The Conundrum of Counting Calories – Calculative vs Intuitive Eating

Conundrum of Calorie Counting Header Photo - Calculating vs Intuitive Eating @weightlifting woman

 

Choosing what to eat (and how much to eat) would be a lot less stressful if you didn’t have to worry about the number on the scale, right?

Let’s get right to the point.

Yes, I do measure the amount of calories and macros that I eat, and I am THAT strict about my dietary choices. End of story.

Whoa! Big surprise there! …Especially knowing that my own husband tells a lot of his clients that they don’t need to count calories, that his clients can “eyeball” portions based on how it compares to their hands, and that according to Precision Nutrition, the accuracy of calorie counting is really not as reliable whatsoever.

So then, why do I persist on counting and measuring? Am I just wasting my precious time weighing things out on a scale and logging things in my FitBit app when I really don’t need to?

Here’s why: the only reason why I want to measure everything is to maximize my performance and body composition for competition and sport.

…And because I am willing to put in the time and compromises to make it happen.


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I’ve experimented with my dietary choices a ton in the last few years in order to stay around the 53kg class. Paleo, Whole 30, Zone, weighing & measuring, “no bread”, low carb/high fat, counting macros…a whole lot of things. Have they all worked…? Yes, since I’ve been pretty successful at hitting my needed weight. So…why do I bother switching it up?

Well, some of these methods feel a bit restrictive…they purposely “eliminate” foods from your diet so you feel like you can’t have them. They’re off limits! If you have it, you’ll NEVER hit your goals at all.

What a load of BS. I mean…it did give me a lot of insight as to which foods I had sensitivities to (like soy…my skin breaks out with soy! And gluten—I get all bloaty!)

But, I wanted a method that would justify for me how much I CAN actually eat without feeling the need to restrict certain foods…to say “no, I can’t have that” – and make me realize the plentiful amount of food I do have to be adequately nourished for my sport.

Here’s a little bit of insight as to why I do what I do, and why it may/may not be the best option for you.

 


 

First and foremost, If I weren’t competing in a sport that was based on weight-class, I probably would be a lot little looser when it comes to my dietary choices.

Once I decide to stop being competitive and just “live life” without a need to hit a certain number on the scale, I won’t be as strict as I am now. However, the amount that I have learned and gained from measuring stuff is all precious knowledge than I can carry with me throughout my future “non-measuring” days because I have a greater understanding of portioning sizes more than I ever have before and how food quantities have impacted my body.

I will say that I’m able to closely sustain the weight I am now (and make a lot of gains) because of how closely I monitor what I eat.

At the advanced and elite level, precision is everything.

Precision is important when it comes to your weightlifting technique.

Precision is also important when it comes down to your food intake. 

Gains and progress are much MUCH harder to come by once you advance to a high enough level in any activity or sport, and thus, it all comes down to how close you can be to perfection and accuracy to become even a little better.

For this reason, unless you have the same types of performance goals and weight maintenance goals as I do…you probably don’t need to count anything. Because really, it’s not necessary and it’s just more work and more compromises than you really need for the results that you want.

However, if you really thrive on competition and are willing to find and make the time and the sacrifices for the results you want, and are super driven by numbers and data to reassure yourself that you’re doing the right thing…then yes, that justifies counting calories.

 

So here’s what I currently do right now:
  1. Eat as much real, wholesome, and non-processed foods as I can about 98% of the time, with plenty of fruits in vegetables in basically every meal, and always trying to avoid foods with unnecessary added sugars, refined fats, or empty calories. This is the foundation of my nutrition, period.
  2. Measure my macro percentages (how many grams of carbs/protein/fat I get at each meal and total throughout the whole day). Currently I aim for around 35-40% carbs, 30% protein, 30-35% fat totaling around ~2100 calories a day more or less depending on how I feel and activity levels.
  3. Use a food scale at home to weigh out how much meat (in oz) I eat and to measure out really calorically dense foods such as starches (oats, rice, potatoes) and fats (oils, avocado, nuts, mayo). Protein is something I try to be consistent at every meal (~25 grams of protein) and won’t compromise.
  4. Meal-prep a huge batch of 2-3 dishes at the start of the week that I separate into equal servings, calculating how many “carbs” are in each serving.
  5. Eat very similar things everyday because consistency and routine is the best way to monitor how much I’m eating everyday.
  6. Eat at very similar TIMES in the day because I get cranky and nervous and hangry if there’s too many hours between meals or if I eat too soon or too late around workouts.
  7. Read food and nutrition labels on EVERYTHING and use those to gauge how much I can eat, but also if the food has ingredients that I should avoid (lots of extra additives, some soy, extra unneeded sugars, etc)
  8. Allow myself a “treat” every now and then (cookie, cupcake, a drink, etc) if I include it in my total allotment of calories and carb/fat intake for the day.
  9. Lastly, I try not to be 100% precise with matching up my “calories in” vs “calories out” and hitting macros spot on each day because nothing ever is really that accurate – but I try to fall close to the range I need to and call it “good enough” for the day. I do have OFF days where I throw everything out the window every now and then, but I try to get right back on track and adjust for the next day.

 

For example, if at the end of the day I’m like 178 calories short, it’s not like I’ll go out of my way to eat something to make up those calories if I’m not hungry or needing it. Similarly, I’m not going to say “no” to a food if I’m craving it but it puts me 200 calories or 20 grams of fat over for the day. Whatevs, it happens!

Seeing these numbers in front of me as daily goals though does influence my decision making when it comes to picking the best foods for me, though.


 

The Positives of Measuring Macros & Counting Calories – Why I do it:

Food is no longer a variable for me when it comes to my performance

By monitoring and knowing exactly how much I’m eating (in terms of fat, carbs, protein), I can worry less about food being the reason why my workouts or performance would suffer on any day. I can also adjust how much I eat based on performance in a much more precise manner (rather than just guessing).

 

I don’t trust myself to eat intuitively because I have an “abstainer” personality and I’m a horrible moderator.

If you put a delicious pan of brownies in front of me with no limits, I will probably eat half of the pan (instead of just one). I’m horrible when it comes to moderating because I get an extreme high with a lot of sugary and salty treats that come my way. It probably doesn’t help that much of the food industry injects flavorings into a lot of their packaged foods to entice people to keep munching and eating, and that these foods are nutritionally lacking so your brain will never feel satisfied with the food no matter how much you eat (and thus keeps eating more).

Therefore, the only way I can prevent myself from overeating any of these things is to not eat them at all – to completely avoid these things at all costs and to put myself in the mindset that it is NOT ok to have these things. It literally has to be black/white for me so I can control myself. However, with intense restriction also comes my rebel side…and after I’ve abstained from something too long I tend to blow up and stuff myself with an entire bag of popcorn, or have 4-5 servings of the no-bake peanut butter brownies at the party when I only really needed one.

By measuring stuff out, I can allot myself a little treat here and there knowing exactly how much I can have and that it IS okay to have it (rather than completely eliminate it from my life).
 
 

I can maximize my performance and have the best body composition possible for my weight class.

Competing in a weight-class based sport, you definitely don’t want extra “dead weight” hanging around that’s useless. You want to have plenty of muscle (so you can lift more weight) and also have the minimum body fat needed to have a healthily functioning body (because too little body fat on women can have pretty harsh hormonal effects, especially when it comes to motherhood later).

I watch my macros so I can monitor if I’m going too high/low carb, or too high/low fat for what I need for my body composition while also getting plenty of fuel to feel strong with my workouts…and if I start gaining some extra flub I can determine what I need to change with my diet to cut back down without cutting TOO much.
 
 

It’s helped me understand that not all foods are off limits – that you CAN still have a little of this here or there, but not a lot.

Back when I first started Paleo and Whole30 I was all about eating the “clean” foods and eliminating anything that didn’t fall into the Paleo category, such as all gluten & grains, rice, potatoes, dairy, soy, legumes, cheese, processed sugars, and anything with a label that had any of these things listed on there. I lost some extra body fat, but I also became quite the crazy lady and found it extremely hard to eat out anywhere nor eat with friends/family and socialize without feeling like an annoyance.

So I realized I DIDN’T need to be that strict, and I allowed myself to have a slice of pizza, or some beers after a long run, or the cookies during the faculty meeting. However, when I took this approach and “intuitively” ate what I felt, I ended up GAINING a lot of weight. BUT, by trying to incorporate some (not a lot) of these foods to hit certain macronutrient ratios ( I do 40/30/30), I could eat the brownies AND not overeat!

Obviously, when you do look at the calorie and carb count…you can have 10x more watermelon compared to one brownie. BUT, taking into account my macros helped me realize that BROWNIES ARE OK in moderation.
 
 

I’m a Big Data-Driven Person and I like Having Data to Justify my Decisions

I feel more comfortable seeing hard numbers when it comes feeling reassured that what I’m doing is right, especially when I feel that I can’t trust my intuition sometimes. I need some sort of “proof” but mainly because I need some way to keep me in check. I’m an obliger – I tend to do things because other people expect me to and I feel like I will let people down if I don’t meet their expectations (whether they really do expect me to or not…sometimes I just make up or create false expectations that other people have of me and try to meet those even when it may not be true).

Numbers keep me in check. They either calculate and add up, or they don’t. Numbers don’t lie.

 


 

What I have learned from Measuring my Food:

 
 

1. Protein is important to have at each meal – but also, has taught me how much protein I need at each meal.

I literally used to eat breakfasts before that consisted of just yogurt, fresh fruit and granola. But the amount of yogurt I had was definitely not the amount of protein I needed that morning to suppress my hunger at all. I also used to eat 8-9oz of steak for dinner thinking YES MEAT, MEAT IS GOOD. However, that was way more protein (and fat) than I really needed.
 
 

2. That a small spoon of oil, a half handful of nuts, or a sliver of an avocado packs a RIDICULOUS amount of calories.

Therefore, it’s super easy to accidentally eat way more fat than what you need because a little quantity packs a lot of calories. I used to eat half of an avocado wiht my breakfast or 2-3 handfuls of nuts at a time. But I realized that when measuring – more than 60% of my calories were coming from fat! (and when I meet my carb intake that just means I end up eating way too many calories overall). I only need a half a handful of nuts or a sliver of an avocado to match up to the other foods I’m eating.

Also, remember fat is also heavily present in a lot of the proteins and meats that “paleo” people eat (pork, beef, lamb, etc). In conclusion, it’s really easy to overdo it on fat until you really understand what a “moderate portion” of fat really is.
 
 

3. The right portion of rice, oats, and potatoes, and other dense, starchy carbs that I need is much smaller than what I used to portion myself before.

Yep, I used to fill the ENTIRE BOWL with oats, rice, noodles, potatoes, cereal. That seemed like a good portion – but really in the end that was a lot more carbs than I really needed for that meal. Starchy carbs are super dense, and I found that with any of these foods that I ended up with about a small handful in the end to meet my needs (I have these mini “prep” pyrex bowls that are about 3/4 cup in volume and end up just filling that mini bowl).

It’s also a great reminder that the amount of home fries, potatoes, and starch they give you in restaurants is about 3-4x more than what you really need to eat. No wonder we have a tendency to gain weight when eating out a lot!
 
 

4. If I want to feel “fuller” with more volume of food, I need to pick more vegetables, fruits, and foods that are more nutritionally dense.

It’s totally true – an entire bowl of salad equates to just as many carbs as those 3 oreos or that Organic Food protein bar! Though I might feel mentally satisfied in the short term with those little compact sweet treats, I certainly am not going to feel as physically full and satisfied as having a giant bowl of fruits and veggies filling up space my tummy.

 

Nutritional Takeaways - What I learned from Counting Calories Weightlifting Woman


SO now you’re thinking OMG those are such good reasons, and if I need to get ANY RESULTS at all I should be counting everything!!!

 

Hold your horses folks.

NO, you don’t necessarily have to count your calories and your macros unless you:

  • have the exact same performance goals as me,
  • have tried “hand portioning” with REAL FOODS and failed because you’re not that intuitive about it and tend to over/underguesstimate stuff,
  • are super data-driven and like having all the numbers in front of you as a form of monitoring and being exact
  • and you have the ability and desire to make the compromises necessary to do this work.

Reality is, most of you probably don’t have the time and energy to do something this intensive and this specific, nor are you looking for the same high-level performance and weight maintenance goals as I have.

By measuring, I’ve established a VISUAL baseline average of what 3 oz of meat looks like, and what 40 grams of carbs looks like in terms of amount of rice, or fruit, or leafy green veggies, and what 15 grams of fat looks like.

However, I had to go through this whole food measuring process to finally figure that out and to verify and reassure that.

In fact, you can probably get away with this “eyeballing” everything based on the size of your hands. Just remember, eyeballing and portioning really works if you’re eating wholesome foods with lean meats, fruits, veggies and healthy fats. No guarantees hand portioning chocolate peanut butter protein shakes, sub sandwiches and slices of pizza will work.

 


 

The Downsides of Measuring & Counting For Me. 

 

Yes, let’s discuss the DOWNSIDES of this now since you may want to consider these to know whether monitoring your nutrition in this way will be worth the time

 

Eating out (unless the restaurant has graciously posted their macros and calories for all their dishes) is a DISASTER when it comes to logging anything perfectly.

When eating out, you never know exactly how much cooking fat or oil was used, what ingredients are in the sauces, what the fat percentage of the meat is, or how much that scoop of potatoes weigh (and does it look like about 1 cup? 1.5 cups? ehhh). When you’re cooking at home, it’s so much easier to control EVERYTHING down to the amount of oil in the pan, what substitutions go in the recipes, and the number of grams of sliced onions you have.

You can also portion everything perfectly when meal-prepping to ensure you’re only eating as much as you need to (and not dealing with the guilt of getting too much food in a restaurant and leaving 4 little bites left on the plate because it “doesn’t fit your macros” but is too little to take home with you.)

It takes too much time to measure out and log every last thing!

Yeah, I could be a little quicker meal-prepping in the kitchen if I didn’t have to put everything in a bowl on the scale before putting it in the pan. I also spend just as much time “logging my foods” into my FitBit app to make sure I get all the ingredients and amounts correct. Well, I guess once you’re in the habit of doing so it becomes natural – but it’s a tough habit to start and squeeze time in to do if you have never done it, and is another thing that takes up precious minutes of my day.

Counting all this stuff isn’t 100% accurate at all, so why bother if calorie measurements of foods cooked and uncooked are variable and hard to pin point accurately?

Precision Nutrition has an amazing PDF about this, btw. Yes, there can be huge accuracy discrepancies and errors when trying to calculate calories perfectly of the foods eaten – and in the end I might actually be completely off by 500-600 calories sometimes! (which after a week can add up to an extra pound gained or so). Because of this, I try not to meet my numbers 100% perfectly (and I don’t care if I don’t meet them 100% perfectly) knowing that it’s not accurate…but I try to get in the “good enough” range for the day.

Endless Compromises & Sacrifices

Honestly, I feel kind of restricted when it comes to a lot of social events. I find myself backing out of a lot of party/eating out invites because I get scared it doesn’t line up with my nutritional goals and that it will impact my performance in an upcoming workout.

 


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Closing Remarks & Take-Aways from this Conversation

 

A lot of people wonder if I’m some sort of tron-like robot in the gym, or wonder how I’m able to have the energy to do all I do.

I attribute it to how much VALUE and IMPORTANCE I place on my nutrition.

If at ever you’re questioning why you lack energy every now and then, or why you’re unable to achieve your body composition goals, or why you’re not performing as well as you could, but you haven’t really valued your nutrition as highly and thought of it as the main reasoning behind any of this…

…well, there’s the answer to your question.

It’s not rocket science. BUT, that doesn’t mean to need to measure everything down to the last gram.

If you have particular body composition goals in mind and you’ve tried everything (getting enough sleep, eating plenty of fruits and veggies, limiting your consumption of extra sugars and excess starchy carbs, drinking plenty of water, limiting alcohol intake) but you seem to have plateaued…then maybe taking a few weeks to measure something out will reveal where you are still missing the mark. Maybe your protein, fat and carb intake is way more off the target than what you really should be having and you’re not able to pinpoint this through intuitive eating or eyeballing/guesstimating your current portions.

I think you should realize how much VALUE and IMPORTANCE I place on nutrition to ensure I feel my best.

 

Yes, there will be a point in my life where I will go back to “not measuring anything” at least in terms of weighing stuff and logging it down and tracking my macros by numbers. In fact on some days even now, I get a little loose and just eyeball things based on what I’ve eaten before.

The cool end of the story is, I think measuring stuff out has given me a really solid baseline of portioning sizes and has clarified how much protein is right, or how much rice is really needed, or how much fat there is in a lot of foods that we eat. I have a better VISUAL GUIDE now to how much I need to eat, moreso than ever before, and can now use this knowledge in a way that’s more intuitive and less strict by the numbers.

I have gained a bigger respect for food and how it’s used as fuel for my body.

If I have inspired you to start “counting calories” then by all means, good on you and good luck on your journey!

If I have scared you away from ever doing so…then awesome, I wish I could be as relaxed as you! But in the end, I hope what I have written here has made you realize how much value and importance I place on nutrition and how  above most things, I turn to nutrition if I have any questions at all about how I feel and how my body feels.