Monday, July 19, 2010

Calorie/Point Counting


Anything you do to reach/maintain a healthy body weight is fine by me.

(Obviously, someone who manages his/her weight through anorexia or bulimia is not doing themselves any good in my book. If you are anorexic or bulimic, please get professional help. You are killing yourself.)

If you are a calorie/point counter and it works for you, more power to you. This post contains my own personal reflexions on what calorie (or point) counting says about food, nutrition and the world we choose to live in.

I have hesitated greatly in posting this because I really do not want to insult any of my favourite bloggers who are staunch calorie counters and extremely successful weight-loss warriors (you know who you are!). I do not have the same "message of hope" that successful weight-loss bloggers communicate. So who am I to ask questions when I don't have a successful strategy to counter with? However, I think that self-censorship is a slippery and dangerous slope. This blog, like all others, was created as a forum for my own personal reflexions and to share with other people on similar journeys.

I am very curious about the number of calories I burn in a day. I suspect that even on a 10,000 step day, I don't burn that much because I can't engage in strenuous exercise (aside from the pool). I just visited the Bodybugg site and saw that their system works by measuring (hopefully relatively accurately) the number of calories expended, and requiring that you count the number of calories ingested. This got me thinking yet again about calorie counting.

Some of these foods I ate this week came in packages with the calorie content listed. For anything eaten in a local, non-chain restaurant, the calorie content was unknown. I would have had to have brought my food scale and visited the kitchen to see exactly how the food was cooked. Some homemade dishes contained a number of ingredients, so it would have taken some time and energy to do the research and establish the caloric value.

The easiest way to eat when you calorie count appears to me to use pre-packaged foods or basic foodstuffs without any adornment or to eat in chain restaurants. For instance, my fairly healthy spaghetti sauce becomes a calorie-counting nightmare due to the variety of foods used in its preparation. I would have to count the calories in each ingredient, then weigh the whole pot and divide it into let's say 1/2 cup servings in order to establish an approximate caloric value per serving. Wouldn't it just be easier to go to the store, buy a simple bottle of sauce and forgo the fresh vegetables and the splash of olive oil, despite the clear nutritional value they offer?

And am I better off eating at a chain restaurant where the quality of the food is clearly lower than at my local restaurant just because chain restaurants tell you how many calories are in the mass-produced dishes that they serve?

And what about the extraordinary lamb ossobucco that I learnt to make at a cooking class recently? No calorie count there, just fresh ingredients, lovingly crafted into a dish to die for. Definitely off the list because I can't tell you how many calories a serving contains.

What disturbs me is that calorie and point counting require you to limit your food to products that are either pre-packaged or easily quantifiable. It discourages adventure and curiosity and tends to limit one's food choices to that which is safely and easily identifiable. And maybe that's a positive thing for many people. But not for me.

I just have to wonder: Does calorie counting mean you restrict yourself to what's "countable"? Does calorie counting better suit those who don't have an adventurous palate? Do you find yourself saying no to foods that you can't find on the WW's list or from a calorie counter? Just curious.


  1. I calorie count as a necessary "evil". I dislike it, but I have little choice as my ability to comprehend how much I am eating is irretrievably broken. It's a bit like being diabetic and needing to measure your blood sugar in that way. You don't want to do it, but it's not like you have a choice if you don't want to suffer health consequences.

    For me, I rarely eat much in the way of prepared food. In fact, I make nearly everything myself except for chocolate and salted snacks (which always list calories and I just have small portions and add them in). I make my own soup, bread, baked goods, and main meals. I wouldn't limit myself in any way in terms of creative cooking. I love to cook and experiment, especially with baking.

    Of course, this brings about the problem you mention - you have to work out the calories. I do it all "the hard way", but I only have to do it once. I go to a calorie counting web site (usually FitDay) and look up the calories for the total amount of every ingredient and then divide it by the number of servings. I then save the food I made as "custom" food in FitDay so I don't have to do this cumbersome counting and dividing again. Since the food is offered by weight and volume, it's not so hard - a cup of flour, an egg, etc.

    This method is not precise. Every serving isn't exactly the same size for a batch of muffins, for instance, but I'm not worried that today's slightly smaller muffin is 20 calories less than tomorrow's slightly bigger muffin. It'll all work out in the end and I don't fret over incidental numbers of calories. I think some people are a little insane about worrying about precision (especially when the body is not a precise mechanism).

    Eating out is slightly trickier, but I either research the restaurant or make a ballpark estimate - or I just not worry about it that much and set aside X number of calories for a particular meal and figure I'll come in at a higher number for that particular day. I rarely eat out so that generally is not an issue.

    I don't not eat out because of the calorie counting though. I do it for the same reason that I cook everything - I hate prepared food and it's too expensive. It's much cheaper to just make food myself and it usually tastes better.

    I'm glad you're not hesitating to offer your viewpoint on this sort of topic. It's very good to have all viewpoints about the pros and cons of these sorts of issues. Someone, somewhere, is having the same thoughts as you and it helps them to read them. :-)

  2. As you know i usually count calories or points because it works for me. I have no problem eating something with no nutritional stats as i would just guess. One dish/one meal is not worth worrying that much about. Enjoying yourself and relaxing are more important. I do have to say that i eat more non-processed foods than processed, although if i need to take a frozen dinner to work so be it :)

  3. Hi New Me. I must admit, I have a vague notion of calorific values of foods, I read labels and I try to choose nutritious foods to eat. I estimate (yes, estimate, which probably isn't sensible) that I eat no more than 1500 calories per day. I did count calories, learn to assess portion sizes etc, but just can't be doing with it all the time. My way is a bit haphazard, but I think it's healthy, and realistic and can be done for life.

    Personally, I'd rather have a spaghetti sauce I'd made with tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, a splash of red wine and black pepper with an unknown calorie count than a watery 'diet' one or a processed one with chemical additives, colourants and flavourings. I know one slice of wholemeal bread is OK - two even if I want a sandwich. If I am eating half a loaf I am over-doing things! I try to avoid too many fats, too many starches and if I come across something I am not sure about I read the label.

    I am not sure if my 'all things in moderation' plan works as well as others, but it's amazing how you can retrain your tastebuds. I don't long for ice cream any more. I honestly think life is too short to know the calorific value of everything. Given eating is supposed to be a pleasure my philosophy is that we have to seek out foods which we know do us some good in terms of vitamins, minerals and nutrients..and not to obsess too much about getting the calorie count spot on!

    OK, so I'll never be a slimming guru, but I am becoming very aware of eating healthily. I don't always get it right but my body will thank me for making sensible food choices, even if I don't know the exact calorific value of everything.

  4. Grumpy: Thanks for summarizing my philosophy so well!

  5. I too like Grumpy's (and your) philosphy....but as you say, everyone has different approaches that work for them. I did Sparkpeople for a year or more counting all my calories etc....but I finally couldn't do it anymore. The novelty wore off and my patience ran thin. Now it's eat well, but sensibly, stop eating when full and exercise to some degree...just to keep the body working properly...and relax...even if it's just some quiet time in your day.

  6. I do best when I keep a food journal, and really that is about counting calories. Yes, that means -- for me -- packaged foods are easier to record. Though, I have found, if you enter all of the ingredients, the journal programs will calculate the nutritional values for a serving, and you can even save the recipe for future entries. This works out great if you make the same recipes over and over.

    Right now, our garden is in full force so we're not making the same thing over and over. Instead, we're making up new dishes and using new recipes almost every night -- both to keep up with what's coming out of the garden and for a little variety.

    And, I'm not keeping a food journal. Between the garden and cooking, and all of my other work and chores, it feels like there's no time for lists and calculations.

    On the up side, we're eating a lot healthier -- and getting some exercise and fresh air.

    P.S. Thank you for adding me to your blog roll!

  7. They have recipe calculators on line...You put in your ingredients and how many it will serve and pop..out comes the calorie count.I don't limit myself all the time, just on my strict counting days. I have four days a month when My calorie counts are higher. Twice a month at least I have a meal that is fantabulous, I don't think of the calories...I don't count.
    I think what some may forget is that you don't get fat off veggies.
    The pasta is quantifiable. pouring tomatoes on the pasta is not even going to ding you.
    having a plate full of pasta will.
    Our bodies do better with 'unadorned' food.
    adorned foods should be kept to a minimum anyway. Food can be viewed as a treat...but mostly it should be viewed as fuel. Nothing tastes better than unadorned fresh pineapple. learning to appreciate the essence of food is something I have discovered. That and not shoveling it in, it has helped me to appreciate the things I do eat or indulge in. For me calorie counting is an invaluable tool.

  8. There is a basic equation in weight loss. To lose weight you need to take in fewer calories than you use. But it is also about developing healthy habits that you can stick to through a lifetime of maintenance. If you can stick to calorie counting for the rest of your life and not feel deprived because you can't have the delicious ossobucco then fine. But all the statistics show that calorie counting does not lead to consistent weight maintenance once you have lost the weight. I know - because I have been there.

    How long have we had low calorie diets? Since the 1950's? So if they work why do we have an obesity epidemic?