In Defense Of Counting Calories

I've lived life both ways, counting calories and letting the chips fall where they may. And here's the sad fact: annoying as it is to get out my calorie-counting app after every food choice, it keeps me accountable.

July 14, 2015
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You’ve probably seen a slew of counting-calorie apps over the past few years, haven’t you? You’ve probably even tried one or two, just out of curiosity. Because no one’s reached a verdict on their effectiveness yet.

There’s always been this big debate among doctors, dietitians and researchers about counting calories. On one side of the spectrum, some see it as a bit obsessive. These folks say you should just be calorie-conscious, choosing instead to make sensible choices, eat three meals a day and have one or two small, healthy snacks.

The flip side of the coin says that measuring out portions and counting calories is the only real way to watch your weight. Most of us just aren’t conscientious enough to realize how many times we’re eating, how calories we’re consuming at any given time, and how many calories are in all our food selections over the course of a day.

I see the logic in both arguments. Really, only one works for me.

In a perfect world, I would never count calories. I would stay within a reasonable margin each day, and could easily resist the allure of an extra cookie, another bite of ice cream or a few more french fries.

But we don’t live in that perfect world. Because then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Because then calories wouldn’t exist. It’d just be an endless chocolate lava cakes as healthy dietary staples. Ahhh.

I’ve lived life both ways, counting calories and letting the chips fall where they may. And here’s the sad fact: annoying as it is to get out my calorie-counting app after every food choice, it keeps me accountable.

Whenever I’m forced to see my dietary decisions in black and white, I always, always, always make better choices than when I’m not. When I’m tempted to just grab the snack cake with 420 calories and 8 grams of saturated fat? Suddenly, it’s not as appealing.

On top of that, I’m a grazer. My stream of consciousness goes something like this: Oh, 140 calories per serving for these chips? That’s not so bad! And if I only eat half a serving, that’s 70 calories for eight of ’em, and that’s practically nothing.

Guess what I’ve learned, guys? All those “practically nothings” add up. Like, behind your back. When you’re not actually paying attention to anything but theoretically-low caloric values. (I know, bummer.)

That said, I’m the first to admit I can become a bit obsessive about punching numbers into phones, or bummed when I fall off the accountability wagon. Luckily, I’ve come up with a few strategies to count smart, stay healthy and stay on the wagon:

1. Set healthy, reasonable goals.

Calorie-counting apps like MyFitnessPal, SparkPeople and Lose It! usually allow you to set calorie, exercise and weight goals for yourself, depending whether you want to lose or maintain. When you do this, be real. A reasonable weight-loss goal is one pound per week. If you start meeting your goals, get excited — not crazy. It’s not mentally or physically healthy to go for two or three pounds of weight loss per week on a 1,200 calorie diet and manic exercise. This is not a game of “how low can you go?”

2. Purposely take off days.

In order to keep some sanity, I think it’s great to have off days where you don’t count calories at all. If your husband is taking you out for a decadent birthday dinner, you’re going to a wedding, or you’re on vacation, eat as sensibly as possible as you “pre-game”—but let yourself live a little on your excursion. Have the cake. Eat the steak. Sometimes, as long as it’s not everyday, it’s dietary YOLO. Tomorrow, you start fresh.

3. Cut yourself some slack.

Let’s say you just have a craving that won’t die, and you need to have those late-night cheese n’ crackers—ut they put you over your calorie limit. Or let’s say you get busy and totally forget to track for a day (or three). Don’t let those situations be excuses to just say, “Aw, heck with it!” and go back to grazing mindlessly and bad choices. Approach everyday with the mindset that you’ll track and do your best to make wise choices. And if, one day, you don’t? Fine. The next day, you will. Have short-term memory loss about bad days, don’t use them as reasons to quit.

Really, do what works for you to be healthy. But if you find your dress size inching up and you don’t like it, or can’t seem to avoid the extra cookie day after day, try downloading an app and tallying up your calories as best you can. You might even find noshing mindfully is easier than you thought.

At the end of the day, it’s about avoiding extremes. There’s a happy medium between obsessive tracking and nutritional ignorance. Look for yours.

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