Counting Calories Sucks. Here’s how to never do it again!
Counting Calories Sucks… The. Life. Right. Out. Of. Me.
If that wasn’t clear enough, I detest counting calories. I hate the mental energy it takes, the extra time, the tediousness of it. Counting calories sucks, and I don’t ever see myself going back to that mind-numbing task. I don’t like counting ‘macros’ either (carbs, protein, fats). Again, too tedious, too time- and energy-consuming. I have things to do! Can’t waste time on silly calorie- and macro-counting nonsense.
BUT…I needed to at first so I could get to the point where I didn’t need to anymore, where I could eat intuitively, moderately and sustainably.
I needed to learn to count calories and macronutrients so I could get to this point where I have implemented and practice what I call Practical Nutrition: eating in a way that is satisfying that doesn’t require a huge amount of brain sweat or time to plan, a way that is natural for me and meets my health and activity needs without placing strain on my life. I needed to know how much of what foods contain about how many calories and grams of macronutrients so I could start to make better food choices for myself and my family.
I live in the middle (at a sustainable size and body composition) because I LIVE in the middle. No extremes, no dieting, no obsession or deprivation. Just moderate, livable, daily and weekly food choices that work for my body and life.
I didn’t always live in the middle. I came from a family where, on one side, being very heavy and inactive was the norm. Where if a little was good, more was better. Where a saying I grew up with was, “You can’t build a big house on a small foundation,” as if it was predetermined I would be a ‘big house.’ So getting thirds, eating whatever tasted good, stuffing to the point of Thanksgiving-like discomfort was pretty standard. Those were the roots of my eating habits.
In high school, all those off-limits foods (soda, chips, candy) were suddenly accessible. I remember loading up on Sour Patch Kids, Red Vines and Swedish Fish before going to movies–balanced with a diet Coke, of course. I remember eating one or two packages of Top Ramen after school a few days a week–as my afternoon snack. I remember my senior year of high school, where I rationalized eating a bag of Cheetos as being in balance, because I had eaten a bunch of celery–which takes more calories to digest than it contains! and washed it down with calorie-free diet Coke.
In college, there was beer! And pizza–that was cheap and you could get delivered any time of day! And lunches and dinners served in a buffet where you could pick anything you wanted and have as much as you liked!
And the results were as extreme as my nutritional ignorance.
Freshman 20 in 12 weeks: done.
Oh goodness, I had not the first clue about what good nutrition was or what I needed or any idea about how food could influence how my body looked, felt and performed. So, yeah, I haven’t always lived in the middle.
When I was ready to learn, and really ready to change, I started what I now call ‘The Road from Calorie Counting to Intuitive Eating.’ Admittedly, this journey took me a few years, because it was one I stumbled along on my own, my only help being the Eat-Clean resources published by Tosca Reno (of Oxygen magazine).
In order to spare YOU years of figuring it out, I’m going to lay out in this blog the first three steps to get from counting calories and macronutrients to a lifestyle of Practical Nutrition.
1. Start Counting and Logging Calories.
Wait, I just said I hated counting calories, and now I’m telling YOU to do it???
Before you can know where you’re going, you have to know where you’re at. This means you need to start writing down in a food journal or logging in an app of some kind (such as MyFitnessPal) what you eat all day, each day, for several days.
Be HONEST. Completely honest. You don’t have to show anyone else, but if you leave things out or make things seem better than they actually are, you can’t change effectively. LOG IT ALL.
Figure out how many calories you are consuming regularly each day.
Don’t scream. Don’t cry. It’s just math. It’s just a starting place from which you can move closer to where you want to be.
2. Figure out how many calories YOU need to be consuming, for both your goals and needs.
One fairly reliable equation (none of them are exact, but some are better than others) for figuring out your basic caloric needs is:
The Harris-Benedict equation for BMR
For men: (13.75 x w) + (5 x h) – (6.76 x a) + 66
For women: (9.56 x w) + (1.85 x h) – (4.68 x a) + 655
w = weight in kg (divide pounds by 2.2 to get weight in kg)
h = height in cm (multiply inches x 2.54 to get cm of height)
a = age
This will give you the basic number of calories your body needs to stay alive each day.
Then, to determine what YOUR total daily caloric needs are, multiply your BMR result by the multiple indicated by your level of activity.
Activity Factor Category Definition
1.2 Sedentary Little or no exercise and desk job
1.375 Lightly Active Light exercise or sports 1-3 days a week
1.55 Moderately Active Moderate exercise or sports 3-5 days a week
1.725 Very Active Hard exercise or sports 6-7 days a week
1.9 Extremely Active Hard daily exercise or sports and physical job
This will give you an (approximate) amount of calories you need each day to support your body’s survival and activity needs.
Another calculator can be found through the American Council on Exercise.
3. Figure out your macro needs.
Quick disclaimer: I’m not an IIFYM girl (If It Fits Your Macros), not because I think it’s wrong or bad, I just don’t want to live counting out how many grams of chicken I should eat each day! That said, it is a good place to begin your self-education about how much of which foods would be best for YOU to eat each day.
From the number you determined you need each day from the above calculations, divide the total number of calories by the percentages of carbs, fats and protein you deem you’ll need.
*This number varies between individuals, based on their body composition, weight and fat loss needs, and physiological differences–for example, some people are more sensitive to carbs than others and they might need fewer carbs and more protein and/or fats to meet their particular, individual needs. This is also probably something best address with your physician or a certified nutritionist.*
To get you started here are the basics on macros for most people.
The DRIs (Daily Recommended Intake for healthy adults) for macronutrients:
Of the total calories consumed, individuals should aim to get 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates, 10 to 35% from protein, and 20-35% from fats.
Remember: Carbohydrates and Proteins each have 4 calories per gram, alcohol has 7 calories per gram, and fats have 9 calories per gram.
To get your macros from calories into grams, you’ll multiply the percentage required for each macro times the total number of calories. One approach that has shown good results for weight loss has been a 50% carbohydrate/25% protein/25% fat approach (American Council on Exercise). *I am not necessarily advising or recommending this proportion, it is just an example*
For our mathematical purposes here, we’ll use an 1800 calories as our example, and apply the 50/25/25 macro proportions.
First, the carbs! Multiplying 1800 cals by .5, we get 900 calories. To determine how many grams of carbohydrate that is, we then divide 900 by 4 (because each gram of carbohydrate is 4 calories), and we get 225 grams.
Next, the proteins: Multiplying 1800 cals by .25, we get 450 calories. To determine how many grams of protein that is, we then divide 450 by 4 (because each gram of protein is 4 calories), and we get 112.5 grams.
Finally, the fats. Multiplying 1800 cals by .25, we get 450 calories again, but this time, we divide 450 by 9 (because each gram of fat has 9 calories), and we get 50 grams.
That means for a person who needs to consume 1800 calories a day, using the 50% Carbs/25% Proteins/25% Fats proportional approach (for maintenance of their current needs or in order to meet a particular athletic or body composition goal) would aim to consume 225 grams of carbohydrate, 113 grams of protein, and 50 grams of fat each day.
So. Much. Math!!!
How in the heck do we get from all this calculating to eating without any calculating, beyond maybe counting servings on our fingers, each day???
I promise, there is a way.
It makes sense, it’s not hard, and it can even be a fun little adventure.