more accurate you are, the more accurate calorie tracking will be.
Many people I work with jump to worrying about whether the calorie count on the box is accurate. Trust me – if you are measuring the correct portion size from the box, it is accurate enough. Measuring cups and spoons, containers, and other methods of measurement will put your worries to rest.
3. Track the calories that really count.
A common objection I hear is that someone doesn’t want to “track every leaf of spinach that they eat.”
To be frank, I’m always intrigued by this choice of words, because it makes me wonder: does someone really think that the point of tracking is to micro-manage their intake of non-starchy vegetables? Do they really think that this is their biggest problem, when the scale is stuck?
In general, most people do not need to literally track every single thing they eat. Things like spinach, broccoli, lettuce, and even starchier vegetables like peppers, tomatoes (yes, I know they’re fruit), and carrots can be either left out or tracked very casually. The difference between one cup of romaine and two cups of romaine, for example, are not going to meaningfully affect your bottom line.
The exception, of course, would be if you’re trying to hit specific fiber goals, and then you would want to track your veggie intake.
But for the most part, there are a few foods that are the most important to track to help manage calories. If you have limited bandwidth for tracking, these foods are the starter list:
- Peanut butter
- Olive oil (or any oil, butter, or salad dressing)
- Nuts / seeds
- Coconut products
- Granola / cereal
- Snacks like crackers and chips (even “healthy” ones)
- Treats like ice cream (even “healthy” ones)
These are foods that are incredibly easy to over-consume. Can you overeat on lentils? Yes. But it is far more likely that you will unknowingly consume three tablespoons of peanut butter instead of one, taking in 320 calories when you only track 110.
These foods tend to be high in calories for a small size. They are foods that we tend to be poor at “eyeballing,” that we underestimate when we pour or scoop. Some of them also tend to be foods that we mentally “discount” because they’re “healthy” – like coconut replacements for dairy. Most of these foods also happen to be delicious, which means they’re automatically easy to overeat. By measuring and tracking just these foods accurately, it is quite likely that you will be 90% of the way there without tracking all of your food.
4. Remember that everything is relative.
I want to revisit the example of the 250-pound man vs. the 130-pound woman. If you contrast these two people, you could see that:
- “Normal” is relative.
- “Overeating” is relative.
- “Not eating enough” is relative.
If the man ate 2,000 calories, he might not be eating enough. If the woman ate 2,000 calories, she may be eating too much.
Then, layer on the perspective of individual goals. Let’s use the woman in the example. If she wants to maintain her weight, 1,800 is probably fine. If she wants to put on serious muscle, 1,800 is “not eating enough.” If she wants to lose weight, 1,800 is “eating too much.”
Normal is extremely relative – to you as a person, and also to your goals. We can’t apply sweeping value judgments to eating behaviors.
I often see this holding women back when they attempt to count calories. When a very small woman uses a fat loss budget of 1300 calories, it seems like “not enough.” However, it may be enough – for her, and for her goal of fat loss. However, it seems like not enough, compared to the overwhelming influence of the standard American diet and the eating opportunities and choices that confront us every day.
Be clear on who you are, and what your goals are. Don’t use the standard American diet, on the one hand, or “clean eating,” on the other hand, as your points of comparison. Instead, use your level of physical (not mental) satisfaction with food, your level of energy, and how you’re performing at life as your metrics for “enough.” And don’t judge others for what they’ve chosen to do – insecurity is often the basis for poking holes in the ways that other people eat. We’re all allowed to eat how we want and feel is best for us.
5. Don’t stay in constant fat loss mode.
This is the #1 mistake that I see women make.
I get it. I relate to it. I do it. Women are socialized to be almost constantly worried about their weight and size.
When women see their metabolic numbers, they often overlook the idea of maintenance, and aim straight for loss. Sometimes, this is a mistake.
Maintenance is extremely valuable, but often overlooked. Sometimes, even a gain can be valuable, depending on where you are. Depending on your starting point and your goals, you do not need to be in fat loss mode all the time. In fact, you should not be. Maintenance has many benefits, including:
- Building habits through repetition
- Giving the metabolism time to stabilize
- Allowing your metabolism the leeway to gain muscle
- Decreasing stress and balancing your hormones
By focusing more on maintenance than on loss, you build healthy habits, and you also prevent the likelihood of burnout.
For example, if you’re steadily gaining weight and you do not want this to continue, it’s a win to simply stop gaining weight. It may be not be a sexy victory, but it’s a success nonetheless. If you’ve lost 40 pounds and have 20 left to go, but can’t get the last 20 moving, it is a significant success that you are not re-gaining the 40.
As I said earlier this week in Part I of this post, ideally, you will spend most of your life maintaining, not losing. By orienting your weight loss attempts around maintenance, you build the habits that you need to maintain for a long, long time.
Calories aren’t just for weight loss. Tracking calories can also give you much-needed insights for weight and physique management over the long haul – building muscle, maintaining weight, and responding in real-time to changes in lifestyle and health.
You don’t need to do it all the time. You don’t need to do it forever. You don’t need to have your head buried in MyFitnessPal as you eat each meal.
Instead, if calorie tracking is a tool that could work for you, I highly encourage you to use it proactively, responsively, and moderately. Plan your food, pre-track at the beginning of the day, and then do your best to follow your plan and see what happens. Let it help you spot your strengths and weaknesses, and make changes to your overall food planning to remedy your pitfalls. Remember that if you make choices that are different from your plan, you can always re-set in the middle of the day – a day is never “trashed.” This is like driving the car off a cliff because you took a wrong turn. Things are not happening to you – you are in control.
When you embark on calorie counting with this mindset, you may be surprised that it’s “not your mom’s calorie counting.” Instead, it can empower you, free you, and allow you to be the scientist and experimenter of your own life, with you at the wheel.