September 12, 2011

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?


  1. Crabby, good for your. Do whatever works. I am much to lousy at math to count calories. I like your idea of rounding up the bad calories and rounding down the good.

  2. Yes, I count calories too - numbers and tables and graphs are a fantastic way for me to keep accountable, whether it's exercise, food or weight that I'm tracking. I don't under- or overcount, but I eat reasonably healthily on the vast majority of days anyway.

    What works for me is the "if-I'm-going-to-break-budget-for-it-it-better-be-worth-the-calories" approach - a fantastic dinner at my favourite restaurant or the perfect panna cotta probably is, store-bought pizza or a Mars bar probably isn't. (And nuts and seeds are permanently planned-for, anyway. ;))

  3. Isn't Weight Watchers - which is enormously popular - basically the same thing as counting calories? Don't beat yourself up - you're hip!!

  4. Yes, I count calories and, not as rigorously, carbs. I use a website called myfitnesspal to track. I really am not able to lose weight otherwise.


  5. I just recently started counting calories again, after thinking for years that "counting anything makes me a crazy obsessive person." I started to question why counting calories was always so hard for me and I realized that, duh, it's hard for anyone to stay under a ridiculously low calorie level WHILE sneaking Cheetos and Oreos in there (and then I would get frustrated because I wasn't losing weight - go figure). So now, I have a calorie range and as long as I stay in that range, I'm good. Also I try to NOT eat crap foods, although it still happens on occasion. I have a much more relaxed approach now, and I think it's something I can do for awhile. :)

  6. Counting calories used to depress me, so i don't any more.

    Glad you have found it works for you, and i agree it can help in the attempt to keep portion sizes more realistic.

  7. Yup, that's always my fall back as well. And getting real about just how many calories I'm actually burning during exercise. I admit I'm a fan of Spark People. Their database is huge and it requires no math on my part. I don't measure though, mostly eyeball, so I also use a fudge factor assuming what I think is a cup is more likely 15% more than that.

  8. That article was interesting.

    I am back to counting calories. I did for quite a few years and never lost much weight, but managed to at least keep from gaining. Stopped counting, gained pounds. So I am back to calorie counting but I'm not being obsessive about it and I am trying to focus on eating healthy stuff. Unfortunately the 'bad foods' still call to me...

  9. That's exactly what my last post was talking about :-)

    You probably won't have to do it for too long once you get your numbers accurate.

  10. I have started counting calories after years of failure as well. MyFitnessPal has kept me tracking for over 2 months, and when I'm faithful to it, I do lose weight! When the weekends come and I don't really feel as motivated to track, that's where I slip a bit. Keep at it girl.

  11. I count calories too! It does take time and you really have to be honest with what you intake. I havent done it in a little while but when I do count cals I have seen results!

  12. I count calories. It's the only way to know what level you can maintain, lose..and above which you start to gain. Period. You learn your range.

    Jane Brody is kinda full of crap. I remember when she and all those experts were pushing the radically low-fat, high carb mantra. I wouldn't put my faith in her. I'd put my faith in what works for your body. Every person is different, as some have medical conditions and metabolism issues/diseases others don't.

    Some lose fine eating high carb, others need to eat higher fat/higher protein. It really depends on where you are, who you are.

    I think part of the weight loss journey is learnign what works for US...what foods make us go ballistic, what meals WORK to make us feel full while providing nutrition , what gives us energy, what makes us lethargic, what makes our conditions flare, what makes us just FEEL better.

    We have to become our own experts, while learning about nutrition in general.

    And understanding that experts have biases, and what is DOGMA now, maybe OLD HAT STUPID DAMAGING stuff in 20 years. Science always learning something new, and interpretation of data can be skewed by biases and what the gov't chooses to fund research-wise.

    Don't always trust writer experts. Trust your own health journey and what works with sanity. (Santy being EAT REAL FOOD not a day long servings of packaged crap. Real food trumps crap. :D)

    Happy calorie counting.

  13. Hafta agree with Dr. J. Even if you don't keep counting calories long term, even a short burst of countiness is educational. I mean, people tend to get into ruts of eating the same kinds of food. After a while, you can develop an eye and estimate how many cupcakes you can have before having to do extra jumping jacks.
    And yeah... I'm doing the counting stuff too. I told myself I'd track exercise and calories for 30 days, just to see what the numbers told me.
    Bonus question: why do I feel the urge to cheat and /not/ write down the bad things? Who am I trying to look good for, myself? The same person who actually ate the extra cupcakes? Why does the left hand want to lie to the right hand?

  14. Very helpful...will begin to consider at least writing down what I eat. Have to admit I felt a brief spark of hope when I first read "fudge factor."

  15. Calorie counting does certainly work. It is made much simpler by calorie tracking sites like, and because you can enter a food and chances are that the calories have been calculated for you-close enough anyway. Making sure your caloric goal is appropriate for your height and age is very important too.

    That "Still Counting Calories" article was misleading to many who would assume that as long as they ate healthy they can eat as much as they want-obviously not true. It was based on epidemiology not biology. They tracked behavior, not blood glucose levels, and made correlations like "skipping breakfast leads to weight gain"-again not true.

    As long as you're not too insulin resistant, calorie reduction works. Just balance out the hi calorie days with some low, below goal, calorie days and your weight will keep dropping.

  16. I tried Fitday again after several years, because I wanted to get a handle on both the calories I was consuming and the nutrient balance I was getting. I could never have counted calories before such tools existed, because it's boring enough without having to do the math yourself. This time I've managed to save my username and password in case I want to do another check in a few years.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  17. THAT IS WHAT I DO except I don't need to count the calories anymore. I was at a good point so with age & hormones, I just adjust food, the types of food, the % of carbs & protein from where I knew what worked at a certain age & I continue to do this with the hormone battle as each year seems to fight me more. And yes, I am like you with exercise too!

    I think some people don't want to log cause it tells them the truth & others don't log all those little nibbles thru the day taste tests as they cook too. I once did a post about a lady that finally logged all those little nibbles & they added up to almost 1000 calories!!!

    Great post!

    PS: You might want to enter my giveaway today.. it is for "us folks". ;-)

  18. I'm a counter! Measuring cups and spoons every day. I'm a huge advocate for it, especially the part about eating healthy natural foods even if they have more calories because they do leave you filling fuller longer.

    Great points. I secretly think calorie countingwith true honesty and education about how much should be consumed is everyone's new weight loss secret.

  19. This brought a smile to my face. I have always been thin and fit - until the last year or so ... ok maybe it's been more than a year. I am still a healthy looking thin person, but with the descent of menopause and hot flashs I am seeing the lbs. are harder to move. I haven't counted calories for years but maybe I need to give it a try. I did break my year long hiatus and did some ab work today!

  20. I'm weird about how I count calories... I never really know my total for the day, but I always check nutrition labels before I grab a snack, trying to keep it under 200, and making sure that the sugar content is relatively low. Is this a pointless strategy?

  21. Wow what a great blog!! so happy I found this, talk about awesome posts! i am now a follower! just wanted to comment and say thanks for such incredible articles and blogs. Its sometimes hard to find such good quality stuff nowadays. I love your thoughts on counting calories round up the bad, round down the good... Its genius!HA! thanks again for all of your work! Keep it up!

  22. I count carbs, but not really calories. I measure and count out stuff too though.

  23. I think your approach sounds perfectly sensible and I love all your suggestions! As you well know, calorie counting hasn't done well by me in the past but I chalk it up to my OCD tendencies and not the fault of the mechanism itself;)

  24. Hi, Thanks for providing these health tips & all are looking helpful & effective for us.

    Thanks for this post!

  25. Im with leah.
    fitness and EATING and **LIFE** is not about fitting into what works for anyone else huh?

  26. I'll admit that counting calories works for me, too. Most of the time it's just too much trouble, but once every couple of months, I drag out the kitchen scale, measuring cups and little notebook, and I monitor everything. I could never do it all the time, but counting calories occasionally helps keep me honest about portion control and helps me really value that glass of wine!

  27. Really interesting and relevant to something I just wrote about. I read something about "calorie awareness" that really hit home. There is no way I am going to attempt to count every calorie. But I am trying to be aware of the calorie amount of everything I eat. A good example is almonds. Really good for you, no doubt. But are we aware that 1 oz. has 160 calories?

  28. I've been doing the calorie counting thing too, using Lose It! Since it also tracks the nutrients I'm interested in and my activity it's helpful. I find that every 12 months or so I have to go back to measuring and weighing because my portion sizes slooooowly creep up. Unless it's something I like, then they quickly creep up!

  29. Hiya, long time reader, first time commenter here. I like calorie counting, and lost quite a lot of weight that way. I'm quite mathematically minded though so I quite enjoy the calculations and keeping track of everything.

    I'm weight maintaining these days, but if I go off track then a few weeks of keeping a calorie food diary gets me back on track. Somehow I am much more accountable when I write stuff down, even if I chuck the paper away at the end of the day.

    Your rules are very sensible too. I always round up to the nearest 10 cals, and dont count veg and salad individually - I just add on say 50 calories for my veggies with dinner etc.

  30. I'm definitely a fan of calorie counting. I know it can be stressful when you first start out, but I've always found it ultimately makes me less stressed out. It gives you so much control to be able to reduce things to numbers you can change rather than blaming your fat on some mysterious force.

    I think the problem is that people get so stressed out when they know they've eaten over their budget. It's important for people to remember to forgive themselves. I recently wrote an article about how to forgive yourself and regroup after you've messed up your diet big time.

  31. Amen for #2 -- allowing yourself enough damn calories.

    I started using after experimenting with Weight Watchers. It's awesome, absolutely awesome with all kinds of free tools, and it's free free. (The cheapskate in me loves that.) I am beginning to find with my current fitness goal, it just doesn't give me enough calories.

    By the end of the day -- even after eating a ton of carrots and apples and other good stuff -- I was getting hungry as a bear and acting like a bear as well.

    I think I need to slow down that weight loss goal.

    Especially since I'm just getting my act together with exercise.


  32. I think counting calories is the only really efficient way to maintain and lose weight- especially for those who have been signifigantly overweight. If you've never really had an issue with over-eating, you may not need to do so. But I have found for me, counting calories makes me accountable for everything I put in my mouth. Calories are calories. People say "just eat healthy". But you know, if you had a few bananas at the end of the day- thats an extra 140 calories. As much as eating a cookie. That will keep you from losing weight. Its the little extras that cause weight gain or stop people from losing weight. Thats why people get so befuddled with why they gain weight so easily. A sweet tea and a piece of chocolate cake is pretty much the same as tofu and blueberries as far as your body is concerned. True , the latter is the healthier choice, but it all comes down to how much you eat. Eating healthier foods just means that those foods are less calorie dense. But yeah, calories count!

  33. Hiya Crabby I just stumbled onto your blog and I am hooked, lol. I just wanted to add my 2 cents on counting calories. I think counting calories is just to frustrating and takes the fun out of cooking or enjoying a meal for that matter. I think it works for some but not for others. I mainly just glance the calories in something and do a rounded off guess, but I just portion control myself on certain foods and add a little extra veggies or meat for added protein. Of course I am firm believer in having your cheat days, if I didn't then "Oh Goodness me" I will probably gain 5 lbs just from a binge. But yeah I can safely say I lost 100lbs in little over a year with just portion control, better food choices and exercise. Only thing I did wrong was not eat enough, and to much cardio put me in skinny fat syndrome, so now I am working on correcting that.

  34. I know I am a bit late to this party, but maybe someone will still find this helpful. I use a website called myfitnesspal that does all the heavy lifting with calorie counting for me. Much more simple and best of all, FREE. No, I am not affiliated with them, just a fellow calorie counter that has it much easier now. Hope this helps.

  35. I memorize the calories for common foods that I eat so it is easier for me to count my calories intake. I get information from Livestrong.

  36. hey right on! that just what i do when i need to "check" myself and take accountability. I too enjoy tracking what I eat and it can be kind of fun. I typically only do it for a week or so, and then it is second nature. My weight tends to go up and down 7 pounds but that is alot to someone who is only 5'2. SO for sure, what ever works and makes you accountable, most people fail there. Great post.

  37. I counted calories, but I noticed two things: (i) A lot of the time I had to guess b/c I didn't really know what was in the food (ex., at a restaurant), and (ii) looking things up in the database got more and more tedious over time. What's the point of looking up the number of calories in a tbsp of olive oil if I don't even really know how many tbsp of olive oil I'm eating? But I still lost weight, which was great.

    So I've simplified the whole process:

  38. @David Sweet,

    you should not have to guess at all, just measure your food before hand, don't eat out! you only need to do it for a while, then you will remember how many calories it is!


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