It was brought to my attention that I failed to clearly explain my logic and reasoning behind this post. To be clear, I do not recommend people focus solely on calories, because they do not provide a full nutritional profile. Calories are simply a component of healthy food. The ultimate nutritional goal I have for myself and others is to eat a well-balanced, nutritionally-dense diet which provides you with all the needs for a healthy life.
For so long now the health and fitness industry has told people that in order to lose weight they need to eat less calories than they burn. Of course, for those of you paying close attention, this idea is changing. Now I can sit here and give you the science and give you the facts, but instead I’m going to tell you what exactly has worked for me.
I studied nutrition in college, back when I could snack all night and drink all weekend and consume an entire pizza to myself without seeing a change in my body (well, most of the time). At the time I just assumed I had a decent metabolism and that I was generally eating less than I was burning. Most of us in the nutrition program ate pretty well a majority of the time, and when we didn’t… well we were young and it didn’t seem to cause any problems. After college I started a new life, which involved working odd hours, not having a local gym I could afford, and eating whatever was available because it was easy. This was the first time I really saw any weight gain and after 1 year (and 10 pounds) I downloaded a calorie counting app and tried to start over. I used the app to keep track of my general calorie intake, protein consumption (I tend to struggle with this), saturated/unsaturated fat intake and fiber, which were my general concerns at that point in time. In the next year I lost the 10 pounds. I had moved, found a regular workout routine, was working less, and was cooking most of my own meals. Was it the calorie counting app that motivated me to workout more and eat better? Was is just that my lifestyle changed enough to allow me to be healthier?
Flash forward three years and I was living on my own, balancing paying (all the) bills with buying healthy food. I also had a pretty great schedule which allowed me time to workout and still enjoy activities like hiking, going to the river, reading, crafting, etc. It was a good balance of work, play, fitness, and eating right. I was in the best shape of my life and I was happy. I wasn’t counting calories or focusing on how many calories each workout burned. I did my best to purchase (and EAT) healthy foods filled with vitamins and minerals. Of course, this moment passed, my life changed, work hours changed, my living situation changed, and my eating habits changed.
I’ve been doing well on my fitness and nutrition since then. Even with the changes in my life, the unexpected food allergies that had me perplexed, the struggle to workout after a 10 hour shift, I stayed healthy. Each time I gained weight, I was able to refocus and lose the weight again. Most of the time I started with the calorie counting app. I would track everything I ate and the activity I did, so I couldn’t trick myself into thinking I was eating well when I wasn’t or that I was completing these killer workouts when I wasn’t. See, it’s easy for us to say, “I worked out for an hour today, so I can totally have three pieces of pizza and some cookies tonight.” But we don’t focus on how hard we worked in that hour. We don’t focus on what’s on that pizza slice or even how big it is. We don’t focus on how many cookies we snack on while watching TV. What calorie counting apps have done for me personally, is better draw my attention to what I am doing. Again, calories aren’t a great way to examine your personal nutrition in whole, but sometimes you just don’t realize HOW much you eat! I have a pretty solid base of knowledge when it comes to how many calories are in certain foods or how hard I have to work to burn 100 calories. But even I find myself “cheating”. So this is how I use calorie counting apps to my benefit, without letting them take over my life and sanity.
When I start to gain weight, see changes in my body shape, or just start to feel sluggish, I first try to change this by focusing on my eating and exercise habits. Usually I can go back and see I’ve been skipping a workout or I’ve been snacking in bed while reading. If this is the case, I refocus and try to change that habit. Most of the time it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. This is where the app comes in. I don’t focus as much on the calories as I do on how much I am eating. For example, often a cup of protein-packed soup can be a good lunch for me. When I find myself eating the soup, and a slice of bread, and a handful of nuts, and a banana, and a cookie I have to pause and try to adjust. Sometimes it’s just pushing the banana and nuts to an afternoon snack and skipping the bread and cookie at lunch. But the app helps me keep track of these things.
Another good tool is a heart rate monitor or some way to keep track of how many calories you are burning during exercise. I know that I can do a 45-minute spin class one day and easily burn 100+ calories more than the same class the next day. Now, I know just exercising will benefit me more than sitting on the couch, but I want to push toward that higher calorie workout because that usually means higher intensity and more benefits!
If I am able to keep track of these things I will do better overall. Some people may just want to keep a food and exercise diary and ignore the calories completely. That’s ok too and it may be a better option for people who struggle with calories or who don’t want to obsess over numbers. All I’m saying is that sometimes we need to be real with ourselves and eating intuitively can be too easy to fake. Once I’m able to refocus myself I can go back to eating intuitively and I do just fine. That’s where I want to be. That’s my goal. And there is no shame if I need a little help to get there.
What works best for you? How do you feel about counting calories? What are the benefits and drawback for you?