I want to start off by saying exercise and nutrition is a personal choice. In no way am I telling you that you need to count calories. It is an individual choice and one that should be respected. Personally, I had inconsistent results and frustrations trying to navigate my fitness goals without accounting for caloric intake. After a while, the inconsistencies and frustrations gave me a bigger headache than just spending 5-10 minutes a day tracking calories. I know the biggest roadblock with tracking calories is the tedious and annoying nature of it. My goal with this blog is to give you practical ways to count calories while eliminating as many roadblocks as possible.
Before I begin, I need to explain what I mean by the phrase “counting calories”. I DO NOT mean counting calories in a strict, obsessive nature. I am well aware that over analyzing wellness components can be dangerous in regards to eating disorders and mental health concerns. That’s why I don’t believe in weighing or measuring food regularly. What I do believe in, is finding ways to be aware of much food you are consuming throughout the day. This concept isn’t bad if you think about it in that light but for whatever reason, counting calories has a bad reputation, or rather a distorted reputation.
When you are trying to get to your goal, you have to have an idea of where you are heading. The caloric intake is essentially the idea of where you are heading. Think about it in terms of driving somewhere. When you get in your car to go to work, you have an idea of where you are going. You know your destination. You are planning the roads, turns, and maneuvers you need to do in order to get to work. Same thing with nutrition. You need to have an idea of where you are going if you are ever going to get to your destination.
Listed below are six practical tips that have helped me make counting calories a more simple, sustainable, and enjoyable process. These things have worked wonders for me but I am aware that we are different people with different lifestyles. Take these tips with a grain of salt and adjust according to your own individual lifestyle and preferences. I want to encourage you to look for ways to make your nutrition and exercise habits more simple, sustainable, and enjoyable based on your OWN personal lifestyle.
You need to get rid of the perfection mind. Once you get rid of that, things change instantly. What I mean by the perfection mindset, is the idea of eating EXACTLY this amount of calories per day. Instead give yourself a range to shoot for. For example, instead of listing your calories at exactly 2,600 for the day, give yourself a range, such as 2500-2700 calories for the day. The range leaves room for human error and helps account for when life happens. Instead of feeling guilty about eating the extra cookie, just go for the higher end of range that day.
Unless you are weighing out your food every single day, you are not going to be 100% accurate anyways. Even when you measure food there is going to be some variability. When a package says it has 200 calories in it, that doesn’t mean it's 200 calories exactly. Aim for your range and realize it’s not 100% truth. That’s okay. Just embrace it. That’s why that range is there in the first place. If you are eating within an appropriate caloric range based on your goal, it won’t matter over the long run.
If you have no idea what portion sizes look like, take 1-2 weeks and measure your food. Then ditch the cups. Personally, I’ll take a week and measure my food then ditch the cups for a month or so. Then, I’ll take another week and measure food and then ditch the cups for another month. I have found that this process helps with staying consistent and developing a great eye for portion sizes.
2.) Backload Calories and Treats
If you want to have ice cream or chocolate one day, that is totally okay and you should be able to enjoy that throughout your week. One of the things that helps me the most is pushing a good chunk of calories or saving that “treat” for your last meal. Backloading (or saving your calories/treats) for night time helps in many ways. By committing to eating nutrient dense, whole foods during the day, it keeps you full, while consuming relatively low amounts of calories. When it comes to night time you have some room to enjoy meals with variety and flavor. Plus, this way you don’t have to miss out on social gatherings or eating with your family and friends which, most of the time happens in the evening.
Also saving treats or delicious meals for night time helps me stay within the structure of moderation. Most of the time, when I eat high sugar content foods during the day, I’m always craving more and that’s when I demolish half gallons of ice cream. Backloading these foods eliminates my cravings because of the nutrient dense foods that are already in my system. This method also prevents me from eating half gallons of ice cream because there just isn’t enough calories left to make that decision. So the small bowl of ice cream simply provides the cherry on top. Just for the record, carbs at night don’t make you fat but I might have to save that rant for another time.
3.) Focus on Protein and Total Calories
Just focus on daily protein and caloric intake. That doesn’t mean you just forget about carbs and fats but this is one of the things that helps make it sustainable for me. When I’m trying to hit exact carb and fat numbers it makes things a lot more structured. Develop a good mix between carbs and fats without eliminating one or the other. On days you are craving carbs you have the flexibility to have more carbohydrates. On days when you are craving fats you have the flexibility to have more fats. If you are doing a competition or show, then carb and fat numbers gain more importance. If you are just trying to look good and live well within a simple, sustainable, enjoyable system, then just focus on protein and caloric intake.
4.) Eat Similar Meals During the Day
Eat similar foods throughout the day during the week. It makes it easier to plug your meals into your calorie counter because it saves your recent foods in the system. If you eat the same meals with some slight variation throughout the week, you will have a much easier time tracking your calories. Now, when it comes to night time (or your last meal of the day) you know how many calories you have left and how many grams of protein you are away from your goal. For example, If you know you have roughly 600 calories and 25 grams of protein left to make your daily goal then you don’t really need to log your last meal. You just need to make sure your meal has 600 or less calories and at least 25 grams of protein. Personally, I haven’t logged a night time meal in months. It might seem small but not logging that last meal has helped me with the sustainability of calorie counting.
5.) Regular Assessments
At the end of each week, assess your progress. Think in terms of simple, sustainable, enjoyable. Are there ways that I can make this process more simple in terms of my own personal lifestyle. Are there ways I can make it more sustainable? Was it enjoyable? If not, how can it improve? You will find little ways that help mold tracking calories to your own lifestyle. Don’t expect the first couple weeks to be smooth. Once you work out the kinks, it will become more of a lifestyle than a chore.
6.) Realize It’s a Marathon and Not a Sprint
If you look at yourself every couple days and are constantly straining to see progress, it will feel slow and miserable. In addition, we are often times our own worst critics. You can be making progress but you are going to see your own personal flaws, which will drastically impede your ability to see the actual changes.
I like to compare transformation journeys to road trips. Have you ever gone on a roadtrip when you weren’t even concerned with the time? You were just enjoying the music, having good conversation, thinking about the things you had planned. Before you knew it, you were at your destination. Now, I know you have gone on road trips where you weren’t excited to be in the car. You were counting the minutes, constantly looking at your watch, bored out of your mind, and not excited about anything. The road trip seemed like it took forever right? I’ve experienced the same process with weight loss journeys. We have to realize it’s a process. If you are constantly looking at yourself every day, concerned about the scale, concerned about all the x’s and o’s, it's going to be frustrating and it’s going to feel miserable. When in reality, none of that stuff really matters (the weight fluctuations and times when you look bloated). The only thing that matters is staying in a consistent caloric surplus/deficit for a prolonged period of time. That will lead to change.
You have the choice to either enjoy the road trip or count down the seconds and critique your body every day. I want to encourage you to take a 12-week journey. Have a plan. Know your route and destination. Enjoy the music, enjoy the company, enjoy the weather, and see what happens. Your best is yet to come!