The Calorie Mentality Needs to Die

My son and I at a Red Sox game earlier this year. We walked to the ballpark.

Math. We hated it in school, and yet so many of us live and die by it in our daily lives when it comes to healthy living. We think "calories in/calories out." I was very much on that bandwagon, but over the last 18 months or so I've come to realize it's an UTTER waste of time. Counting calories WILL (through sheer determination and overcoming every fiber of your body's set point) eventually get you to your goal. It took me four years (four years!) to lose my post-partum weight. I kept it off for three years and then the yo-yoing began. All it did was frustrate me and prevented me from having fun in my life. Here's my advice based on how I'm living my life these days: Eat lean proteins; lots of fruits and veggies; go easy on the starches; and try to ditch as much sugar as possible. If you can live with that combination of foods (trust me you can), and if you can move for fun not for calorie burn, you'll be fine.  Your weight will settle in to a happy place and you'll reach through your computer screen and give me a hug. I was on Weight Watchers for years following their counting system. It's not quite calorie counting, but I can still look at just about any plate of food and figure out how many "points" it is. How does that help me enjoy my food? Plus, Weight Watchers gave me a way to "cheat" legally.  I could have that big hunk of bread and the sugary dessert if I just saved up my points during the day to blow it at dinner. Is that a healthier way of eating? I've been evolving this idea for a while now and "The Smarter Science of Slim" is the closest I've come to the life I want to live. The book talks about choosing quality foods and getting on with your life the rest of the time. It's about minimal time spent on exercise geared to boosting your metabolism which frees you up to move and be active only for fun. I do still believe we should move most days of the week, but in a way that brings us joy, not just as a means to stay in our skinny jeans. I love Pilates, hooping, and running.  I love hiking, a little Spinning (especially when I'm angry), and the occasional yoga class. I literally walk all over town. I'll try other exercise classes just to see whether or not I like them. It's pretty diverse really and that's how it should be. Doesn't that sound better than what is usually shouted at us when it comes to fitness? I'm training for a 10K right now because I want to see if I can do it; I want to stretch my limits and attain a new goal. I'm NOT counting calories as I run, and I'm trying to be okay with my pokey time and just let the experience unfold. So ditch the calorie counting! Ditch the regimented workout routines! Focus on eating well and feel your body hug you back.  You'll be so glad you did. Cheers, Lisa

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.


15 Responses to The Calorie Mentality Needs to Die

  1. Lisa Eirene July 19, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    I have to respectfully disagree! I counted my calories in order to lose 100 pounds. It worked for me and I lost the weigh in just under 2 years. I’ve kept it off for 4 years now.

    Calorie counting works for me because I need to be accountable to myself and see the numbers in black in white. Why? Because as a former binge eater and obese person, my intuition and desire is to overeat. Calorie counting makes me aware and keeps me on track.

    There was a period of time when I stopped counting my calories because I thought I didn’t need to and proceeded to gain 15 pounds. Counting isn’t necessarily for everyone but I think for people like me, it’s something I’ll have to do forever. And I’m okay with that.

  2. TraceyJoy July 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    ITA with you Lisa :)

  3. Lisa Johnson July 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Lisa, it’s funny, right after I hit publish I thought to myself, but if it works for some then yes they should do it. :-) For me it was a resentful struggle, lol. But if that’s your check and balance system and it’s working for you then by all means ignore me and do what you want! One of the things I’ve come to truly respect about fitness and more accurately wellness is there are a million different “right” ways to do it. And I’m so impressed and respectful of how you lost your weight, it was an amazing journey for you.



  4. Staci July 19, 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    I agree … in theory. I’m still a slave to counting because it’s what I know (a former WW member here myself). But, I do mostly subscribe to the SSoS “diet” and it’s been really beneficial. My only (continual) problem is getting too comfortable eating the same foods over and over again because I’m 1.) lazy and 2.) unadventurous. I am really happy you’ve hit your groove, though, and I totally agree on the exercise front. I’ve been mixing it up quite a bit and having much more fun. I’d like to train for a sprint tri but have to make sure I have the time before I decide to go ahead with it. Good luck with your 10k training!

  5. Lisa Johnson July 19, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

    Thanks Staci and it sounds like you’re doing really well yourself. :) L–

  6. evilcyber July 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Like for Lisa above, calorie counting worked for me where everything else failed.

    Maybe because I’m the kind of person that needed the security of looking on piece of paper (or a computer screen in this case) and see how many calories I still had left on a given day. Practically this meant that on some days I saved calories during the day and, lo and behold, was able to then eat a nice tuna pizza in the evening without compromising my goals.

    What works or doesn’t work often highly depends on the person.

  7. Lisa Johnson July 24, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Very much agreed EC :) We should always do what’s best for ourselves. L–

  8. Mike Ball July 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Had to be said/written. Thank you.

    The worshipful chant of calories-in/calories-out all-you-need-to-know can be very destructive. Observation and much research has convinced me that it’s accurate for only a small percentage of us. It’s akin to the findings of folk like Volek and Phinney, that include only a quarter or fewer of us can maintain our weight with carb-heavy diets.

    Verbally beating up on those many who do far better with lower carb/higher protein mixes instead of slavish calorie counting is not nice as well as not rational.

    That written, I do weigh weekly and record the calories in and exercised. I measure and weigh food as part of it. I knew full well that even with my 1 to 2 hours of aerobics a day that I won’t come close to losing the half to three quarters of a pound the calories-in/out estimates (and that’s all they are per person) show. I find that recording all does more than keep me honest. I see the trends and can adjust quickly.

    I do wish the overly simplified and maybe simpleminded formula worked for all.

  9. Heather July 25, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    I think a major point has been missed with those who advocate calorie counting – it’s relentless, takes much of the enjoyment out of simply eating, when you’re hungry…and as to Lisa’s most impactful argument: eat the right foods and you don’t have to calorie count. If you overeat lean meats, fruits and veggies, then you’re body might be communicating to you, a deficiency in nutrients. Too many things are made to be so complicated.

  10. Lisa Johnson July 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Thanks for your thoughts Mike, very much appreciated. Journaling is one of the most powerful ways to live healthfully, if you write down everything you do/eat then you can see where little cheats start to creep in. That said becoming a slave to a journal (or a calorie counter of some sort) can take a little bit of fun out of life. There are so many checks and balances to consider aren’t they? It’s not an easy answer … but I agree the calories in/ calories out model isn’t the answer. We’ve been using it in large numbers in the States since the 1970s and for the most part it’s been an abysmal failure. Yes, definitely successful for some, but by and large not successful for most.

  11. Lisa Johnson July 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Heather Amen … :-)

  12. Mike Ball July 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    The struggle doesn’t have to be much more than awareness though. I’m a mesamorphic sort and was never scrawny, but from childhood I was fastidious (you know, put things back where they belong) and was a tech writer for many years.

    I don’t find it any trouble at all, even emotionally, to spend two to five minutes a day entering what I’ve consumed into a nutrition program. My wife does and she won’t do it. She weighs daily and does without if she sees a bad trend.

    I enjoy the science of it — how many carbs allow for maintenance? I’m an experimental universe of one. The software calculates and reports. Like any calorie conscious person, I already keep a running estimate anyway…trained by many years to know what this or that food “costs.”

    What my wife and I do agree on here is mindful eating. For me, that goes perfectly well with honestly using the food/exercise software. For her, that means not just snacking without paying attention.

    We both enjoy treats (think half to three quarters of a cup of rich chocolate ice cream) on occassion. I record it. She just makes sure she doesn’t suddenly end up wondering where the pint went.

  13. Mike Ball July 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Sorry for all the hot underlying. The href tag didn’t behave as it normally does. The whole underlined material clicks to Pirillo’s Lockergnome site. He has several posts on all the nutrition SW he’s reviewed.

  14. Lisa Johnson July 27, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    Thanks for the input Mike. :)

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