My thoughts on dieting and calorie counting

A friendly note: I talk about calorie counting, dieting and my own disordered eating habits here. If you’ve struggled (or are currently struggling) with disordered eating and feel this might be triggering for you, I urge you to click away. If you’re struggling with disordered eating and haven’t yet reached out, I also urge you to reach out and seek help. You are beautiful and you are worthy.

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A friend of mine posted this post on Facebook (evil, evil Facebook) the other day.

If you haven’t read the post 1200 Calories yet, please, click over and read it; you won’t regret it.

Okay, you’ve read it? Super.

So, let’s talk about dieting and calorie counting…

About nine years ago I had massively disordered eating. I’m not sure how it came about, but I was on the 1200 calorie bandwagon. Not only that, I was fueling myself with fake foods during the week and then would binge eat on the weekends. A typical day looked like this


– Coffee. Yup. Coffee. Usually a venti because I was freaking tired. Probably because I wasn’t eating enough and my body was exhausted, so I decided to fuel with coffee.


– Pepperoni stick and cheese. My blood sugar would normally plummet around 10am (due to the lack of breakfast) so to prevent myself from passing out, I needed the protein and fats.

– Grapes. Because grapes are delicious.


– Cup of instant soup. I’d scour the aisles of the grocery store looking for instant soup. If anything was over 120 calories I’d put it back because that was “too many” calories for me to eat. Yeah……..


– Frozen chicken breast and corn. I was working from 2pm-10pm during this time (going to school from 8am-1pm) so I’d bring chicken and corn and heat it up. No matter how hungry I was, I never had an option for more food.

Let’s not attempt to count those calories. It’s far below 1200 calories. I never logged my food, but believed being hungry was good for me, so I kept my body in a hungry and semi-starved state during the week and followed it up by eating everything in sight on the weekends. Okay, just on Sunday because I worked on Saturday and was able to keep my food intake to a minimum on Saturday as well.

During this time I broke my left elbow when leaving work. Due to the break and the time of year I was in the hospital from Wednesday (when I broke it) to Saturday (when it was set). As I was “on-call” for surgery I wasn’t allowed to eat I was actually glad I wasn’t allowed to eat because I was able to make sure I didn’t gain weight because I was just chillin’ at the hospital. That should give you an idea of the extent of how disordered my eating was. I was in the hospital with a broken elbow and I was concerned about my weight. During the day I’d do laps of the floor with my IV pole and was thankful the morphine took away any appetite I might have.

Although I trained as a swimmer throughout my youth (competitive swimming from 7-19 and competitive synchronized swimming from 11-16) and never had any body image issues during that time, as soon as I moved out I experienced a bout of depression and that lead into a downward spiral of self loathing and controlling myself with food.

As a result of my disordered eating past, counting calories is a very fine line for me. Very fine.

Two years ago I logged everything I ate in MyFitnessPal. If I had a day where I was within my calorie goals it was a good day and I was a good person. If I had calorie room that was even better. I flip-flopped between praising myself on my calorie deficit and binge eating because I had room. If I had a day where I was over my goal, even by very few calories, it was a bad day; I was a bad person and had no self-control. If I was able, I’d go to the gym and work them off; if not, I’d shame myself.

I am so, so thankful I am no longer in this place.

To compare that stage in my life to now: I am roughly 15 pounds heavier now that I was then. I am also one million times happier now than I was then. My weight does not (nor will it ever) dictate my happiness or worth. Never again.

At this point, I will periodically log my calories to make sure I’m eating in an appropriate range for my metabolism; especially with my marathon training. I know I should consume roughly 1600 calories for my height and weight and will eat more on the days where I have long runs, usually. I do my best to eat intuitively: if I want a hamburger/fries/whatever, I will eat them. If I’m not hungry, I won’t eat. There are some days where I’ll run for 90 minutes and won’t experience a lot of hunger –  I always refuel with a protein shake (Vega Performance Protein in Vanilla) and then use my hunger cues for the remainder of the day.

So, with all that said – calorie counting is not for me.

However, I do believe calorie counting can be beneficial for some people.

As a result of being highly involved in swimming during my teenage years and then picking up running at 18, I’ve always had a basic idea of  what healthy looks like. While I wasn’t a fan of always eating healthy growing up (dinner always involved a vegetable, protein and carb) I recognize it was easy for me to take this and apply it to my life when I started living on my own. Sure, there were times I ate junk because I could I also wanted to eat the healthy stuff. I knew protein and veggies were good for me and cookies and sugar and McDonald’s wasn’t.

I don’t believe logging meals every day is sustainable, and I feel it can also result in feeling shame. There were times I wouldn’t log something because I felt shame over having eaten something unhealthy. Yeah, let’s just go ahead and agree that’s not a good habit.

So, with all that said, I feel calorie counting can be a beneficial tool when starting to move towards a more healthy lifestyle. In the end, diets don’t work. They don’t. Sorry. “Diet” implies something will be sort term, whereas a healthy lifestyle is something to be maintained for the long run. Once I moved out of my diet mindset and into a sustainable healthy lifestyle, I was able to rid myself of shameful thoughts over food and eating and am consistently able to make better choices regarding what I choose to eat.

I know what 1600 calories of food in a day looks like. I know when I likely go over my calories because I listen to my body. I no longer have a running commentary of how many calories are in item A, B, or C. For someone who doesn’t know what 1600 calories looks like, calorie counting can be a helpful tool, just to establish portion and serving sizes to be used when moving forward with a more healthy lifestyle. This could involve weighing and measuring out food for months, or even a year, but I believe (and this is my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth – not much) in order to truly maintain a healthy lifestyle (I’m talking about more than just the number on the scale here) it’s important to move away from the measuring and weighing. (Now saying that, I always measure my trail mix. Every morning 1/4 cup. Why? Because 1/4 cup isn’t much and trail mix is good, yo!)

The key takeaway (and what I spent a long-ass time trying to get at) is counting calories is not necessarily a bad thing. What is a bad thing is getting caught in the cycle of I can only eat 1200 calories a day  and putting your body into starvation mode and, really, causing potentially irreparable damage to your metabolism.

Whew. That was long-winded and rambley, wasn’t it?

Do you count calories?

What are your thoughts on calorie counting?

16 thoughts on “My thoughts on dieting and calorie counting

  1. This is a very important post. Thank you for writing it.

    When I first realized I needed to start losing some weight (about 3 years ago) and becoming active again (after a few years of inactivity and eating southern foods!), I started with calorie counting in conjunction with a 5 day a week workout schedule.

    I realized quickly that it can become (for some) a completely obsessive compulsion to track everything I shove into my grill. It made me miserable that I couldn’t have that beer or eat a cheeseburger. I was constantly looking at boxes and bags to see how many calories were in each item. My grocery cart was a sad little buggy at checkout with it’s lettuce and carrots.

    So, I stopped counting calories. I also stopped weighing myself daily.

    I kept up with my workout regimen and didn’t deprive myself of the foods I like. Of course, I eat within reason and try to keep it healthy, but if I want a damned cheeseburger once in awhile, Imma gonna have it! I also weigh myself maybe once a week to see where I am.

    I know calorie counting works for many people, but it also can start a negative downward spiral for others.

    In conclusion, what works for some may not work for others. Trying things out and realizing something isn’t for you is ok. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle comes in all forms.

  2. Oh boy. So.

    At the very beginning of my sophomore year of college, I broke up with the boyfriend I’d had for two years. That boyfriend had told me on a regular basis that (at 5’7″ and 115lbs) I was too fat. I shed his 180lbs from my life, and then….still believed him. The beginning of my sophomore year was similar to your experience, though not so much in counting calories. I was very specific about ANYTHING I ate and would punish myself if I didn’t meet my “standards.”

    You want that cookie? Better run an extra mile that night.

    Pasta and salad. That’s what I ate for MONTHS.

    And one weekend I broke. I remember it so very clearly, too. I went to Wal-Mart and got anything I could think of: doughnuts, cookies, pizza rolls, ANYTHING that I’d been refusing to let myself have for those months. Over that weekend I ate all of it.

    It took that weekend, along with a specific focus on what I ate, to remind myself that sandwiches weren’t bad! French fries aren’t bad! Working out is good, as long as it’s done as something that you enjoy, not as punishment. The last half of my sophomore year was rough.

    And then? I spent that summer training for a marathon and eating 2000+ calories a day and put on 30 very healthy pounds. I have been that ripped only one other time since then.

    Not too long ago, I tried signing up for My Fitness Pal. I got all of TWO DAYS before I realized that I was going to do the same thing. One day I chose to go out on a date with my fiance, but sat there panicking that I wasn’t going to get a workout in so would end up over my net calorie allowance for the day. I haven’t signed on since.

    Some people can count calories and be fine. I am not one of them. It took a long time to learn that, but I’m really glad I did. I’m glad I know healthy portions and don’t freak out if I choose to eat calzones two days in a row.

    Healthy lifestyle over calorie counting and dieting any day.

    Great post, Ange! Sorry for the novel of a comment. 🙂

    • You’ve already heard my thoughts on this ex-boyfriend of yours.

      A-freaking-men to healthy lifestyle over calorie counting and dieting.

      Life is too short not to eat calzones and drink beer 😛

  3. Hm…I guess I’m like you with calorie counting. Logging into MFP faithfully every day is what allowed me to get a handle on my binge eating/drinking a few years ago and shed 20# (b/c who wants to log 600 cals of mac-n-cheese or 1,000 cals of beer!)… but it was also a fine line for me with disordered eating. In college I somehow got that 1,200 cal number in my head as well, and I basically lived on Special K, low fat string cheese, steamed broccoli, etc. The problem was that if I DID binge eat, I then puked in order to keep my daily cal count at my goal. [ya, not a good practice]

    Now I check into MFP every few months to track for a week and make sure I’m eating around that 1,600 level you mentioned. I have found it VERY helpful to also wear a FitBit and sync that to MFP — then you get more/less allotted cals every day based on your actual movement that day. It really helped keep me accountable and to make healthy EXERCISE choices, since that really is so important.

    I agree…calorie counting isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s necessary for a lot of people who have lost all concept of what a healthy portion of food is (or who maybe never knew in the first place!).

    • Your last paragraph “I agree…calorie counting isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s necessary for a lot of people who have lost all concept of what a healthy portion of food is (or who maybe never knew in the first place!).” you said EXACTLY what I was trying to get at, much more eloquently than I did in my monster of a post. Thank you!

      I’m very interested in a FitBit – I’d also like to go in for BMR testing to see where exactly my metabolism sits. Not for weightloss reasons, but because I’m fascinated by this type of stuff. I had my VO2 max tested when I was in university for a class and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Now, nearly 10 years later, I’d love to have it done again.

      • Ya, I know when my Mom first started trying to lose weight (she had 100#+ to lose), I talked her into trying calorie counting for a bit to get on track, and she was astounded to realize how many cals were in a Tbsp of butter. Things like that add up quickly if you’ve just never KNOWN. Same goes for meat portions, pasta portions, etc. Americans are SO delusional about what a proper portion is thanks to our “super size” restaurant portions.

        I 100% love my FitBit. It’s nice to have “friends” to challenge yourself against as well. I’m pregnant right now and my daily step count has dropped from about 9k/day to 4k/day (SO sad) and it’s seeing my friends killing it that is giving me the motivation to try to get moving again. It’s also interesting to see how much that step change has affected the # of allotted cals/day for me as well (though I’m not actually tracking while pregnant).

        – ps, I’m a friend of Ann’s – just saw her tweet about your post. 🙂

      • Hi friend of Ann’s! Nice to meet you 🙂

        I hear you on the not knowing. When I was a teen and swimming I just ate because I was a teenager and swimming and I could eat all the food and it didn’t matter. Then when I finally started counting calories I was AMAZED and the calorie content of things. It really it the little things that add up: sauteing veggies in oil, adding sugar to your coffee, etc.

        I’m also competitive, but mainly with myself. I think that’s why using RunKeeper has helped so much with my training. I can see what I’m doing and I’m motivated to run farther or faster (within reason) because then it mean I “win”. Heh 🙂

  4. OK. Brace yourself for my VAST years of wisdom in the health and fitness world. 😉

    I log religiously on MFP. Mostly because it’s my equivalent to a spreadsheet and I’m a spreadsheet kinda gal. I like that I can run reports and see where I need to improve with my workout regimen and my meal planning (notice how I didn’t use the “D” word). So my calorie counting is purely informational. What helped me more than anything is a book called Change One. It focused on portion sizes, setting realistic goals, and helping figure out what your problem areas are. Each chapter equates to a week. If, at the end of the week, you don’t feel like you “get it” then you continue on with that chapter for another week. You don’t move on until you’re comfortable. It’s laid out logically. For example, chapter 1 focused on breakfast. Don’t worry about every other meal of the day, just spend the first week learning to recognize breakfast portion sizes…whether it’s scrambled eggs, boxed cereal, or pancakes. Second week it was the same with lunches. You now learn how to eat normal size portions for lunch. You continue doing what you’ve learned about breakfast, but you add lunch to it. It wasn’t until chapter four that the book ever mentioned setting a weight loss goal. The premise behind that is that when people start a “diet” they set unrealistic goals and are doomed to failure. After four chapters you’ve made it through breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner. You have some sort of idea of how changing these small things is going to help. So…that’s when it talked about setting goals. Then you moved on to other things. Weekend eating. Vacation eating. Holiday eating. Family get together eating. I learned through reading this booking and working through the different chapters that I had a major problem with snacking and weekends. Those two chapters took me multiple weeks each to finally feel like it sunk into my thick skull.

    I still follow the guidelines from the Change One. It was the only thing I had ever read (regarding weight loss/dieting) that actually made sense. I eat a very healthy diet. But if I want a cheese burger I will eat a cheeseburger. So I don’t battle anymore with counting calories. I battle with some health issues that are making it impossible to lose weight. I’m trying to be OK with where my weight is. I’ve never had body issues until these health issues hit me and made it impossible to lose weight. My challenge now isn’t going to be knowing how to eat right, getting the right workout, living a healthy lifestyle. My main challenge is going to be learning how to be OK with my body the way it is and trying not to stress out because I don’t look like I used to.

    • That book sounds awesome – and makes complete sense. Learn how to eat FIRST and then go from there. Maybe all you need to do is learn how to eat. I’m definitely adding that to my reading list, just because I like to know these things.

      I think if you can use MFP purely for data reasons that’s awesome. I freaking LOVE data and information – that’s why I read so many health and fitness books and blogs and why I use RunKeeper. Data and info all over the place.

      Freaking UGH to the health issues. That must be unbelievably frustrating to be doing everything “right” and just not seeing many, if any, results. Just UGH 😦

      Just know that *I* think you’re pretty freaking awesome!

  5. I used to count calories when I was trying to get back to a healthy lifestyle and lose the excess college weight I had gained. I had one summer where I almost obsessively counted calories and was working out and lost almost no weight. I’m pretty sure I was following the 1200 calorie “rule” then (isn’t that just crazy?! I asked a woman how many calories she thought women should eat per day to maintain weight and she said 1200 calories), but wasn’t putting any healthy foods into my body.

    Since then, I have at times counted calories, but now? I have no patience for it. It takes too much work and I don’t see results from it. Although, until recently I’ve usually had an idea what my approximate caloric intake is over the course of a week, I have no idea what it actually is! I definitely am learning to eat more intuitively and I think that has helped to maintain my weight over the last few years.

    I do agree that for some people calorie counting is good and necessary, but I think over time most people probably get to the point where it’s just exhausting and draining like you said.

    I didn’t really say anything new here 🙂 but I agree with everything you said! It’s such an interesting discussion and each person is unique in their way of approaching it!

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