HOW I STARTED (and stopped) CALORIE COUNTING
So, one of the major things I did that I’ve associated with my weight loss is calorie counting. I did it for a solid two years, and it got so normal for me that I thought that I would pretty much do it for forever. I finally (painfully) weaned myself off of it just about two months ago and if all goes well I’ll never go back to it.
So, this is confusing as fuck, right? First I’m telling you that I lost a shitload of weight by doing this - but then it sounds like I’m talking shit about it. Stay tuned. As I’ve mentioned through-out this site I am not a health care professional or nutritionist. Almost everything I’ve done has been through trial and error. If I was starting my weight-loss journey again, despite how successful it was, I would do it differently. I’ve learned some shit. But ain’t that what life’s all about?
Calorie counting became a security blanket for me and I legit had anxiety in the days leading up to stopping. It was a guideline for me. A safety net. It kept me in control and accountable. But then I read Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s “The End of Dieting” and found a new way to keep myself accountable that was a lot simpler and has so far eliminated my need to do it the way that I was.
CALORIES IN / CALORIES OUT
My first approach to weight loss was math. Calories are energy and that shit is science. There’s a certain number associated with each pound in your body: 3,500 to be exact. So you guessed it - for every 3,500 calories you burn then you’ll also lose a pound of weight. That means for my personal overall weight-loss I burned 700,000 calories more than I ate. Holy fuck. But because you’re a human being you also have to consume calories so you don’t die. Based on our bodies there’s a certain number of calories that we need each day - that’s called your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate for you nerds), and that is the bare minimum you would need if you were in a coma and lying in bed. That’s what your body burns without doing literally anything else. If you lift a finger you’re burning more. Yeah! What is your BMR? Well, it’s based on your gender, age, height, and weight. There’s a bunch out there that you can search for but here's one to get your started that I like.
My BMR number is: 1,743. So why is that important to know? It’s important because it means that if I eat less than that number of calories each day I will automatically lose some weight. It also means that depending how active I am I will burn even more calories. Say I do a workout that burns 500 calories. Suddenly my calorie number for the day is now 2,243 - which is my AMR (Active Metabolic Rate - so it’s your BMR + the calories you additionally burned).
Now you’re saying - you can’t fucking burn 3,500 a day! No, you can’t. (I mean, you can, but it’s dangerous if you’re not consuming a ton of calories as well to compensate - don’t fucking do this!) That’s why it’s healthier to aim for 1-2 pounds of weight-loss per week. Because if you burn 500 additional calories a day that’s 3,500 over the course of a week and that's totally doable. That’s a pound! Math! Here’s how the math (generally) worked for me:
My daily AMR based on daily activity: 2,300 - 2,400
The calories per day I would try to limit myself to: 1,500 - 1,600
So that meant if I hit my goals I would be burning about 800 additional calories a day. Which meant I would lose a pound roughly every 3.5 days or so. And I did. Once I got into a grove I lost about 8-10 pounds a month, and roughly 160 pounds in 2 years.
For a better big picture of how much you should weigh and what your goals should be for your weight loss check out this other article I wrote here.
SO HOW DOES THE ‘COUNTING’ PART WORK?
First and foremost I made a rule: I would never go hungry. If I was going to be starving all the time then this wasn’t going to work. I wouldn’t be one of those people. So using a calorie counting app I became a little nerd to figure out which foods were super filling without being high in calories. Little did I know I was already training myself to be a Nutritarian by starting to seek out high nutrient density foods. And it was through this that I naturally cut out a lot of bad shit. In the old days at breakfast when I had eggs I would always have two slices of bread. The day I discovered that was at least 200 calories sort of blew my mind. I knew that the bread was not all that filling - or flavourful, really. I was just used to eating it with eggs because… well that’s what I always did for my entire life. I realized I could have 2-3 apples or an apple and a banana instead of the bread - way more filling and flavourful.
Luckily we live in a time that’s super tech-savvy - and if you’ve got a smart phone then you’ve got a calorie counter in your pocket. There’s a whole whack of them for you to choose from. I chose the app SPARK PEOPLE, because I tried using it years ago during one of my failed attempts at losing weight (no fault of the apps) and so I was somewhat used to it’s interface. It’s honestly the only one I’ve ever tried and I like it enough so I never bothered playing with any of the other popular ones - but here’s a list of what’s generally considered the best, in no particular order:
What’s great about apps are that they’re connected to a community and generally speaking if you use them on a regular basis the way they’re supposed to be then they hold you accountable. You can be part of their message boards and find others to talk to if that helps as well. But at the very least it’s connected to a network so whenever you enter food into it, it’s pretty much always in its database. Most of them also have barcode scanners as well so if your food has a barcode you can grab it’s nutritional information that way as well. If you’re going off of a recipe then you’re going to have to figure out the calories in the portion you’re eating.
Another thing I really love about SparkPeople (and I assume others can do this too) is it has a “Recipe Box” section to it’s website where you can add all of the ingredients of your recipes and it’ll figure out the nutritional information based on the portion of it you ate. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to do it but once it’s in the system it’s there forever and you can access it from your food database the way you would any other food item. And you can even share the recipe with others. Even though I’ve stopped officially counting calories I’ll often still use this resource when I make up a recipe from scratch just to see where it lands.
What is good about calorie counting, primarily, is that it holds you accountable. When you have to enter in every single food item you consume it’ll make you think twice about eating certain things. It shames you a bit - which I personally like, but I can understand how that can be mentally difficult for some people. Figure out what’s best for you. It also just makes you aware of what I like to call “the currency of food”. What is food worth? I thought of calories the way I thought of my allowance as a kid. I earned a certain amount every day, and if I did chores (exercise) then I could earn more, and if I didn’t spend it all (eating more than I needed to), then I could save up (losing weight). Again - math!
THE NUTRITARIAN WAY (or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP COUNTING CALORIES)
As I got to the end of my weight-loss period and closer to maintenance I discovered Dr. Joel Fuhrman and his Nutritarian way of eating. His belief is that that counting calories isn't necessary and mentally harmful to people. His thought is that we don't need to keep track of all our food, because certain kinds of food have a very high nutrient density. Those foods we can pretty much eat in unlimited quantities so long as we listen to our bodies and stop when we’re actually full. It’s only certain kinds of foods that we have to keep track of, these are foods that are still healthy, but fattier and lower in nutrient density and therefore higher in calories. These are foods we should limit to certain amounts per day (or week) and therefore need to track those and make sure we’re held accountable for them. So my nerdy brain was happy to have a system in place for that. Here’s what it looks like:
Green Leafy Vegetables / Raw Non-Starchy Vegetables (Unlimited)
Steamed Vegetables (Unlimited)
Fruits (3 servings minimum) (Unlimited)
Berries (1 serving minimum) (Unlimited)
Mushrooms (Unlimited)Onions (Unlimited)
Beans / Legumes (1/2 - 1 cup minimum) (Unlimited)
Ground Flax = 1 Tbsp (eat daily)
Avocado = 1-2 oz (Max)
Seeds / Nuts = 1.5-2 oz (Max)
Dried Fruit = 4 Tbsp (1/4 cup) (Max)
Grain / Starchy Vegetables = 6 servings (ideally less) (Max)
Animal Products (Eggs/Fish/Cheese) = 10% of your AMR calories (Max 12 oz a week)
Processed Foods = 10% of your AMR calories mine is about 280/day (Max)
Animal 0/12 oz (M)
Processed 10% of your weekly AMR - mine is about 1900/week (Max)
Cheat Meal/Treat 0/1 (Max)
As I said, I was super anxious to stop counting calories. When it’s something you do through-out the day, as I did, it becomes your norm. Most days I would actually pre-count my calories for the next day to try and just give myself a meal plan that I didn’t have to think about and just had to follow. I really enjoyed that, actually. It somehow felt less shaming than entering the info in as I was eating it. But I was nervous that Furhman’s method wouldn’t work and I’d gain my weight back. But then my rational mind took over (and a pep talk from my wife) that if the worst did happen - and I did gain weight - I could lose it again. I had the tools to do so. There was pretty much no real risk to this experiment other than me growing the fuck up and letting go of my security blanket.
SO HOW DID MY ‘EXPERIMENT’ GO?
It was hard. I was anxious for the first month of the two-month commitment I’d made to do this. And it didn’t help that I hadn’t set myself up to win by thinking about it the right way. I’ve been obsessed with “what my weight should be” as I worked through my weight-loss. I needed to have a magic number that would equal success for me. I’ve learned since then how dangerous that can be. Especially because, in the end, I had been calculating my number wrong and it was actually allowed/supposed to be higher than it was. I thought that my “ideal” weight based on an average of nerd-work I’d done (I have another article about that which you CAN READ HERE) was 166 pounds. I would later learn that it was actually closer to 171. When I shifted over to this new way of tracking I was at my 166 and I was super proud of myself. As I went along over the course of the first month my weight gradually went up and seemed to settle around 171 - which really upset me at first. In my mind I had gained 5 pounds on this experiment. However, I then realized my number had been wrong and I was technically underweight. Over the last month I’ve continued to float between 170 and 175 and I'm actually landing closer to 175 - - which is 100% normal. For those who don’t know your weight can fluctuate as much as 3-5 pounds daily and it’s not always to do with your food intake. It’s often related to many other things and that’s why weighing yourself regularly (I do it daily) is good in that you get used to seeing fluctuations all the time and it doesn’t freak you out as much when you go up and down a little bit so long as you’re headed in (or staying in) the right direction. The best time of day to weigh yourself is first thing in the morning after you’ve gone to the bathroom. It’s the only way to get any real consistency. Once you start moving around, drinking and eating the fluctuations begin and don’t stop. Don’t weigh yourself multiple times a day - that way just leads to heartache. Some people think weighing yourself every day is too much. I like it and it works for me, but you do you.
Now that I’m in maintenance I’m getting mentally healthier about not focusing so much about the number on the scale so much as I’m focusing on eating the right things in the right quantities (and the wrong things in the right quantities too! It’s IMPORTANT TO TREAT YOURSELF, YO!). I’m focused on how I feel, my waist size, and my body fat percentage. You can read more about that here.
If I was to start this all over again I would still figure out what my weight range was supposed to be in - just to give myself a gauge of the journey ahead of me - but I would approach it through my new way of tracking. And really, if you just track your weight you can probably get away with not figuring out your ideal weight range since your body will naturally settle there once it’s found it - that's what Dr. Fuhrman recommends as well as some other peopleI follow. Most people like to have a target though - whatever works for you. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
I don’t regret the calorie counting in that it made me teach myself about eating higher nutrient dense food at a time when I wasn’t aware of the Nutritarian lifestyle that I now follow. Outside of the anxiety I felt when I stopped, it was a healthy enough experience for me - though I know that it made me anal and controlling at times. I think for most people doing it the Nutritarian way will be far simpler, and ultimately healthier because it focuses more on the types of food rather than simply calories as a mathematical number and that’s really the ultimate goal: to eat better, not just to cheat the system and hit the right caloric numbers. That’s the sort of thing that gives you a healthy way of living for forever that you can stick to. That’s where I’m at, and hopefully you are too.