February 03, 2022

Why I Don't Have a Calorie Target


I've written about this several times, but it's always been in a FAQ post about my weight loss. After my request for suggestions for weight loss topics, I got an email asking about how I stick to my calorie target while counting calories.

(In this post, I'm including a lot of photos of me eating things--just a forewarning that about 90% of them are ice cream! Hahaha.)

Eli and me eating fresh ice cream at a dairy farm

Here is the reader's question:

When you are counting calories, what do you do when you are hungry beyond what your calorie budget allows for a day?  How on earth do you stay within your calorie limit?  How do you manage that? I have found that when I count calories I do great for a few days, and then I just can't take the nagging hunger anymore. 

So, I'll use this post to try to go into detail about my daily calorie "limit"; it's always been hard to explain.

When in Madison, Wisconsin, eat Whoopie Pies!

When I count calories, I simply don't have a set "limit" for myself. I don't have a calorie target or even a range.

I know this sounds silly, because what's the point of counting calories if you're not aiming for a certain number?


I have found a couple of problems with setting a limit on the number of calories I eat per day:

1) If I have a maximum amount allowed, then I will eat every single bit of that amount, regardless of my hunger.

2) If I have a maximum amount allowed, then I will have to do a lot more meal planning ahead of time and I'm really bad at that. I usually just "wing it" when it comes to meals. I don't know what's going to sound good an hour from now, let alone tomorrow.

After my 10K PR (49:03!) I ordered this whole plate of tots for myself from McMenamin's!

 So how, then, does counting calories without having a limit help me to lose weight?

1) It helps me to visualize portion sizes. It's easy to pour a bowl of cereal that looks like a decent amount, only to find out that it's actually three servings and 500 calories. Add the milk, and it's a 650 calorie "light" breakfast.

I measure or weigh my food because I like to know just how much I am eating. It doesn't mean I can't have more if I want it, but just the fact that I *know* how many calories I'm consuming is enough reason to help me eat less.

My friend Laurel took my on a cupcake tour of Seattle. OMG.

2) My appetite isn't the same every day. Some days, I'm ravenous; some days I'm have no appetite at all. So it wouldn't make sense to try to eat the same number of calories every day without knowing what my appetite will be.

There are some days where I get super busy and I'm just not hungry or I don't have time to eat; on those days, I might eat less than 1,200 calories. Other days, my stomach feels like a bottomless pit and I'll eat closer to 2,500 calories. If I had a limit on those days, I would feel super hungry and just say "fuck it!" and eat everything in the pantry. 

And likewise, on the days where I just don't feel hungry, having a calorie target would still make me feel the need to eat that number, so I would eat just for the sake of eating.

Neither one of those scenarios is ideal. 

Laurel didn't stop at cupcakes. We also got ice cream!

3) I don't want to compromise special occasions. Special occasions are a fact of life. People celebrate birthdays, holidays, family get-togethers, out-of-town visits, vacations, etc. If I have a calorie limit, I would feel really stressed out that I wouldn't be able to splurge on things like everybody else. I would have to try to starve all day in order to save enough calories for a small piece of dessert or something.


On these kinds of days, I still count my calories; that number might be 3,000 or more! But I still count it. I don't obsess over how accurate it is, though. Last week, when I went out for pizza with my family, I didn't want to NOT eat pizza (the pizza place we went to is AMAZING). So I planned on having what I guessed would be about 1,000 calories worth of pizza. The pieces were cut pretty small, so I had three. Maybe those slices were 2,000 calories or maybe they were only 800. The point is, I made what I felt was a good guess and I counted them. I ate "normally" the rest of the day.

I don't always spend 1,000 calories on dinner, but on the occasion of going out with my family, it was worth it to me. If it meant my weight would be up a little, well, I know that I didn't eat enough to gain a whole pound of fat (which is 3,500 calories).

In a nutshell: On special occasion days, I just eat my usual meals and count on having a higher calorie meal as well. I also expect that my calorie total for the day will be higher than usual. And I'm cool with that.

Eli and I seeing "Happy Death Day"

4) Counting calories without a target makes calorie counting SIMPLE. (Remember, simple is not the same as easy.) Losing weight is never "easy", in my opinion. The simpler I keep my plan, the more likely I am to stick to it, though.

If I ate a big breakfast, for example, and I realized I already used two-thirds of my calories for the day, I would feel very anxious and overwhelmed the rest of the day, worrying about what I could eat in order to stay under X number of calories. 

Over time, just from measuring food and counting calories, I've learned the amount that my body feels pretty satisfied with (on average). That's *usually* about 1600. When I add up the averages over a period of months, I average roughly 1600 calories a day while I'm losing weight.

My brother bought a freeze-dryer, so I had him freeze dry Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia--YUM!

I think the best way to start counting calories is to actually just eat the way you always do but measure out the food first and write it down or use an app to track it. You might find that you're eating 5,000 calories a day and you don't know it. I would spend at least a week just eating your typical diet, but measuring and keeping track of the calories. Seeing those numbers might be enough to help you cut back.

Once you start learning portion sizes (due to weighing or measuring your food), you'll naturally learn where you can cut back. You'll also learn when you're eating just to eat rather than eating because you're hungry.

Maybe you'll start choosing foods that you enjoy the most and skip the foods that you don't really like. One of my "rules" is that I don't force myself to eat foods I don't like; I only eat foods that I actually enjoy. If that means eating a smaller amount of those foods, then I'm willing to do that. I'd rather have one really good, rich chocolate chip cookie than ten "just okay" ones. The calorie count will likely be lower, too!

Back when I thought turning 30 was SO OLD

I always suggest this to people who are trying calorie counting: Start with a higher number than you think you need. For example, try eating about 2,000 calories per day. Keep track of your weight and see what happens. If you lose weight, that's awesome! Continue with 2,000. If you gain weight, then cut back by a couple hundred and try again. Not everybody needs the same amount of food, so we have to experiment to see what works for us as individuals.

To answer the question about nagging hunger... 

I do get hungry. But I actually enjoy being hungry before I eat because the food tastes better. I don't like being "hangry" (so hungry that I get irritable and angry); but when my stomach feels empty and food starts sounding really good, then I know it's going to taste good.

Popsicles taste SO GOOD after a hot run!

Over a LOT of years of weight loss/gain/maintenance, I've learned that my body likes it best when I eat four times a day: 8:00, 12:00, 4:00, and 8:00. I don't always stick to that schedule! Sometimes I'll skip a meal because I'm busy, but then I'm extra hungry later and I'll eat more than usual. And I don't watch the clock to eat right at those times; it's just a guideline.

So, while I do get hungry, it's not because I'm not eating enough calories; it's because I'm choosing to space out my meals enough to where I have just the right amount of hunger before I eat again.

Midnight snack during Ragnar "From Fat to Finish Line" in the Florida Keys

If you have a nagging hunger for days, enough to make you want to quit, then you are likely not eating enough.

Hopefully this post explained my odd "no calorie target" way of calorie counting. It works for ME; just note that this may not work for other people. Some people may find that they eat non-stop when they don't have a target. If that is the case, then I would suggest to try starting with a calorie range. Aim for somewhere in the middle of the range, and that way you have a guideline.

I know this way of eating isn't for everyone. That's why I alway stress that we should each do what is best for US and our OUR bodies. Counting calories this way works best for me and it's simplest for me so that I don't quit the first time I overeat! ;)

And clearly, I love dessert--that's why almost all of my pictures involve dessert! (Also, notice how most of them are some sort of "occasion"--it's not just me sitting home in my pajamas shoveling ice cream in my mouth--although I've definitely been known to do that, too!)

Jessica and I celebrated our final marathon training run with frozen custard!


I do eat lots of healthy food, too, but I rarely take pictures of it like this--because it's not as fun as dessert. My diet doesn't consist entirely of ice cream, I promise. I also eat too many grapes ;)

10 comments:

  1. I LOVE this post! This is a totally healthy way to go about "calorie counting". If you start to obsess over a certain number, it gets very unhealthy very quickly. This was super informative, thank you for sharing!!

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  2. Wow! This helps a lot. I had the same question and must have skimmed over it in the FAQ. I also love how you suggest starting where you are. Count the calories I am eating now before I make any changes. Feels very "gradual progress" (a ChiRunning principle) and that work for me. I'm still struggling with food issues. Might always be. But this gives me a good starting place. Thanks so much.

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  3. Great post. Thank you for taking the time to explain your calorie counting to all of us. I am going to give it a try! Have a blessed and awesome day!

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  4. Love the grape snark! 😹💜
    -Martine

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    1. Right? (Loses a ton of weight): "You would lose so much more if you dropped the grape intake." LOL!

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  5. I have been following your blog for years and tonight it totally clicked! Thank you for this post!

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  6. I enjoyed reading this post. Does your app show you a graph of calories you ate in the last 7 days, month, year, etc? Would you be willing to share a screenshot of that? I'll bet you can see your average of 1600.

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  7. I liked the post. I calorie count because I am still learning portion sizes. The cereal example is perfect.

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  8. I know your way wouldn't work for everyone, but I really find that your ways resonate with me and feel *right*. I'm not interested in calorie counting in general, but this feels like something I could do. Thank you!

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  9. My sister records all her food, but not the calories. She says she doesn't want to know the calories because it would depress her, but if she gains weight she can look back at what she ate and see what caused the weight gain. I am a firm calorie counter, and I have to have a limit. If I don't, I will eat more. I actually am not great with a limit either, but it has worked in the past, so I keep hoping it'll click again. :-)

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