Friday, November 27, 2015

How I calorie counted my way back to my goal weight

Recently, I've been getting a trillion questions about calorie counting, and how I managed to do so well with it in getting back to my goal weight. The reason I chose to count calories is because it's very simple (not to be confused with "easy")--you just count the calories in everything you eat. I really didn't want to overthink anything... so I didn't.

In this post, I'm going to answer a bunch of the questions I've been getting lately, because it's easier than explaining it over and over elsewhere. I say this all the time, but I want to stress again that everybody is different, and what works for me may not work for others; and what works for others may not work for me. I am not trying to tell anyone how to do things, because I don't know you! I think it's important that each person finds what works for him/herself.

What I'm about to write is just how I chose to do calorie counting--and who am I? I'm not a doctor or scientist or nutritionist, or anything like that. I just tried to keep it simple and something I could do for the long haul. That said, though, here is how I utilized calorie counting to lose weight...

I want to start by saying that I don't have any set of "rules" that I follow. By taking away rules, I feel much less pressure. I'm not following a particular "program" or anyone else's guidelines. I typically just make stuff up as I go along, and learn from my mistakes.

Q. What app do you use for calorie counting?

A. I use My Fitness Pal. The two most popular apps seem to be My Fitness Pal and SparkPeople, so I did a comparison of them, which you can read here.

Q. How many calories do you eat a day?

A. It varies every single day. I don't aim for a particular number, because I think that if I were to aim for one specific number (for example, 1,500) and I were to go over just a bit (1,510), I would feel like I "cheated" or "failed" somehow. By not having a specific number that I must stick to, I don't ever "cheat" or "fail". However, when I plan out my day ahead of time, I usually aim for roughly 1,500; and I just change things as needed. (If I'm hungry, I eat more; if not, I eat less)

I averaged all the calories I ate each day over the last 15 weeks, and it worked out to 1,568 per day. My Fitness Pal suggested a goal of 1,200, but obviously, I didn't adhere to that. I just ate what was comfortable for me (enough to not feel hungry, and also what I felt was a "normal" amount of food) and it worked out to be an average of 1,568 per day. I think the best way to find out how many calories to eat each day is just to experiment and see what works! Some days I eat much less, some days I eat much more. It just depends on my appetite that day.

Q. Do you add in extra calories for exercise?

A. No. (They get added automatically to My Fitness Pal because syncs with my Garmin, but I don't consciously think, "Oh, I burned 275 calories on my run today, so I can eat an extra 275 calories today.") However, because I don't have an actual calorie target each day, "adding in" calories for exercise wouldn't really make sense. Like I said, I wanted to keep it very simple and not overthink anything! If I was trying to stick with a particular calorie target each day, I would probably add my exercise calories in, just to give myself that option to eat more. But because I don't have a target, there is no number to add to, if that makes sense.

Q. What is your "high calorie" day that you talk about?

A. Once a week, I choose to eat more calorically dense foods and go over my "typical" calories. I usually end up eating about 2,000 to 3,000 calories on a high-calorie day. I don't binge, or call it a "cheat day" or anything like that. I eat the same volume of food I do any other day, but I choose foods that have a lot more calories than my normal days. For example, my kids love getting pizza once a week, so I might have three small pieces of pizza for about 1,000 calories. Normally, my dinner is about 300-500 calories, even if it's the same volume of food. I usually use the high calorie day if I'm going to be going out to dinner or if Jerry is off work and we have something special planned. I do the high calorie day to keep my body from getting used to eating the same general number of calories per day.

Q. Do you track your macro nutrients (carbs, fat, protein)?

A. No. Again, keeping it simple. I track just my calories, and I don't worry about any other numbers. I've found in the past, when I've tried to track nutrients like carbs or protein or fat, I get a perfectionist attitude. If I don't hit the target, I feel like I failed. Then, I typically binge and quit altogether. By keeping it very simple, tracking just ONE number (calories), then I don't get overwhelmed. My Fitness Pal automatically keeps track of macros, and on the very rare occasion that I glance at it, I see that I eat mostly carbs and fat--ordinarily, that would freak me out, because "everyone" says you should eat less carbs and more protein to lose weight. I just keep in mind that I am not "everyone", I am ME. And I will do what works for me.

Q. Do you track your fruits and vegetables?

A. Yes. There are calories in fruits and vegetables (more than I thought, actually! Being on Weight Watchers for so long, I tended to think of vegetables as "free", but the calories really do add up). I track everything I eat, even the 5 calories in my tea. Not tracking something doesn't mean I didn't eat it, as much as I wish that were true ;) Only three people see my food log: myself, my husband, and my best friend. So, there is no reason to hide things from my food log! I would only be kidding myself.

Q. What kinds of foods do you eat?

A. Anything I want. Whatever sounds good to me at that time. Again, keeping it simple! If I try to restrict something, I'll just obsess over it; so, I don't have any "rules" about what I can or can't eat. Some of my favorite foods that I eat a lot of: Larabars (I eat one with peanut butter every day for breakfast), scrambled eggs with cheese, pizza, all sorts of soup, sweet tomatoes, pasta, and dried cherries.

Q. How do you count bites of food here or licks there? Do you count them?

A. I actually got into a really nice routine with my meals, and I very rarely stray from it (not because it's a "rule", but because it's comfortable). I eat three meals a day and one bedtime treat. I don't do any snacking, because I don't like to spend calories on snacks--I'd rather eat higher calorie meals three times a day. In the evenings, I enjoy a treat of some kind--a couple of cookies, a glass of wine or two, a mini apple pie, candy, dried cherries... whatever sounds good. It's usually about 200-300 calories; but again, I don't have a particular target. So, because of my routine, I don't do any bites, licks, or tastes--just meals.

Q. How do you track the calories in recipes?

A. My Fitness Pal has an awesome recipe tracker on the app! When I'm cooking, I can literally just scan the barcode of ingredients and build the recipe right there on the app. Then it's saved for the next time I make the recipe, too. You can even import recipes from websites and swap out ingredients if you change things up. It's a really great tool!

Q. What's different between how you're eating now and when you were doing Weight Watchers?

A. Weight Watchers is a great program! That's how I lost the majority of my weight. However, when I was doing Weight Watchers this year, it took FOREVER to lose weight--I lost four pounds over a couple of months. I was staying on program, so I just assumed my metabolism had slowed or something. However, now that I've been calorie counting for a while, I am starting to see what the problems were. I learned to "work the program" in order to get the most calories possible out of each PointsPlus (something that, once you learn, you can't "unlearn"). For example, I learned that 25 grams of peanut butter and 28 grams of peanut butter had the same number of PointsPlus; so naturally, I would choose to eat 28 grams. When you do that with all of your foods, you eat a lot more calories than you would otherwise!

I think the biggest issue, however, was the fact that I was following all the "rules" of WW. Since WW gave me a target number of PointsPlus to aim for each day, I would always try to work it like a puzzle, getting in a particular number of PP each day--no more, no less. I ate all of my activity PP and weekly PP, also, so even if I wasn't very hungry one day, I would still eat the PP that I was "allowed". If I was extra hungry one day, I would still try to stick with my allowance. While counting calories, I'm listening to my hunger cues much more, and I don't feel the pressure to stick to a particular calorie target.

Also, Weight Watchers has you thinking in terms of weeks instead of days. For some people this works really well; but as a binge eater, it didn't work so well for me. My PP started fresh every Wednesday... so if, for example, I binged (or just overate) on Thursday or Friday, I wouldn't have any weekly PP to carry me over until Wednesday. A lot of times, I would just say "screw it" and not count my PP for the rest of the week. So, it wasn't the fault of Weight Watchers that I wasn't losing weight; it was just the way that I was working the program.

To put it simply, calorie counting (the way I do it) has no hard set of rules, so I can just make it up as I go, fitting it into my life. I like that!

Q. What do you do if you don't know how many calories are in something? Say, you go to a friend's house for dinner, and you don't know the recipe for what he/she prepared. How do you count that?

A. I make my best guesstimate. I just search for the food in the MFP database generically (if your friend made lasagna, for example; with garlic bread and salad). I would search lasagna, and then pick the one that I would honestly think makes the most sense. Obviously, it's not going to be exactly accurate, unless you have the recipe, but it's close enough. I would search garlic bread and salad the same way.

I do the same thing when I go to a restaurant that isn't a chain or doesn't have the calories listed. I just think of something similar, and count it as that item instead. The most important thing about it is not to lie to yourself. Don't say, "Oh, that looks like it's about half a cup" when clearly it's a cup and a half ;)

Yeah, I'd say that's 1/4 cup of dried cherries, wouldn't you? ;)

Q. Do you still have urges to binge? And if so, what do you do? 

A. I do still have urges to binge, and sometimes I have to white-knuckle my way through them (my kids arguing with each other is my biggest trigger!). But, the more time that passes since my last binge (115 days and counting right now), the more determined I am to keep the streak going. And the urges come less and less often now. It's much easier to cave in on Day 4 than it is on Day 104, for example, because you don't want to ruin the good streak!

One thing that has helped is that I have a drink to sip--usually, I'll have diet tonic water with lime, or flavored seltzer water. Vodka tonics are my favorite cocktail, so when I have the diet tonic with lime, I can at least pretend I'm having the real thing, haha. Other things I do to pass the binge urge: text a friend, take a shower, play a game on my iPad, work on a puzzle, take Joey for a walk, plan out my meals for the next day, do a load of laundry... basically ANYTHING that either gets me away from the kitchen, or takes my mind off of the food.

Finally, I make a mental note of what it is that I want to binge on, and I tell myself I can have it on my high calorie day. When my high calorie day comes around, I usually have forgotten all about it; but if I'm still thinking of it, then I'll go ahead and eat it (measuring and counting it, of course!).

Q. Does your old post about eating a dessert every single day to resist binge eating still hold true?

A. Yes! I still have a dessert/treat every night, and I definitely think it helps me not to binge. It gives me something to look forward to all day, and by eating just a small portion, I am still excited to eat it again the next day (whereas, after a binge, I feel sick and vow never to eat it ever again).

Goofy picture, but I was expressing my excitement over my
bedtime treat--a York Peppermint Patty! ;)

For a few older posts regarding binge eating, you can check them out here:
How I refrained from binge eating for a year while losing weight
A little of my history with binge eating
How I'm successfully on another binge-free streak in maintenance

I think that pretty much sums it up! I can't stress enough that it really helps to experiment to find what works for YOU. Try making your own rules and change them around until they fit for YOU. I think the approach I'm taking is very similar to intuitive eating--I'm eating what I want, I'm listening to my hunger cues, I'm not following any "rules"--only I happen to log my food and track the calories, so I can keep myself from getting out of hand.

For anyone who is struggling like I was struggling to get back to goal, my advice would be not to overthink it, and do what makes it easier for YOU. For example, if counting macros helps you to stay on task, then do it! If it stresses you out, like it does for me, then just focus on the calories. If having a target calorie goal each day helps you not to overeat, then do that; but if it makes you feel bad about yourself for going over your target once in a while, then try having a target range, or no target at all. That's basically what I did--I just looked at what made things easier for me, and made up my own rules. Hopefully that helps!

I also want to make it clear that I am not trying to tell anyone at all how they should or shouldn't eat. Like I said, I've been getting a lot of questions lately about the calorie counting, so I wanted to answer those in one spot. As I always say, find what works for you--something you can do for the long haul--and do that :)