Calorie Counting and the Blurry Grey Line.

Another day, another meal.  It’s funny how trends and popular ideas seem to spread like wildfire across the internet.  One day we’re all baking our kale, and the next we are clearing chia seeds off the shelves.  I’ve noticed a new trend in health and fitness blogs lately that has had me thinking. 

There is a lot of negative connotation surrounding the idea of “counting calories.”  A quick poll I did on Twitter (asking “how many of you count calories?”) prompted the following types of responses:

  • I used to but don’t anymore.
  • Not usually, but I will when I start to feel like I’m going off track.
  • No way,  I would never count calories!

And perhaps the most interesting…

  • Yes I do, I know that makes me terrible.

Seriously, how did calorie counting get such a bad rep?  Now let me just get something straight right off the bat – I am NOT talking about anyone recovering from an eating disorder, or folks that may have struggled with some obsessive food issues.  I am very aware that calorie counting for those folks can be very dangerous.

But what about the rest of us?

When I first started losing weight, I had no idea where to begin.  I read as much as I could so that I could gain an understanding of my diet and nutrition in order to be successful in getting my health back.  One of the main themes I found popping up everywhere I looked was the idea of a food journal – understanding and tracking what you eat each day.  Seemed easy enough to me.

I joined Calorie King, and began to log my daily meals.  Not only did it give me a daily calorie tally, it also showed me the nutritional breakdowns of carbs, fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and more.  As someone who had NO prior knowledge of nutrition, I was shocked to see that a lot of my favorite foods were relatively empty in nutrients and high calories, and I quickly realized that some of my so called “health” foods weren’t quite so healthy.

I logged my snacks and meals for roughly a year, and through a healthy combination of food knowledge, good eating, and exercise – I lost about 30 pounds.  But the point of all this isn’t to talk about me or my weight loss – it’s about that grey line between counting calories and just simply being well-informed.

Nowadays, I don’t have a Calorie King membership, and I don’t write anything down.  But in general, I aim to eat about 500 calories at every meal, with a few snacks (and any additional food depending on that day’s exercise) thrown in.  So every day around noon, I wander down to the kitchen and stare into the abyss that is my fridge…

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And based on what’s in there, I decide what to eat.  Walk through an example with me – today for lunch I decided to have a big salad with some soup on the side.  When putting my salad together, I considered the following things…

I’ve got my green leafy base, which is practically calorie-free – totally non-significant in my book.  I know that I definitely wanted some healthy fats, so which nuts did I want to have?  I shook out about 2 tablespoons worth of pumpkin seeds – roughly 100 calories and high in iron.  Yum.

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Nutritional yeast on salad, mmmmm.  Two tablespoons is 50 calories and 8 grams of essential protein, so I tossed that on too.

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Shelled hemp seeds, yes definitely!  They are high in protein, omega 3’s, and fiber!  Sprinkled some on…

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Olives, one of my favorite foods of all time, and something no salad is complete without.  I knew each olive was about 8 calories (and full of good fats) so I dropped a big handful on top of my lettuce leaves – probably 8 or 10 total.  I tossed a few extras into my mouth for good measure.

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And last but not least – the dressing!  Most of the salad dressings I buy are 25-45 calories per 2 tbsp serving, and I knew that without ever looking at the label.  From my successful year of tracking and measuring, I also know what 2 tbsp looks like without pulling out the measuring spoon.  I poured some delicious vinaigrette over my lunch.

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And at the end of it all, I had a fabulous, healthy salad filled with fats, proteins, and lots of vitamins and minerals.  I knew in my head that it was probably somewhere between 300 and 350 calories, and then I drank my delicious soup on the side.

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I never pulled out a measuring spoon, or looked up any of the nutritional information or calories in a book (or online).  After a year of tracking my favorite foods, I already knew it all.  If you asked me to tell you the calories and nutritional breakdown of just about anything, I would bet that I could guess with 90% accuracy.  Nutrition and health are my passion, and knowledge is power.

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So I created a meal using my extensive understanding of nutrition, making sure I had a balanced bowl of carbs, fats, proteins, and other good stuff.  But was I technically “calorie counting?”

If I had never tracked my calories at the beginning of my journey, I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn’t have been successful, because I would have just been going through the motions, rather than understanding why I was eating what I was eating.  We are so quick to stress that we need to eat real food, whole grains, un-processed ingredients, but the minute someone says the word calories – everybody freezes.  It’s all about knowing your food, right?  So isn’t a basic understanding of calories and nutritional breakdowns a good thing?

Like I said above, I know there are cases where this is taken too far, and obsessive or restrictive tendencies become dangerous.  That is not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about the blurry grey area where calorie counting simply becomes nutritional awareness.  To me, it’s pretty clear.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts!