by Lindsay Martin, MS, RD
I think most people would agree there is such a thing as a 1,400 calorie diet (by the way, the term diet is technically the food that we habitually eat day after day) that isn’t so “good.”
For example, one could have cream with a touch of coffee for breakfast, a hot dog for lunch and spaghetti with garlic bread for dinner and it could add up to 1,400 calories—meanwhile, there were zero fruits or vegetables in the mix.
Let’s spend a brief moment to clear the air on a couple things. To be totally honest, I’m starting to dislike the word calorie. WHAT?!! Lindsay, are you saying I’ve been counting and keeping track for no reason? No, no no… that isn’t want I’m trying to say—logging? Great!
Holding yourself accountable? Awesome! Stressing out over how many calories was in your lunch? Not fun. Beating yourself up by having 500 calories over your limit? All-or-nothing thinkers out there tend to criticize themselves after a bad meal or bad day of food. I sense this
perception that calories, for people trying to manage weight, can have a bad reputation. Here are some common practices that can give calories a bad rep:
• Eat 5 days, fast 2 days. Only 500 calories on fasting days.
• Juicing or Cleansing. Low calories. Rapid weight loss.
• 800 calories per day.
• Strict Monday through Friday. FREEEEEDOM on the weekends.
• Restricting calories all day to only binge at night (very common).
• Restricting before a dinner party to “allow” yourself to eat as much as you want at the event. This can be a very common thought process for those that constantly entertain or are constantly entertained.
• Over-exercise because eating didn’t go well the night before. (I’m talking exercise that becomes more like punishment…this can easily spiral out of control)
The second thing to clear up—a calorie IS NOT a calorie. Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist from the University of California, drives this home in his book titled Fat Chance. If you have a sweet tooth or struggle with sugar, I would highly recommend this book.
Anyways, most of you at home have a basic understanding that trans fats should be eliminated from the diet; however, they have the same calories/energy (gram for gram) as the type of fat found in wild Alaskan salmon or avocado. We could make the case for candy and fruit—gram for gram the sugar may be the same, but the calories/energy coming from the fruit is going to be much better than the calories/energy from candy. So you may be thinking, “now what?”
I’m going to highlight a few examples of when and when not to calorie count and hopefully this will help you decide which way you want to go.
When to count (fitness pal, LoseIt, etc.):
• One that has never counted before. Logging how much one typically eats, for at least 3 days, can provide some very basic information on total energy consumed, portion distortion, and can potentially be an eye-opener.
• Specific athletic goals or health condition that requires specific information to be recorded. For example, someone with Type II Diabetes can record their food and carbohydrate sources and compare that to a blood sugar reading to help determine what foods are contributing to larger spikes and falls. Another example would be a strength biased athlete trying to build muscle mass—recording food intake and the timing of meals/snacks can help the athlete track progress.
• Accountability. Perhaps one recognizes that a calorie is not a calorie, but logging and tracking provides the accountability that keeps them on track.
• History of binge eating or eating disorders. A solid meal plan created on a weekend has a better chance working for someone that has a history of binging or any specific eating disorder. The goal is to decrease binging episodes—not counting calories. Therefore, creating a satisfying and realistic meal plan is the priority.
• It is a constant stressor. For some, logging and tracking can be fun and motivating while others find tracking calories confusing and stressful. Similar to exercise, one can’t expect to maintain a certain behavior if it is dreaded.
• Counting calories only lasted 2 or 3 days in previous attempts. I’m sure everyone has gone through phases of counting and it worked for a brief period of time; however, if it didn’t last long then it is time to try something different. Personally, I am a huge fan of meal planning, portion control and relying on whole foods for meals and snacks.
To summarize, one may want to consider reframing the perception or mindset on the term calories and begin to come up with a meal plan that best suites you. Easier said than done; however, in order to manage weight or reach specific goals there has to be a process that incorporates eating habits and food choices that can be maintained and enjoyed for life.