Calorie Conversations

This post may be the first in a series that dives into my own philosophies of healthy eating, balance, etc. – sparked by some recent reads, and a craving for good conversation.

As a college student, there was a time when I could’ve told you – at any point in the day – approximately how many calories I had had up to that minute. I only avoid using the word exactly because I was a Dining Hall dependent for two years; we had nutritional information available for most, but not all, foods.

I tallied things in my head, without really having to think. I knew in, out, over and under. I thought I was being “healthy”, keeping things in check! After being in school for a few months, I stepped on a scale for the first time in as many weeks, and was honestly shocked to see a lower number. But, that was just the beginning.

It took a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition, another year of “interning”, running, and a lot of personal experience to finally crawl out of that all-consuming mindset. Three years later, the only time I think about numbers is when it really matters – endurance training and refueling those muscles adequately.

Chickpea saladMCM PR 2011IMG_0277

Numbers won’t tell you everything

Recently, the Washington Post published a series of photos depicting the results of a study – Some foods help shed the pounds, others help pack them on. Years ago, Penn State researcher Barbara Rolls released the Volumetrics Diet, focused on eating nutrient dense foods, nothing off limits but with portions in mind. Following the health-praised Mediterranean “diet” allows for high healthy-fat oils, nuts, seeds and cheeses, with a focus on moderation, not numbers.

All of these diets/philosophies/call-them-what-you-will have stood the test of time; they’re not going anywhere because they stand on solid ground instead of balancing on a trend.

The Harvard School of Public Health listed these foods as helpful pound “shedders” – yogurt, whole grains (high fiber), fruits / vegetables (duh), and nuts. But more than that, they are full of nutrients and affordable. These are foods you find in any grocery store, we’re not shining light on anything new, “super” or trendy.

I stand firmly behind the philosophy that healthy eating behaviors can ignore the numbers almost entirely – eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, fill your plate with a variety of colors and macro-nutrients (fats, proteins and carbohydrates), and be mindful of portions. Think about what your food has, not what it’s “free” of.

I’m not saying calorie counting isn’t effective in weight-loss practices and counseling, it definitely can be. I am saying I believe there are different ways to go about it, and lifelong weight maintenance doesn’t have to be number-bound. I believe that my mindset now is much healthier, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now, for the conversation – what do you think about the calorie-counting game? You certainly don’t have to say whether you “do or don’t” – not important, here. Check out the links above, and put in your two – or ten – cents.

What are your go-to foods for a dose of nutrients, a satisfied “full feeling”, and/or a favorite snack, or meal?



Filed under about me, advice, in the News, learning, Nutrition

38 responses to “Calorie Conversations

  1. I have to support calorie counting just based on the science – and 99% of my clients are trying to lose weight. I personally only track when I’m trying to lose for one reason or another, but think you’re right that it’s intuitive to find balance when you’re eating mostly healthy foods.

    • Heather C

      I do support that it works for weight loss to an extent, and totally hear you on that. 🙂 But yes, intuition and balance are so much more important in the long-term – I can’t imagine a lifelong habit of constantly thinking about numbers vs appreciating food.

  2. I went through the same tallying in my head phase for a while – and it still sometimes pops up when I’m eating. I feel SO much better when I’m focusing on my hunger and what my body wants (not numbers), and when I do that, my portion sizes and meals always end up being pretty balanced. The only thing I’m worried about is getting enough calories on some days now – because I’m training for my first marathon.

  3. Ohh I really dig this post. While I *am* in calorie counting/food logging mode right now, for me it’s been a very personal choice — about releasing my stronghold on food and learning to listen to my body cues more effectively. I used to have a very bad habit of eating mindlessly and it caught up with me in a bad way (i.e. pounds and pounds). Now that I’ve been food logging for about 9 months, I am much more aware of my intake and when I’m feeling true hunger vs. boredom or thirst or something. However, I do agree that logging isn’t and shouldn’t be a lifetime thing – and when the time is right for me, I’ll wean myself off the log and will continue the mindful eating I’ve learned to master, choosing fueling, healthy, wholeseome (and tasty) foods, savoring them, not tossing them back mindfully. Excellent post!

  4. Jen DG

    For many, I think its about education. Last summer I tried (and succeeded)in shedding some pounds. I found that at first, keeping track of the numbers helped me really learn what I was eating, which ultimately lead to making better decisions. Honestly, for me the BEST part was plugging in the daily food (there’s an app for that) and then adding in the workouts and to see the numbers DROP! I did that for a bit, then stopped and still lost weight and alas, then I got pregnant! I haven’t played the numbers game in quite a while, I have managed to keep my pregnancy weight at a great level and I still eat healthy! So for some, I think its a great tool on how to make smart decisions, for others, they get a bit obsessive about it and that can lead into problems.

  5. What appropriate timing…
    Calorie counting was effective for me…to an extent. But it also warped the way I viewed food, which has been slightly problematic. Recently, though, (in addition to WW) I’ve been much more focused on portion size and listening to my body cues – so much better than straight counting (for me).

  6. Danielle

    I lived in the calorie counting world for only a few months before it transformed into an eating disorder. Now, I know this will not happen to everyone, but for someone who has control issues at the start, this was not a healthy option. I had to relearn my body’s natural systems, often times praying that God would show me the difference between full and over-the-top stuffed, and what hunger felt like again. Also, I have tried to make choices like those you have listed- nutrient dense food, and giving myself slack now and then. I have never been at a healthier place, even while going through pregnancy and nursing when my hunger has been ten-fold of what it is normally.

  7. Jen

    Great discussion! I think calorie counting can be helpful in terms of raising awareness. Many people have no idea how many calories they actually consume each and every day. That said, it can lead to obsessive, unhealthy behaviors. I used to log all of my food, minutes of exercise, how much water I drank….etc. and it only led to compulsive behavior.
    I would suggest using a food log for a week, a month perhaps, to learn about personal food cravings, eating preferences, but ultimately it shouldn’t be a long term practice.

  8. Hmmm, it really is a good debate topic. Some people have great success with it, but for others, it can cause an unnatural preoccupation. I would not suggest calorie counting for someone that will become obsessed.

    I believe it is better to focus on eating healthy, whole foods rather than just a specific number of calories.

    Great post!

  9. Heather C

    Thank you all for your input! I love it. I totally agree that learning how much you eat during a given day – if you’ve never “counted” before – can be very eye opening, especially for some who eat out a lot, or are constantly on-the-go (or both). Like I mentioned, there’s a time & place for it – but my hope is that, ultimately, mindful, intuitive, balanced eating becomes the norm, and we see less products boasting “only __ calories!”, leaving us with few nutrients (or absolutely No nutrients, in most cases) in exchange.

  10. I think it can be helpful at first to get an idea of portions for someone trying to lose weight. But I do think that what you eat is just as important for fueling your body as well as just watching portion size.

  11. Great post! I love, “Think about what your food has, not what it’s “free” of.” Because numerous people (mostly females) I know get so caught up in that idea!

  12. I think you know how I feel about all of this so I’m just gonna say AMEN!

  13. although if I had tracked this week’d food you’d probably be horrified. 🙂

  14. i do think it is a certain common sense. however, i find that writing things down just helps me be more mindful of it all. not just for eating, but working out etc. (just did a post about it). i have never had to watch my weight in the past. so the idea of calorie counting was absurd to me, however after 2 babies and over 40 it changed. i did ww once and loved the point system, i dropped the weight easily. however, once i stopped it i gained it back. i am now using sparkpeople to food journal and it helps.

  15. I do think calorie counting can be used as a great tool for those who need it. I find that sometimes on my long run days, I end up just eating to eat because I think “oh, I ran so much today, I need to eat a lot.” Well, if I’m not careful, I find myself never hungry and eating several hundred more calories than I needed. For me, I don’t want to gain weight while marathon training so it’s important that I’m careful about it.

    Occasionally, I do know approx how many cals per day I’ve had, but I do that MUCH less than I used to because I know that 90% of what I’m eating is clean, nutritious food for my body. It’s the mindless or stress eating that can be my danger zone, but overall I think I’m pretty good at the ‘eating when I’m hungry’ method.

    • Heather C

      I hear ya, Sass – it can be challenging to get back the energy/nutrients you need during endurance training! There is definitely value in having some knowledge on those days.

  16. yep, 100% agree. Numbers are not my thing. Ingredients are! and i think thats where we (as a society) need to shift our focus. Healthy eating begins with WHAT is in our food and how we use it, not numbers. Love this series friend.

    • Heather C

      Thanks! I can only imagine what kind of numbers you’d have to “crunch” for James – you two obviously have a good system going! 🙂

  17. Mamacita

    Interesting post. These days I don’t count calories as much as I used to but I am very aware of fat content and sodium in all the foods that we eat. Sodium is the devil. Love, Mamacita

  18. My sister Jess pointed me to your post (EatDrinkBreatheSweat) as I, like her, do log, but in the long run, definitely go with this mantra vs. logging for a lifetime (for example). It does boil down to being mindful and while I admit to still having a bit of an emotional tie to food, I know that keeping this in mind will make all the difference.

  19. Calorie counting works as an education entry into perception of what exactly you’re putting into your body and how much of it will be used vs. stored, but at the end of the day, you need to pick foods that will aid your body on its daily tasks instead of giving it just barely enough low quality fuel.

    1,500 cals of cupcakes will be very different than 1,500 cals of a balanced meal. You might get away with it in college but eventually you’ll realize you feel crappy and need a more educated solution to keeping your weight in check. (Cheat days are still okay!)

  20. Couldn’t agree more. Great post lady! Calorie counting did work for me when I first lost weight but I think it’s because I needed some serious portion control. It no longer works well with my lifestyle and I’ve been getting more and more into intuitive eating – I’m still struggling with binge eating tendencies from time to time but overall I’ve become WAY better at eating intuitively!

  21. I loathe calorie counting – but it’s kind of like when you’re trying to stick to a financial budget, it helps to log into your bank account regularly and double check your balances, just to make sure you’re on target. Then if you’re spending too much money you are aware and can pull on the reigns a bit. I don’t count every day but if I’m feeling a little lost and I’m not loosing like I thought I would be then a few days of keeping track really helps.

  22. I truly believe in eating only real foods, and try to follow portion control but I have to say I have a good idea about how many calories and nutrients are in food. Many people are much less aware and they may need the education that calorie counting provides. I have my vices and they sometimes get the better of me (chocolate, sugar, alcohol) and currently I am using weight watchers which keeps me honest with myself and helps in finding the balance and recognize when I need to make some changes.

  23. Calories are a like a gut check for me, but I’ve learned through my husband to look at the fats, sat fat and other labels. You can eat 200 calories of candy corn and think it’s not bad, but you should be looking at the sugar content.

    Thank you for continuing to educate and raise awareness around real issues. Very important issue to discuss.

  24. runningoutofsteam

    I can’t count. I become totally obsessed with food or totally aggregated by it and give up almost instantly. I can’t deprive myself of things either. Again, I become obsessed with it. Plus, it is hard to count exactly when you make food. Are there the same number of carrots in this serving as that one?

    The only time I could truly count was verbs when I had gestational diabetes. I actually didn’t gain any weight the last trimester because I was so careful of my sugar level. And so no one is concerned or gets the wrong idea, I had weight to get rid of so the none weight gain was actually a transfer of fat to more useful stuff. So, I could only do it because it was affecting my daughter, physically.

    I try to focus on healthy. Bananas are a good filling food for me.

  25. Of course Heather you know where I stand 🙂 Calorie counting takes away mental energy that is needed to build intuitive eating skills. If you do calorie counting you are doing “rules based changes” — stay within this limit and you are good, go over the limit and you are bad. The only long term changes are behavior changes and that comes with learning SKILLS, not rules. Food journaling can be done without counting calories. You can rate your hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Journaling using a program like Supertracker can be beneficial as a temporary tool and as part of a counseling program that includes intuitive eating because it can be eye opening to people who know little about food, nutrition, and nutrients. The basis is the behavior skill development, journaling which may include calories and grams of this and that can be a tool as needed for education and not dieting purposes.

  26. I think this is a difficult area for me to find a balance. For a couple of years I was totally obsessive about counting calories. I would measure everything, write everything down, and have a great sense of pride if I stayed at or under my caloric goals for the day. On the other end, if I went over the calories I had set for the day I would be extremely down on myself. This whole calorie game made me forget what feeling full feels like because I didn’t pay attention to the signals my body was sending me. I ate the number of calories or the full meal I had prepared myself and then I was done because it was gone. Learning my body’s signals again is something that I am really trying to work on!

  27. such a big topic. I know calorie-counting can benefit those who are looking to lose (or gain) weight, and like you, I know the approximate caloric value of just about everything I eat, but that doesn’t mean I’m counting my calories. I’m aware, but my appetite changes based on fitness, etc, and I practice intuitive eating and making well-balanced meals. for me that means a healthy fat component in almost every meal or I just don’t feel satiated!

  28. I get what you are saying here. It makes sense to me 100% and one day, I hope I can trust myself to eat properly WITHOUT calorie-counting… but for now, I need it. I have a history of disordered eating and weight issues so I definitely find that the structure of tracking my nutrition throughout the day helps me focus on meeting (but not exceeding, by too much) my needs. With my training load, it’s more about making sure I am getting enough of the good stuff… especially when I have tendencies (which I am working on) to deprive myself TOO much. Does that make any sense??

  29. It’s okay for some people to be calorie conscious, if it helps them to live healthy. It’s their way of losing or maintaining their weight. Tracking is important. For people who are not calorie conscious, they balance what they eat and they know the healthy one’s from those that are empty calories. Work which is best for you.

  30. Pingback: Roasted Vegetable Medley–Nutrients over Numbers | Dietitian on the Run

  31. Pingback: Roasted Vegetable Medley–Nutrients over Numbers | Dietitian on the Run

  32. I’m a big believer in the Michael Pollan rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. I’ve just recently become aware of how little we Americans (myself included) listen to our bodies when it comes to moderating our food intake, and have worked to do a better job of listening to my own body to find out what it wants or needs at any given moment. Terrific post—keep it up!

  33. Unfortunately for me, calorie counting will always be a way of life for me. I’m not obsessive about it, but I do count. Intuitive eating does not work for me. As a former-obese person who lost over 100 pounds, “intuitively” I want to overeat. Counting my calories keeps me balanced and helps me maintain my weight loss.

  34. Pingback: Calorie Conversations II: Weighty Issues on Food Quality | Dietitian on the Run

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