Monday, February 21, 2011

Calories Count. But I Prefer Not To.

A Balanced View On Calories and Weight.

It’s 11:20 AM. Breakfast was only 2 ½ hours ago, yet I’m hungry. So before writing this post, I march myself up to the kitchen and heat up a brioche, a flaky, buttery, mushroom-filled leftover deep in my freezer. There was no label, no caloric info on this bakery item to guide me regarding portion. And I had the whole thing. And it was delicious. My only regret? I didn’t think to photograph it!

I had just read Ashley’s post at Nourishing the Soul entitled The Great Calorie Debate, including the many reader comments. And struggling to not hoard the space allotted on her comment page, I decided I needed to give this matter my full response.

The comment I did post stated that this, like most subjects, is not such a black and white issue. And if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’d know that calorie counting is not my mode of managing weight. Rather than reiterating that viewpoint, I’ll direct you to past posts, focusing on the need for using internal cues, such as hunger and fullness, as distinguished from thoughts (including numbers, shoulds, food rules) and emotional triggers. These also emphasize that weight regulation does come down to calories. But how we regulate them is where some of us may differ.

But here’s the other side of the coin, so to speak. No doubt, calorie counting provides a safety net, an insurance of sorts. Trusting a plan’s calorie level can help individuals on both sides of the scale. If you're a restrictive eater, having a reality check about just how much you are falling short calorie-wise, could be quite useful. It might help to understand why you are experiencing unpleasant symptoms, and provide a template to work toward meeting.
One of my favorites for ice cream at a fraction of the
saturated fat and calories compared to premium ice creams!

Or like Robin, you might be frustrated that you do everything right—you exercise, choose healthy foods, and only eat half your meals when dining out. Yet your weight has been climbing out of range steadily over the past decades. For you, realizing that the 1 ½ cups of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey provides more than half the calories you likely need for weight loss, if you are less than 5’7” or less than super active. Sometimes that reality checking is quite valuable.

Last weekend while I was out, I stopped at a restaurant for lunch. Fresh City is a regional place, New England based with the motto: “Bold and original creations you can feel good about…” And I must admit, the food quality and selection was quite good. Yet approaching the counter, glancing up at the menu board I was alarmed. It was my first time being confronted with the calorie value of every menu item.

And I felt very conflicted. I certainly knew I was only going to order foods I enjoy, that much was certain. But how did I feel about the regular wrap being, if I recall correctly,160 calories greater than the low carb wrap option? Or the fact that for those little ones 10 and under, a PB and J contained 777 calories? Unless they are doing early Olympic training, that’s an exorbitant amount for a kid’s lunch, particularly once you add in a beverage to go with!

Well, for the record, I ordered the regular wrap (any surprises there?) and my college age kids couldn’t have chosen the peanut butter and jelly anyway (although the caloric value would’ve been more appropriate for them than the targeted customer)! God knows how large their bread is or how much PB they throw on the sandwich! I could tell you it did make my husband ask about his homemade PB sandwiches (which are a little more than half the calories of those designed for the under 10 crowd.)

So here’s the thing. Most individuals who have not abused their bodies with diets and unhealthy thoughts and rules (yes, that may just leave children and a few select others!) will eat part of the sandwich, regardless of it’s calorie level, and stop when they’ve had enough. And if, perhaps, they ate mindlessly, leading to consuming more than they really needed, then they would feel quite full. 

And so, if they listened to their hunger, they wouldn’t be eating until some time later. Maybe they wouldn’t end up needing a snack later—but maybe they would. The point? Even if you didn’t know how high the calories were, if you just listened to your body, and ate mindfully and trusted, you’d be just fine. (Unless, of course, the what the what the heck effect takes over and your dieter’s thoughts convince you that all is already lost and you may as well keep going.

If you’re going to look at calories, be certain to not set an upper limit. Calorie counting is not a perfect science. For any number of reasons, you may get hungry, even if you ate all the calories you think you're entitled to. Then what?! What’s most important is that you learn to honor your hunger. See

It’s 12:55 and I’m not yet ready for lunch. That rich and buttery brioche is still digesting. Lunch just may not happen for awhile. But I think I’ll bring a snack with me when I head out—just in case I get hungry! 
No regrets about the pastry, or about not knowing the calorie content. Sometimes, you just need to trust your body.
BTW, as this is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, please share this blog with 2-3 friends or family members who might benefit! Thanks!


  1. I have been channeling your words about listening to my body's hunger cues lately as my body has been telling me to put a lot of food in it(or at least what seems like a lot of food compared to what I would previously allow myself to eat). I have been surprised at how hungry I have been in the mornings, so I have been allowing myself to eat as much as my body tells me it wants. Of course, that freaks me out because I'm not used to eating that much so early on in the day. However, I notice that I'm not really hungry again until early afternoon, so I guess it all balances out.

    Trusting my body instead of ED's schedule has been freeing but very intimidating. Soon I hope to eat foods that I know I want but that are still really scary, like pizza!! Oh, pizza sounds so good. In short, it feels good to not eat like a bird because I really am much larger than a bird.

    Thanks for the continued support through the sharing of your knowledge and background!


  2. Words like your, Emily, make it all worth it!
    Thanks for sharing your giant leap forward!

  3. Thank you so much for this. Obsessive calorie counting is exactly what I'm struggling with right now. I plan on going back and reading each of your past posts you linked. Thanks again :)

  4. I must admit my anxiety at the thought of NOT counting calories/having no idea how many I should take in/am taking in. This is why I found one of those online trackers... because I was afraid to TRUST MYSELF, my out of control appetite. I relaxed a bit the past week and didn't feel I had to log everything there. I felt good, and like I was losing. But alas, instead of one week appointments, I am moving to two. I felt I needed a WEIGH IN (I know! No scale! It was the first time I had put myself on it in three weeks -- wanting that "weekly measure")! Well, it showed that I had lost nothing.... Oh no, maybe I even gained or the scale at home was "different" somehow.... I should have heeded the warning NOT to get on it. The need for some kind of outward measure of my progress beckoning me............. I have not learned to trust myself, and yet I would love to. What if I fail? (Relying on my own internal feelings about hunger!) I have so much to learn!

  5. First, QuincyCarole, breathe!
    Now, make a list of the progress you've made so far--on any level.In your second sentence, you said you felt good--remember? Try to use other measures of progress vs the scale. Have obsessive thoughts decreased? Are you enjoying what you're eating? How's your energy level? Get the idea.

    More later...

  6. Thanks. Good points! Yes, I wore a pair of jeans I didn't get into a week ago, oddly, this past weekend.... and haven't worn this year or last either I don't think. I enjoyed a delicious meal out with a friend yesterday (and tasted it!) AND brought half of it home (a major achievement). I SHARED an unbuttered popcorn with her at the movie we saw and didn't feel deprived.... I have made progress. As I hear elsewhere, "Progress, not perfection!" I'm less obsessed about having to log it all immediately at some kind of calorie counting site.... I haven't done so the past three days... and I'm doing more exercise.

  7. Despite my obsession with numbers, this is one instance where I actually agree with you straight away :) (instead of having to talk myself into knowing that you are right!).
    I stopped counting calories a while ago when I first went to see my gp about disordered eating. It is the one concession I was able to make immediately and stick to.
    I do have a basic number in my head of how many calories each meal 'should' have (yes, I can see that's setting an upper limit), but I know that for me, keeping track of calories is dangerous because it either leads to severe restriction or purging, because I get so frightened by the daily total.
    So yes, I too prefer not to count them :)

  8. I remember as a child my mother making me warm peanut butter sandwiches. She would blend the nuts in front of me and, while still warm from the blender, spread heaping scoops onto fresh toast. Delicious.

    I still love peanut butter sandwiches, but I constantly limit myself now because I focus on the numbers. I am certain to have my measuring spoon out when I take the peanut butter down from the cabinet. I only allow myself 2 tbsp per day. I am still trying to restore weight and cannot seem to give myself the satisfaction of being liberal with nut butters. I do not know how much of this "good fat" is a healthy daily amount?

  9. The fat in nut butters, largely monounsaturated, is totally safe! The greatest health risk is not getting your weight restored! You can still be mindful of your portions, just reset your goal, perhaps increasing form 2 Tbsp. to 3 Tbsp. per day to start. And try to move toward listening to your hunger, instead of relying on your food and calorie rules.