As of this writing, I've lost more than 90 pounds in less than 8 months (pics here). Because of the obvious and rapid physical transformation, I'm frequently asked some variation of "What's your secret?" or "What diet are you using?" The answers to those are simple and straightforward, though perhaps surprising:
|Recent pic with my girls (8/12)|
1. I have no great secret to share. I'm eating healthier, exercising more, and counting calories to make sure I don't eat too much.
2. I'm not using any specific diet plan.
I'm not sure which of those two answers confounds people more, but both are fairly frequently received with a bit of shock and consternation. I believe the response is such mainly because our culture--specifically the diet/weight-loss industry--has conditioned us to believe that there are quick fixes and tricks out there to overcome our obesity epidemic. The more I've read, experienced, and researched, the more convinced I am that the reality is that for the great majority of people, it just boils down to eating less, eating healthier, and moving more.
I read a great article by Sharon Tanenbaum at Everyday Health recently that spoke to the importance of calorie counting. Here's a critical excerpt:
In fact, the “secret” to losing weight for good isn’t eliminating carbs or eating gallons of cabbage soup, according to My Calorie Counter, a new book from Everyday Health. “Sustained, healthy weight loss comes down to a pretty basic equation: fewer calories plus more exercise,” say authors Jenny Sucov and Maureen Namkoong, MS, RD. “By keeping track of how many calories you consume and burn every day, you can slim down, gain energy, and stave off a whole host of health problems.”I'll address the reasons above why people don't track their calorie intake near the end of this post, but first I want to talk about why I do track calories rather than adhere to a specific diet plan.
So why don’t more people track their calorie intake? Among the biggest roadblocks people cite, according to the survey, are the difficulty of counting calories (30 percent); having a focus on other nutrients (30 percent); thinking that calorie counting doesn’t matter (23 percent); and being too busy (22 percent).
The main reason I like counting calories is that I'm a bit stubborn and like to make my own decisions. In that regard, counting calories is empowering. When I'm sticking to a calorie budget, I don't have to restrict any particular foods because someone's diet plan is telling me I can't have it. Instead, I can decide myself if a food is worth the calories. Now, quite often my decisions about food end up being similar to what they'd be if I were on a restrictive diet, but I find it much easier to stick to the plan if I feel like I'm calling the shots. For example, I like cheddar cheese, but I am rarely eating cheddar cheese lately because for me, I've realized that the calories usually aren't worth the flavor-add to a meal. However, if I decide I really want a ham and cheddar omelet one morning, I can just eat one and work the rest of my calorie budget for the day around it.
|RIBEYE: Great steak, high calories. Need to plan around it.|
|Dark chocolate and walnuts on the food scale. Yummy!|
Finally, I count calories because I've found that I'm generally pretty ignorant about food, and doing so educates me. For example, I heard somewhere a long time ago that walnuts are a healthy snack. And based on everything I've read since I actually started paying attention to my nutrition, that's a correct statement. However, what I missed is that walnuts are *very* high in calories, so they must be eaten in serious moderation, or they'll cause weight gain. This time last year, I'd grab a small handful of walnuts one or two times a day. Now that I understand better the calorie count of walnuts, I've realized that those one or two "little snacks" a day were probably a third to a half of my caloric need for an entire day.
Now back to the reasons mentioned above why people don't count calories, and the answers I'd give to someone who gave me one of those reasons:
1. "It's too hard to do/I'm too busy." Ben's Response: "Not with modern technology. I use the LoseIt app on my iPhone, a food scale, and a web site to fill in any blanks that the first two don't cover. With these tools, basic calorie counting can be done accurately in just 5-10 minutes per day." (I'll get into some tips on how to best use these in my next blog post.)
2. "I'm focused on other nutrients/Calorie counting doesn't matter." Ben's Response: "It's great to focus on getting enough of a specific nutrient, but please re-read the quote above from Everyday Health. If you eat too many calories, your body is going to store them for usage later as fat. There's no way around that bit of science."
I realize that this topic is a bit controversial. A Google search would undoubtedly yield numerous "experts" who come down on either side of the "should you count calories" question. For me, though, counting calories makes sense, is empowering, and has worked tremendously, so I'll continue to do it. And I would say to a beginner that if you're *not* going to count calories, at least make sure that you're educating yourself on portion sizes for higher-calorie foods.