I’ve been asked how one can maintain or lose weight without counting calories.
This is a great question, as the central tenet of most diets is to monitor our daily food intake, either through calorie counting or by some abbreviated from of this, created by the likes of Slimming World or Weight Watchers. Yes, while we stick to the rigors of the numbers we do lose the weight, but once we emancipate ourselves (over give up) then we are in trouble! The weight piles back on without the structure and limitations telling us what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’... so how can we lose weight without counting calories or sticking rigidly to a diet?
Please permit me to digress a little in order to answer this question...
"To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge." Copernicus, 1473-1543.
Copernicus' major work 'On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres' was finished by 1530. Its central theory was that the Earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the sun. He also argued that the planets circled the Sun. This challenged the long held view that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe with all the planets, the Moon and the Sun rotating around it. This theory challenged convention that the earth was the centre of the universe and it took a long time for this fact to become accepted!
This is always the case with anything that differs from the consensus and our inclination to stick with what we know, is precisely why we struggle to move away from dieting and calorie counting.
Because it has been part of the fabric of human society for so long.
The idea of counting the number of calories in food took off after Doctor Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories, in 1918. It sold millions of copies throughout the 1920s, becoming the first diet bestseller. She urged women to view food as calories, and not to consume more than 1,200 a day.
We have spent almost a century counting calories and in that time our weight has steadily increased along with a general dissatisfaction with our weight. Something is going terribly wrong.
I hope by now you know that I’m passionate about helping you to stop dieting. In fact, it’s my mission!
I want everyone to feel freedom with food and to love their body.
Because diets simply don’t work. Research has shown that the most likely outcome from dieting is to actually put on weight. So this should be incentive enough to throw out the rulebook, right?
I’ve a little story I want to share with you that I hope you find as fascinating as I did, about a woman called Emily who most definitely threw out the rule book...
Emily O’Mara is a 126-pound woman who was on a mission of her own. She wanted to find out who served the best cheeseburger in her hometown of Louisville. (Louisville is allegedly the home of the birth of the Cheeseburger). So Emily decided she was going to eat two burgers a week for a year, which roughly equated to 101 burgers!
How can this woman's mission help advance mine? Her experience can teach us a lot about how we eat...
She wanted to find the best cheeseburger and fries in Louisville, keeping in mind that “the best” is a subjective measure. Emily is a self confessed fast-food foodie. As she says herself “I love it. I know it’s not good for me, and I did read that book Fast Food Nation. It made me very, very hungry. I watched the documentary Super Size Me. I thought it was the best commercial for McDonald’s I’d ever seen” (!).
Now when Emily first thought about eating two cheeseburgers a week for a year, she was beyond excited. But she hadn’t really thought it through. Her friends were concerned, wasn't she afraid that she would gain loads of weight and her cholesterol would go sky high?
She resolved to get a cholesterol test the first and last day of her study and she weighed herself about once a month and monitored her blood pressure.
Based on all her results, and calculations (she had a complex marking system), the best burger was from a little family-owned drive-in here in Louisville called Dizzy Whizz. They’ve been around since 1946. They do not try to be old-school, they just are old-school. Serving up a very greasy burger with tasty French fries.
The winner: Dizzy Whizz was ranked No. 1 by Emily O’Mara for best cheeseburger and fries.
After this year of two cheese burger meals a week, what do you think happened Emily?
How much weight do you think she gained?
Emily is about five-foot-five-and-a-half and her beginning weight was 126 pounds, with a total cholesterol of 160. Anything under 200 is good.
Her LDL — that’s the bad cholesterol — was 93. Anything under 100 is good, and her HDL — that’s good cholesterol — was 49. It should be over 50 if you’re female, so she just at the break there of having good cholesterol.
Then she ate two cheeseburgers and fries a week for a year....
After this mission, she weighed exactly126 pounds and her cholesterol was 179!
So her cholesterol rose a bit, but was still safe. In fact her good cholesterol actually improved. It went up to 56, which for a woman, again, it should be over 50. Her LDL, the bad cholesterol, was 107. That’s a little bit high, but not too bad.
What can Emily’s experience teach us?
In an effort to offset her bi-weekly indulgence, you might think that Emily stuck to a strict diet and counted every calorie. Surely that’s the only way she managed to stave off heavy weight gain.
NOT AT ALL!
How Emily Lost Weight Without Counting Calories
She did exactly what I encourage all of you Artful Eaters to do. And it clearly worked!
- First she made sure she got at least 10,000 steps or in that range everyday, by downloading a pedometer to her phone. She also increased her exercise by walking as many places as she could. She would make the effort to walk to the burger joints as opposed to driving, or if they were too far to walk, she would ride her bike.
- Secondly, because she was so afraid of gaining weight from these burgers and fries, that she ate much more healthily than she normally did. She didn’t go to fast-food restaurants except the twice per week days. She avoided bakeries and fried food, pizza or pasta.
Without calorie counting or overly monitoring her food intake, she well compensated for the fact that she was eating burgers and fries twice a week. Her consciousness went up about her health on all those days when she wasn’t eating burgers and fries. She ate much healthier.
So a year of eating cheeseburgers and fries twice a week turned her into a healthier eater overall. “And I didn’t even realise it, because I was so focused on those burgers and fries,” Emily acknowledged.
Emily’s compensatory behaviours were simple, easy and effective. Much simpler than calorie counting, right?
Despite it being entirely possible to lose weight without counting calories, there is still a major push towards focusing on calories in and out and on intensive exercise regimes.
Yet all calories are not created equal. Now, this is a much larger discussion than we’re going to have now but, briefly, it’s worth remembering that a calorie is technically a unit of energy — in this case, the energy that fuels the human body. In that regard, a calorie isn’t a very precise proxy for what we think of as “nutrition.”
Two thousand calories in a day that are all carbohydrates will have a very different effect than 2,000 calories of proteins or fats. Also when we focus on the calorie count, we tend to eat more processed foods, which are less satisfying and higher in sugars. We also tend to be more hungry as we are constantly monitoring what we eat and are working from a position of deprivation which is not sustainable!
So, using calories as your only measure of nutrition can be a bit misleading. Like using speed — miles-per-hour — as your only measure of how good a driver you are. There are plenty of good fast drivers and plenty of lousy slow drivers; you also need to know how to steer, and hit the brakes.
It is entirely possible to lose weight without counting calories. Calorie counting is tedious, misleading and frankly unsustainable in the long term. I think Emily’s approach is much more enjoyable and manageable, don’t you?
In Emily’s own words, “what I realise now that I’m thinking back on it, and I didn’t realise it at the time, is that if you want to get on like a diet, or you want to be more healthy and you talk to a dietician or personal trainer, the first thing they’re going to say to you is “you need to count calories. You need to weigh your food. You need to have eight to 11 servings of whole grains. You need to have two to three servings of fruit everyday. Blah, blah, blah.” And instead of being obsessed with all that, I was obsessed with the burgers and the fries! I just feel like I inadvertently kinda just turned, turned the diet conventional wisdom on it’s head. And I disciplined the fun, which sounds like an oxymoron. But it really was fun, and it really was disciplined. And, like I said, I didn’t even worry about like, “Oh, today I’ve gotta have fruits and vegetables. I just ate ’em. I didn’t even think about it.”
Emily’s cheeseburger diet – if you even want to call it a diet – was based on what you might call compensatory behaviour. If you take on some extra risk in one area of your life, you might need to compensate by adding some precautionary behaviour in another area.
Some of us are certainly better at this than others, but it is a nice act of faith, isn’t it? Faith in ourselves, and our ability to self-regulate, as opposed to relying on some top-down guideline that may produce the behaviour you’re hoping for.
Emily’s experience can teach us a lot about balance.
What I am encouraging you to do, is be like Emily while she was on her Cheeseburger Mission!
Do enjoy indulgences, but balance them out (as you can see my husband joyously doing here!).
As much as I love cooking and enjoying the fruits of my labour, I also love going out to eat. And you can be sure I do not opt for the soup and the salad! I have a starter, main course and dessert thank you very much!
But the next day, I will naturally eat less, as I compensate for last nights indulgences.
This is easy to do, practically and psychologically as I don’t feel like I am depriving myself. I naturally seek out lighter foods, as I’m not that hungry and still feel pleasantly satisfied from last night's indulgence.
Isn’t this a much better way of being than constantly counting and limiting what you can eat?
You can enjoy the good things in life, but instead of focusing on calories in and calories out, eat a diet which comprises mainly of healthy non processed foods.
Lose weight without counting calories.
Be active and try and hit 10,000 steps per day. It’s not that hard!
Eat delicious foods you enjoy but balance it out.
I challenge you to stop calorie counting for one week.
Yes, to completely stop monitoring what you eat and to throw out the rule book. Instead eat try eating a varied diet of healthy non-processed foods with some delicious indulgences thrown in. I know you will be surprised to see what happens….
Now it’s your turn.
Are you consumed by calorie counting?
Do you feel out of control if you aren’t constantly monitoring what you eat?
Do you trust yourself enough to shift towards balance and away from control and deprivation?
It may be that you need a little bit of help shifting towards a life where you are naturally balanced and feel freedom with food and flavours. If you feel this way, get in touch! I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I respond to every email I receive.
To falling in love with food and flavours...