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Calorie Counting - the Retrospective

2009-01-12 6 min read marco

On New Year’s Eve 2007, the worst job of my life was over. I hadn’t been there long, but pretty much everything that could go wrong had gone wrong, except the stuff where my team and I had control. Still, the stress nearly killed me and the ten extra pounds I gained were nothing compared to the solace provided by a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie at the end of a long day.

As the job was over I was looking for new ways to lose weight – healthier ways. All the diets I had been on so far had been clearly unhealthy and forced me to eat a particular food over and over. Admittedly, my most recent experience with a diet stemmed from the time I was fat – almost two decades ago, so I didn’t quite know the newest fads.

I thought of the rational thing to do, and calorie counting seemed to be the best choice. You just determine a good amount of calories for the day, determine how many of them should come from each macronutrient, and then you adjust for extra workout.

Fortunately, in the era of the Internet, there are lots of sites that make it really easy to count calories online. The one I liked the best was – free, with amazing features, and very reliable. The one feature it lacked that was a deal breaker was sharing of added foods, but we’ll get to that later. After the deal broke, I chose a different site: It had fewer features, but added the critical one, so I stuck with it for a long while.

How does the day of a calorie counter look like? You can eat whatever you like, but you have to stay within the parameters you had chosen for yourself. You can have, say 2000 calories a day. These should be composed of x grams of fat, y grams of carbs, and z grams of proteins. You can additionally track fiber, sugar, water, etc.

You add the calories by selecting the quantity of the food you ate. If you ate a cup of almonds, you tell the application “1 cup almonds, raw,” the site will add 800-odd calories. The problem arises when you have to add a food that is not in the database – if you are eating at Mom’s, for instance, or if you are in a restaurant that doesn’t spell out nutrients (hopefully a thing of the past).

The available tools seem to all have three options:

  1. choose a food or recipe from a list
  2. create your own recipe using existing foods
  3. create your own food

If the site offers food sharing, then other people can see the foods you entered. You benefit from that the same way you benefit from Wikipedia: someone is likely to already have entered the food you just bought, but it might not have been available in the database of the site owners.

In addition to adding calories from food you consume, you can subtract calories for exercise you perform. If you have a heart rate monitor watch, then you can tell exactly how many calories you burned during an exercise session. Otherwise, you go by the calorie counts posted for various activities.

How did it work for me? At first, spectacularly well: in one month, I lost 5 pounds from my average weight, a sensational success for me. I looked leaner, more muscular, and my face looked smoother and happier. I slept better (but that was probably just the change of pace) and was overall in a better place.

Then, after a month, things leveled off. That was fine with me, since I had lost all the weight I wanted to lose and was in (for me) outstanding shape.

A little later, things started changing. There were more and more days when I’d pig out completely, especially at the end of the day. I was able to keep to my calorie counts all day, but in the evening, my body took everything back that it wanted. I ended up falling into the predictable seasonal pattern of weight gain in the fall.

The one thing that stood out about counting calories is how frequently I would have cravings for sugary stuff. Usually after a workout. Sometimes directly after it, sometimes the day after. And that’s my problem with calorie counting: it focuses you on entirely wrong behaviors, for technical reasons.

First, the calories are counted towards a daily goal. If you miss your goal and eat too much, no problem. Tomorrow is another day. If you miss it by eating too little, though, your body will crave the extra calories, but the sites don’t account for that. Additionally, if you have a particularly big workout in the evening of one day, you have to offset it by eating more after it – something that’s really bad for you.

Of course, these are not hindrances to the diet itself, but problems with the tools you use. I would really want to see the following advanced features in all calorie-counting tools:

  • new food sharing accompanied by a ranking by quality of entry; you should be able to share your newly entered food items with other people, other people should be able to combine duplicate entries and to vote on accuracy; inaccurate and duplicate entries should be removed
  • calorie over- and underages should be carried over to the next day, at least partially; you should be able to say you want, say, 75% of today’s excess carried over to tomorrow; there should be a cutoff to the excess calories you can carry over
  • quality of food items and daily intake should be displayed; this is by far the best feature in the site, and it gets you used to thinking of overall daily quality
  • mobile input should be easy; you should be able to enter foods on the go from your cell phone
  • food entering should take healthy eating habits into account; as it stands, most calorie counting sites allow you to enter “frequently eaten” foods more quickly, but that pushes you a little towards eating only a small variety of foods; healthy suggestions should accompany unhealthy foods
  • the site should track progress towards the goal on a constant basis; you should see right away whether you are on track for the day’s goal, or whether you have to slow down

The real problem with calorie counting, though, is that it tends to take over your entire day. You end up not eating in places where food is not labeled. You do not eat foods that are not labeled. You worry constantly about entering foods and exercises. It’s a lot of work, for sure, something you won’t be able to do if you do not have the full support of the people around you.

From a health perspective, there really is no downside. You don’t have the headaches reported with other diets, since you are eating a balanced selection. The only real issue is fighting off cravings – and finding a tool that helps you reduce the risk of falling prey to them.