Counting calories and then counting them some more

Yep. I used to do it. I read a book claiming the best way to lose weight was to reduce calories by 500 a day from your usual fare. Luckily the book suggested cutting food by 250 calories and increasing your calorie burn by 250 calories a day or I probably would never have started. Looking back, there’s no way to calculate verifiably how many calories are burned by any activity by any person. After a good workout you always want to think that you burned 800 calories at least, but it’s probably more like 200-300 if you’re very lucky. (And the more fit you get, the fewer calories you burn…just saying!)

Now this 500 calorie daily reduction system only gets you to a 3,500 calorie deficit a week which all of us good little dieters know means a weekly weight loss of 1 pound. That doesn’t seem like much, (because it’s not) but when your choices are slow but steady weight loss vs. gaining until you’re just a blob that is barely shaped like a human, it sounds pretty good. And more importantly it sounds achievable. That’s because it is achievable.

Let me backtrack a second. It is achievable in theory. I don’t believe there is any way to know how many calories you’re actually burning no matter what those stupid machines tell you. I once read they’re all pre-set to calculate calories burned based on a 145 pound woman’s effort, so even though there’s a place for you to input your own weight and gender, who knows? I only use those numbers as a way to check my effort. For example, it helps me know if I’m putting in more effort on one day vs. another. I never use them to suggest that now I can consume a certain amount of food since I’ve already burned a given number of calories. I’ve been an exerciser long enough to know that exercising doesn’t really make up for what you eat. It helps, but not enough to count on it exclusively.

But remember that when I first got that book I was a weight loss beginner. Sure I had tried to lose weight before but always in half-assed ways. This was the first time I was making a conscious effort, and I was trying to be logical and scientific. So at the beginning that 500 calorie daily deficit thing seemed to make perfect sense. First I had to learn to keep a daily diary of what I was eating and how many calories it totaled. Boy was that eye opening. Everybody, and I do mean everybody with very few exceptions, believes they are eating less than they are. I remember being amazed at how many calories I ate by noon. At first I thought there was no way I was ever going to achieve a number below 2,500 calories a day, and even then in the early 90s people knew that was too many for the average woman. (But I’ve always been higher than average in the food consumption category!)

I don’t know how many calories I was eating every day to gain and maintain my overweight body. I do know that I ate donuts without regret, cookies, pie, cake and then just a lot at every meal in general. I most likely ate between 3,000 and 3,500 calories most days of the week. And I didn’t exercise very often. That’s a recipe for being a little tub of goo, which I was.

The realization that I was going to have to eat a lot less than I was used to, and I was going to have to do it every day was pretty hard. But I had some other challenges to take on at the same time.

The biggest hurdle I had to clear was my depression. In 1992, I was newly married and newly living in Los Angeles which is not an easy city to be new to without friends, a job, or even a car. My husband had to use our only car to get to work and to school. I felt completely alone and useless. I had no idea what to do or even what I wanted to do. I went out and got a few jobs that I promptly quit after a couple of days or sometimes just a day tbh. I read a lot. I cried. And I ate. Don’t freak out, but I remember a couple of times making a pie crust and then just eating it without actually making the pie. That’s a lot of Crisco. Twenty-five years later I probably still have some Crisco in my system.

Some people lose their appetite when they’re depressed, but I am one of those who eat to face all my problems. Feeling good makes me hungry. Feeling sad makes me hungry. Feeling bored makes me hungry. Etc.

But this 500 calorie thing gave me something to cling to and work towards. I started following the advice in the book about what to eat and what kind of exercise was best and how to hang in there. And I lost weight. I made progress, and I could see my body change. I felt better. In fact, I felt so much better I was finally able to find a job that I liked well enough not to quit.

We had moved so my husband could walk to work, and I could take the car. The thing about going from not working to working full-time with a commute thrown in is that it brings back some of the bad habits. I put aside the things I had learned and stopped losing weight. I don’t actually know how much I weighed before that attempt nor after it, because the one thing I didn’t do at that time was get a scale.

But a couple of years later when I was working and in graduate school I started again. I’ve come to realize that I need to have too much on my plate to be productive. It worked. It took a long time, but I lost a little over 50 pounds in a year. (I finally bought a scale). Every day I wrote down all that I ate and calculated how many calories it added up to. I still cheated, and I often didn’t make my goal, but I kept count, and I kept losing weight. I had a lot of setbacks and too many plateaus, but I got to a weight where I felt pretty and that I had a good figure for the first time since I was a kid. My weight gain started with puberty as it does for a lot of girls.

I kept it up for a couple of years until I moved, changed jobs, started working really long hours, gave up exercising and eating well and watched as all that weight plus some came right back. I didn’t do it on purpose, and I didn’t deserve to have it happen. It just happened. It’s always a possibility that it will happen to any of us. Every time I had to buy bigger clothes I thought I would get my mojo back and return to my virtuous path, but I was too busy and too stressed. Something had to give, and it was my weight.

A few years later, I moved again, and once again I made the decision to restart the process. I used that same system that had served me so well. Out came the notebooks, and I kept track of all the calories. I exercised. I watched what I ate. I lost the weight. It took longer and more focus. I was older. I weighed more to begin with. But I did it again. I had found the magic formula.

Since that time I regained some of the weight, but I never got close to my high again. I kept recording my calories even when I was gaining. It had become like a charm or a child’s blankie. It was something I did without thinking. Eat something, write it down, go about my day. It was just my crutch at that point. I wasn’t even looking at every week to see where I had gone wrong and where I could improve. It had really lost its usefulness.

So in 2012 when I got back down to where I still am (more or less) I abandoned the practice. A couple of years ago I even threw out all the notebooks. I didn’t need them anymore. I don’t need them. Perhaps if I want to lose a few more pounds I will do it in a temporary way again. I certainly have the calorie counts of most foods memorized, and if I don’t it’s so easy now to find them on the Internet. I used to have one of those thick books with calorie counts that are now redundant with all the information online.

But I long ago learned the lesson that calories matter. The fewer you eat the less you’ll weigh. I don’t need a list. That lesson is written on my skin.


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