Years ago, I let go of counting calories. It wasn’t easy. Calorie counting has long been the holy grail of weight loss and fitness. It’s the foundation of my personal and professional journey. The concept of “calories in, calories out” is so deeply ingrained in nutrition and exercise science (and culture) that it essentially thwarted my ability to eat and live beyond numbers.
I started counting calories before calorie counting websites and apps were even thought of. It was even a big focus of my first book published back in 2013.
I’ve grown a lot since then.
Rather than losing precious time counting calories, I’ve learned to redirect my focus back to valuing and appreciating the actual experience of eating food, in the moment, in real time and in real life. This sheer enjoyment of food represents one of the key Guiding Principles upon which I founded That Salad Lady.
How I Got Hooked
Before I started counting calories, I was making memories – and I didn’t even know it. One of my fondest childhood memories was cracking open and eating mixed nuts with my daddy – especially Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, pistachios and peanuts. Daddy loved feeding squirrels so together we’d crack open a bunch of nuts and throw out handfuls for them to eat.
This simple yet delightful food experience followed me well into young adulthood, as I was infamous for snacking on mixed nuts with dried berries almost daily.
That is, until the day I started counting calories.
I still remember it as if it were yesterday – sitting in my dorm computer lab to complete the first entry of a three-day calorie-tracking journal for a second-year Kinesiology class assignment.
On day one, I took in approximately 2,500 calories, largely from fruits and veggies (banana, grapefruit and carrots), whole grains, and mixed nuts (of course). By day two, I had already reduced my calorie intake by 500, clocking in at around 2,000 calories. I was down to 1,500 calories by day three. I’d also upped my cardio by 30 minutes that day to increase my deficit – despite the fact that I taught eight aerobics classes a week.
This seemingly meaningless calorie-tracking assignment led to my creating calorie deficits for no apparent reason. I wasn’t even trying to lose weight. It was all psychological!
In just three days, my focus had already started to shift from good nutrition to mere calorie restriction. Instinctively, I started eliminating nuts and other beneficial whole foods from my diet simply because their calorie counts were relatively high. I literally started living on PowerBars, soups and garden salads. I continued these behaviors long after receiving an ‘A’ in that Kinesiology class.
When It Came to a Head
Early one morning while home during summer break, I was awakened by the sound of squirrels scratching at my parents’ front door. My mom said they were waiting for my dad to come out and feed them. Daddy grabbed a big bag of peanuts, sat on the porch and started cracking and eating them as he fed the squirrels. Dressed for a morning run, I sat down next to him for a quick second.
When daddy turned my way to give me a handful of peanuts, I turned up my nose at them. I had plans for fasted cardio so all I saw was about 200 undesirable calories in his hand. I didn’t even value those peanuts as a rich source of quality fat, protein and micronutrients. Moreover, I didn’t embrace that precious moment of bonding with my daddy on a beautiful summer morning.
I carried on like this for years – missing countless opportunities to make food memories with my family members and friends. Instead, I was solely focused on cutting calories whenever and how ever I could. I’d sometimes spend hours a day on dietary recalls and even more hours exercising to maintain continuous calorie deficits.
What started as a simple class assignment essentially became an obsession.
What Brought Me Back
Shortly after publishing my book in 2013, I launched my first “official” healthy living blog. As my blogger influence increased, so did the invites to lifestyle-centric events, especially food festivals. From tasty bites and appetizers to decadent seven-course meals and adult beverages, I found myself incessantly taking mental notes every time I took a bite or sip of something new.
My long-time calorie counting obsession gradually became a full-fledged nuisance. I’d attended dozens upon dozens of festivals and events, tried more delicious foods than I could only dream of, and met some amazing people along the way, yet I wasn’t even present – too busy worrying about calorie counts and creating deficits.
A grand opening event for a popular Churrascaria (Brazilian steakhouse) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As I enjoyed delicious bites of slow cooked, delicately seasoned meats offered by friendly gaucho chefs, I literally said to myself: “Screw it, I’m done!” That was it. My days of counting calories were done – and I’ve yet to turn back.
A couple of years later, my daddy suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. He survived but was urged to start taking blood pressure medication. After taking less than five doses during a brief bout of therapy, he refused further medical intervention. I knew my daddy was going to die. But, during his last days, I found solace in cracking and eating peanuts with him as he shared handfuls with the squirrels in front of his house.
My daddy suffered a second stroke and ultimately succumbed to complications related to that stroke. In a bit of irony, those squirrels migrated on my parents’ doorstep for weeks after my daddy’s passing. They too had their own food memories with him.
Embracing Calories and Enjoying Food
To this day, eating mixed nuts always brings back a sense of nostalgia. I’ve grown to experience an appreciation for those calories, rather than agony over counting them.
As you browse the recipes on this site, you’ll likely notice the calorie counts. Many are relatively high. But, when it comes to judging the healthfulness of foods, I encourage you to focus more on the nutritional value of each ingredient rather than their mere calorie counts. All calories are not created equal (remember this).
I’ll be the first to admit that calorie deficits lead to weight loss, though often over the short-term. Over the long-term, you can successfully manage your weight and substantially improve your health by simply eating a wide variety of whole foods.
Now, I’m not advocating for you to stop counting calories altogether. If counting calories (or points) works for you, keep doing just that. Still, I challenge you to focus less on the numbers and more on the overall food experience. Enjoy the foods you eat rather than solely focusing on the calories those foods contain. I know it’s much easier said than done.
However, you can’t get past the fact that some of the most nutritious foods carry relatively high calorie counts. These foods include healthy fats, legumes and whole grains, which collectively contain powerful phytonutrients that actually boost weight loss by revving up metabolism, optimizing digestion and reducing fat storage.
Though everything we eat and everything we do comes with a calorie tally, at the end of the day, a 200-calorie portion of mixed nuts will always be more nutritious than a 100-calorie snack pack. And a moment of time with a loved one will always be more meaningful and memorable than a workout.