[If you have experienced disordered eating or destructive calorie counting behavior in your life then you may want to skip the following post on using calorie awareness as a tool to balance your nutrition.]
As a little girl my papa and I had a birthday ritual. Each year we would hop in the car, go down to the local hardware store, and I would get to choose a new tool for my toolbox. One year it was a hammer fit for an 8 year old girl, another year it was a saw with a small grip. I had my own little workbench in the wood-shop and made many a jewelry box and Barbie bunkbeds with those birthday gifts.
My interest in pounding nails gave way to dancing and, eventually, yoga, running, and nutrition. My toolbox needed a new set of tools; exercises, postures, stretches, cookbooks, and calorie-counting replaced hammers and nails.
Yes, calorie-counting can be a tool.
I grimace at the notion that calorie counting is synonymous with weight loss. While I do believe that counting calories can be an important component of losing weight, it is only one little use for this valuable tool.
Knowing how many calories (or how much energy) a food has is a powerful tool that can be utilized for increasing satiety, balancing nutrient, fueling your workouts, aiding in exercise recovery, and, yes, weight-change.
I use calorie counting daily as a means to balance my nutrients. I don’t weigh/measure all of my food but when I do I need some additional tools to help me out.
Some things I find easy to eye-ball out a “portion”…
[A portion of almonds is considered one ounce, which has ~160 calories. My portion size is half an ounce at 80 calories because I find it’s the right amount to satisfy/benefit me and still leaves room for other stuff, like an apple for a 150-200 calorie snack or 300-400 calories of oats/yogurt/fruit if it’s breakfast.]
Other things, like cheese, I always seem to “pretend” like an ounce is much bigger than it really is so it’s helpful to pull out the scale.
An ounce of cheese has an average of 100 calories. For lunch and dinner I usually eat 500-600 calories. If I consume two ounces of cheese instead of one I will either eat more calories or eat less nutrients from whole grains, proteins, and vegetables. I like my meals big and with a large variety of flavors, textures, and nutrients so one ounce of cheese is enough.
Grains are another thing that I usually measure because they are relatively energy dense and I find it hard to eye-ball a “portion”.
I usually make my overnight oats in a Mason jar that has two-ounce markers on the side.
2 ounces of raw buckwheat.
4 ounces of oats.
My grain base now has 240 calories so now I have ~200 calories left for flax seeds, chia seeds, yogurt, and fruit.
I sometimes find it annoying/tedious to pull out the measuring spoons so I use this pretty “coffee” spoon that hangs in the kitchen; it’s just under a tablespoon so I get a rough idea.
If I am serving myself grains out of a pot from the stove I use a 1/4 cup or 1/2 cup measuring cup as my scoop. Regularly seeing what a serving looks like on my plate teaches me to more accurately scoop out the desired calorie-amount when a measuring cup is not available (or appropriate!).
I am really not uptight about measuring my food but when eating at home alone or with Tate I find it useful to sometimes break out the scale, cups, and spoons. Just as understanding how whole grains, vegetables, and proteins make you healthy and energized, it’s important to have a sense where your calories are coming from and whether that ratio is serving you best.
Have you ever felt self-conscious about calorie counting? Are you oblivious to calories because that’s only for people “on a diet”? I want to change the cliche that attention to calories=attention to weight.
Understanding the energy density of food is not just for weight-loss; it is an empowering tool to help you optimized your nutrition and satiety!
I love your attention to both nutrient density and energy density in foods. It is so important for people to have examples women who are a healthy weight, leading an active lifestyle, yet still acknowledging the intent of food – fuel. It is seeing food as what it is. I definitely measure grains, nut butter, and milk. I do not measure vegetables, but do measure cut fruit. It is more difficult away from home. I do not count calories, but I like to know how many calories are in various foods as a reference point. If a food is more calorie dense, I try to get less than what I think a serving would be, so that I will be near an actual serving.
Thanks for the great comment and for sharing your take on it, it sounds like we have a similar style when it comes to calorie-awareness.
I am aware of the calories contained in the food I eat and like you I use them as a reference point for balance. I do not “count calories” and I am not a slave to them. I see too many women eating something just because it’s low in numbers without being concerned about the nutrients contained within. It’s possible to lose weight by staying under a certain # of calories and not consume anything worth eating. That’s sad.
I used to be into low-fat/no-fat dairy because it saved me 50 or so calories a serving. These days I embrace the fat and find it so much more satiating and less restrictive, and more nourishing, especially if it’s grass-fed!
what a great post! I love your philosophy on calorie counting – it really can be a tool. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and has since repaired that relationship with food, I can speak to both the positive and negative effects of calorie counting – when taken too far, it can consume you. But once it becomes just a “tool” and not an ever-present worry, it’s a great way to make sure you’re eating enough and balancing the different parts of your plate. While I used to obsessively count calories and try to stay as close to 1200 as possible (not fun or satisfying!), I now just know about how much I like to eat at each meal/snack, which is great to help me pack breakfasts and lunches for work every day. It keeps me on track without stressing me out. Thanks for approaching this topic with such honesty and positivity!
Thanks for your input Marian and I am glad to hear you now have a healthier and happier relationship with food.
I love this blog post! I lost 60+ lbs. following the Weight Watchers program, and now stay focused (and not obsessed) on maintaining my healthy weight. I’ve kept the weight off for just over 3 years due to the continued tracking of my daily calorie intake. I do find it easier to use WW’s PtsPlus counting, rather than counting the specific calories themselves, but measuring foods – and maybe not daily, but regularly – keeps me accountable, energized, and motivated. I must say, also, that eating whole, non-processed foods and staying active & having fitness goals have contributed to keeping the weight off.
Congratulations on your weight loss, 60+ pounds!
Do you find that having an idea of how much energy you are consuming helps you feel satisfied? I often remind myself that I just ate a 600 calorie lunch so if I am still feeling snacky maybe I am thirsty or bored. Knowing that I consumed an adequate number of calories helps shift the focus to eating for energy rather than out of boredom, stress, thirst, etc. Of course, I am happy to hear that a whole foods lifestyle has helped make you healthier!
I do find that knowing how much energy I’m consuming helps me feel satisfied. This wasn’t always the case in the beginning, but now that I have returned to my love of running (ran in high school, quit after starting college, and now 11 years later am back into it), I’m soooo much more conscious about using food for fuel, and not to stuff emotions/boredom/as a way to deal with stress. =)
I didn’t know you regularly counted calories!?!?
Welcome home from the beach!
You sound so shocked! Girl, I could tell you the approximate calorie count of anything you put in front of me. 😉
We came home Thursday 🙁 but it was awesome while it lasted!
I used to measure out all of my food. I had to know the ounces and grams of everything I eat. I eventually developed anorexia ( I am not saying this was simply because of measuring, but it is a slippery slope). The first thing my nutritionist did was take away the food scale (and the bathroom scale). I still measure out my food, but I use cups and spoons. These are not always accurate, but for me it gives me some sense of control without being so obsessive. I try hard NOT to calorie count, but after such a history of it, I can pretty much tell you the stats of every food.
Thank you for bringing up the destructive side of calorie awareness and I am glad you are seeking help.
Best wishes in your continued health!
thank you!! great post. i’m not trying to loose weight but i always like to keep portions and calories in check. things creep up and i gain easily if i don’t watch my intake! nothing wrong with that.. but i also know how it can become destructive and obsessive for some. its all about what works best in your health without being harmful
I was touched with your sharing the memory of our shared birthday ritual, and how you brought the concept of tools through to nutrition, energy and health.
Thank you thank you for the warning at the beginning of the post! Skipped and looking forward to the next blog post to pop up on my google reader! Just scrolled down here to comment and say thanks for being so considerate to those of us who this doesn’t work for. 🙂 It is appreciated immensely.
Thanks for the feedback, always appreciated! 🙂
I am a calorie counter as well. It keeps me accountable & sometimes I do it to make sure I am eating enough to fuel my workouts. I also measure out some of my “trigger” foods so I don’t mindlessly overdo it.
Willow @ My Own Trail
I really appreciate this post. I am a snacker, and I tend to lose track of the amount of food I am eating throughout the day. A handful of nuts here, a piece of cheese there, or a bit of dried fruit can quickly add up to a lot of extra calories. Add in the random glasses of wine I enjoy drinking, and I can easily consume hundreds of extra caolries a week. Since I exercise regularly, I don’t get too caught up in numbers, but I do try to be aware of how much I’m consuming. Unfortunately, I haven’t paid much attention this summer, and I have put on a few extra pounds. I’m not too concerned, because my body quickly returns to the size and weight it is supposed to be when I eat well and exercise regularly. But, I do need to remind myself to keep the extra, mindless snacks to a minimum. A little calorie-counting is a good way to do so.