Why I Still Don’t Count Calories
It has been exactly two months to the day since I decided to stop counting calories and tracking my food in My Fitness Pal. (Click here to read my previous post about Why I Stopped Counting Calories in the first place.) Two whole months of eating what I want, when I want, and having absolutely no idea how many calories I’ve had for the day, or what percent of my total calories came from carbs, protein, or fat. I tracked my food intake for so long that I never really thought about the fact that most people never have any idea how much of each macronutrient they’ve had for the day. Hell, most people don’t even know what a macronutrient is. (PS: If that’s you, THAT IS MORE THAN OKAY.)
I didn’t necessarily “count my macros” before (by the way, if you are one of those people mentioned above, macronutrients are carbs, protein and fat), but I was always aware of how much I had consumed of one in proportion to the others, and tried to stay around the same percentage each day. Sometimes it would influence my meal and snack decisions. If I had already had my fair share of carbs for the day, but not much fat, I’d have a serving of nuts for my evening snack, or a salmon salad for dinner. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those foods or those decisions, as both as great sources of heart healthy fats; however, we need to stop letting numbers, or anything besides how we feel, dictate our eating choices or make us feel guilty if we eat the “wrong thing”.
Side note: There is way too much of that lately. People referring to foods as “good” or “bad”, or considering themselves “good” or “bad” based on what they choose to eat. For example, I’ll hear people say, “Oh, I’ve been bad today. I had a cookie from the break room earlier.” As a dietitian, people feel the need to justify everything that goes in their mouths when they are around me. Please stop this. Trust me — I’m not here to judge you. I love food and treating myself too! I’m already dreaming about the piece of apple pie I’m going to eat at our friends’ Fish Fry tonight. The difference is this: What choices do you make the majority of the time? What foods are going in your body for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks every single day? Are they foods that fill you up and give you lasting energy, or do they make you crash just as quickly as they picked you up? Only you can decide what goes in your mouth most of the time. No one is perfect all of the time, and we aren’t supposed to be, but making healthier choices on a more regular basis is almost guaranteed to make you feel better, and then treating yourself when you need it feels that much sweeter. For me, that’s every day. Yep, I treat myself to some Halo Top or a little bite of something sweet every single night, because I crave it and it makes me happy. And the kicker: I don’t go to bed stressing about it.
There have been several occasions over the past two months when I have been tempted to plug my meals into My Fitness Pal. I would say it’s out of habit more than anything, but sometimes it’s out of curiosity too. Why do I wonder how many calories my meals have, or how much I’ve had for the day? Honestly, I can’t help it. When you’ve done something for so long it can be really hard to break your routine. That’s why behavior change is so tough, and why I have job security as a dietitian. Most people truly want to change and improve their diets, but they are so used to doing what they’re doing, and have a really hard time actually committing to a healthier lifestyle. I have found that most people just need a little nudge in the right direction, and above all else, someone to cheer them on, or to report back to. Accountability is everything.
Back on topic. I apologize, I have a lot of thoughts right now. For the most part, I have felt very free these past two months. Food tracking was just one more thing I could remove from my plate (no pun intended), and I’m all about trying to simplify my life in any way I can at the moment, as I’m feeling plenty busy with work, life, wedding planning, etc.
Shameless engagement photo plug. ; )
I want to be clear that just because I don’t track my calories anymore does not mean I’ve started eating like crap, but I am pretty confident that I am consuming more calories than I ever have, and I think that’s what my body has been needing from me for a long time. I’m a petite person — only five foot two inches tall (two and a half on a good day) — so I’ve always been cautious about my weight, as just a few extra pounds can easily be noticed, by myself at least.
I go to Complete Nutrition about once a month to stock up on all my favorite protein bars and other goods. They have a body composition machine you can use to check your weight, percent body fat, muscle mass, etc. I use it every couple of months to see if anything has changed since my previous check-in. A few weeks ago, I hopped on the machine and felt excited and hopeful that my numbers would look awesome compared to last time. The last time I checked was back in November, and I have been working my ass off at my new fitness studio, Health House in Kansas City, since the beginning of 2017. I’ve been feeling so much stronger and leaner ever since I started working out there 5-6 times a week, so I was 100% confident my muscle mass would be up and body fat would be down.
Much to my surprise, my numbers were almost completely identical to my numbers back in November. In fact, my percent body fat even went up one point, and my muscle mass was exactly the same, to the decimal. How the hell could that be?! The employee at Complete Nutrition mentioned that I may not be eating enough calories, which is why my muscles aren’t growing. I thought on that for a while, and I have concluded that he’s probably exactly right.
“So, you’re saying I need to eat more?” Hmm. Challenge accepted. ; )
Back when I used to track my food in MFP, my calorie goal each day was 1500, and I usually stayed pretty close to that number. However, this is way too low for someone as active as I am. I could probably afford to eat closer to 2000 calories a day. At the time, I felt like I was eating plenty, but if I was still hungry I would allow myself to go over my goal. Now that I’m not tracking, I am making a conscious effort to eat even more, even though I feel like my intake has already increased significantly. I mean, I’m eating multiple servings of regular chunky peanut butter every day and whole eggs on a regular basis, for goodness’ sake. I used to only eat PB2 (powdered peanut butter) and egg whites because I didn’t want all the extra calories or fat. I also used to weigh myself every single morning. Right now, I honestly can’t remember the last time I did, but it’s been at least a week and a half, which is a big change. As you can see, I have given myself grace in more than one area lately.
Our bodies cannot build muscle without adequate calories; however, those extra calories need to come from healthy sources to yield results, not junk food. I know I could easily increase carbohydrates in my diet, as well as protein. I already eat tons of vegetables, but these are so low-calorie and low in carbs/protein that they aren’t helping to push me into that calorie surplus that’s required to gain muscle. Obviously, they are providing many other health benefits, so I’ll continue to eat #alltheveggies, but I could increase my intake of other healthy carbs, such as starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes FTW), fruits, and whole grains. I have already started to do this by combining my zoodles with whole grain spaghetti to boost my carb and calorie intake per meal, especially post-workout, for example.
We also have to let ourselves enjoy delicious pizza and beer on vacation with friends without guilt, because that is what life is all about.
If we are consistently burning more calories than we’re taking in, our bodies are not able to regenerate our muscle efficiently, and consuming too little calories/carbs can lead to muscle loss, which is the opposite of what I’m looking to do.
I never would’ve thought that I would be trying to make myself eat more in order to reach my goals, but here I am doing just that. I’m burning around 450-500 calories or more every day during my workouts, and I know my metabolism has increased from all the high intensity workouts and heavy lifting I’ve been doing.
Nutrition is so fascinating to me. We all have very different needs and different goals. It’s important to know what those look like for you to help guide you in your eating decisions. Above all else, it’s important to listen to your body and give it what it needs. Usually, it will let you know if it’s unhappy. What can you do to make sure you’re fueling your body properly, while also making sure you’re not depriving yourself? It can be very tricky to find that balance. I’m still working on it every day.
I stopped tracking my food intake because I didn’t want to focus on the numbers anymore. Your food/calorie intake does not define you as a person. I am not letting the numbers from the body comp machine determine my eating decisions either; however, it was very eye-opening to discover that there may be something I could do to take even better care of my body. The good news is, I was feeling stronger and more confident even before I found out that my body composition truly hadn’t changed, and even though now I know, I’m not beating myself up whatsoever. I still feel strong and extremely happy in my skin, especially because I know I’m doing great things for my health by pushing my body’s limits at Health House every day and eating tons of nutritious foods, with a healthy balance of splurges when I need it. My goal from now on is to make sure I’m never restricting myself, and eating more than enough so that my muscles can grow as they should, and I can easily push through my workouts without getting fatigued.
With eating more will always come the fear of weight gain for me, which is something I’m going to ignore and just see what happens. If I keep doing what I’m doing — working hard and eating larger quantities of the right things — I know I can gain muscle, rather than fat. And you know what? If absolutely nothing changes, I will still be satisfied and happy just the way I am. As a fitness enthusiast and perfectionist, I’m always wanting to push myself to the next level, but sometimes our bodies are happy where they are, and that’s okay too. I hope that if this resonated with you at all, you’ll be inspired to listen to your body, give it what it needs, and avoid depriving yourself, but also be able to find peace in where you are now and know that you are more than enough. Just exercise, eat, and be happy.
As always, I’ll keep you posted as I embark on yet another new health journey that will challenge me and push me outside my comfort zone.
- Stop calorie counting — check.
- Eat more & gain muscle – here goes nothing!
Shanna Stewart, RD LD
1500 calories?!! Omg that’s crazy youre a registered dietician. .. and you sat you didn’t have an eating disorder! !??
No, I did not have an eating disorder, and I will continue to stand by that. 1500 calories is not that low for someone my size (I’m only 5’2″ and weigh 109 lbs). However, since I am very active, I can afford to take in more calories, which I do now, and always did back then if I felt like I needed more, as I mentioned in my post. Thanks for reading!
I know this is old but I heard this blog post mentioned on an episode of RealTalk which I consider a podcast in line with the message of intuitive eating and Health At Every Size. But I regret checking this out. It was not what I was expecting. I literally cannot believe you stand by saying you did not have an ED and were only eating 1500/cal a day. First of all mentioning all those numbers is very problematic. Second of all I do have a raging case of Anorexia and I’m only about 2 inches taller than you. That is a very anorexic amount of calories especially considering your “very active” lifestyle. I’m truly in shock and disappointed that you market yourself as an intuitive eating RD. And all that business about “jumping” on the scale that measures fat/muscle etc. I’m hoping your messaging has evolved over the years. I am not a troll. I’ve never left a negative review on someone’s web page but I couldn’t read this and not tell you that for many people this is a very triggering post. I’m grateful to know that and not feel triggered but there are so many more out there who would be triggered to learn that they should only be eating 1500 calories/day and exercising a lot. Needless to say I will not be back on this website again.
Hi Rebecca. Thank you so much for stopping by and for your feedback. I completely understand where you are coming from. I can assure you that my mindset & messaging have changed significantly since this post was written. When I first learned about IE, I still had a LOT to learn — we all have to unlearn the BS that diet culture has taught us throughout our lives, and that takes years for most of us. For me, that was true too. I agree that this post should be updated to omit specific numbers so as not to be triggering for anyone who is struggling with food or an active ED. You are entitled to your opinion; however, I stand by the fact that I did not have an eating disorder. Did I engage in some disordered behaviors? Absolutely, which I acknowledged in this post. I’m not just a dietitian, but I’m also a human being who has had her fair share of struggles with food and body image (clearly). Because I have so many new pieces of IE content, I forgot about this old post, but I appreciate the reminder to go in and update it to reflect my current beliefs and a better representation of what IE truly is. I hope you’ll check out some of my newer content here or on IG so you can see how that has evolved since this post. I hope you accept my apology and I wish you nothing but the best in your recovery. Thank you again for your feedback and take care. <3