The horror, the horror of weight loss
April 19, 2009 12:43 PM   Subscribe

I can't stand calorie-counting (the meticulousness, worrying whenever I'm eating at a friend's house or having a business meeting at a restaurant), but I'm also awful with keeping portions (and hunger) in check. What the hell is wrong with me? Am I doomed to stay overweight until I can break one of these idiotic habits? Any tips to help make it easier?

posted by Franklin76 to Health & Fitness (51 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I hate calorie counting too, but I had to do it to some extent to lose weight. I used the FitDay website. I just put in all the foods I'd eat that day in the morning. Then I knew whether I could afford to eat an extra snack or splurge at a dinner out. It also made me more conscious of whether I was eating according to my plan and how much extra snacking I was doing.
posted by christinetheslp at 12:50 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd say yes, but luckily losing weight is a very simple concept. You burn more calories than you eat.

Society and people like to portray it as a complex idea, that there are many ways to cheat it or get around it. You have to look at losing weigh as the same thing as anything else in life, it takes sacrifice and hard work.

If you had a friend tell you "I really would like to save money to buy a house, but I don't like keeping track of my money or going on spending spending bridges when I feel like it" what would you say. Some of us are not lucky enough to have perfect metabolism or trust funds, that's just the way things work out.
posted by mattsweaters at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Do you have an iPhone? It was much easier to count calories once I had Lose It.
posted by raf at 12:51 PM on April 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

I calorie-count and I've lost about 20 pounds so far. You have to calorie count to lose weight. However, you can generally plan what you're going to eat and look at calorie amounts of various foods online.

Try eating healthy snacks. You'll find you'll get fuller on less calories, and you'll look at junk food in disgust.
posted by kldickson at 12:52 PM on April 19, 2009

You aren't doomed.

Look up what a proper portion size is on things, and then just eyeball them.

Then make sure you indulge in lots of portions of veggies along with whatever else you have.

Drink lots of water while you are at it, and don't eat anything after the last meal of the day.

And do exercise.

Little baby will be surprised how they work. I lost 35 pounds that way. And I even had poptarts and ice cream. (But in proper portions.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:53 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I did pretty much exactly what christinetheslp says - I used FitDay, and posted all my calories in the morning ahead of time, with a couple hundred left over in case I got "snacky" in the afternoon. It worked. Eventually I started planning my meals weekly, on Sundays, so that I didn't have to think about it all the darned time. I didn't have to fret if I was over at a friend's house, because I built some leeway into my daily calories, and it eliminated the question of "What am I going to eat?" because I started planning meals ahead so that I wouldn't have to spend my life tracking my food.

So, since calorie counting seems to be necessary to some degree, and it's the meticulousness that gets tiresome, pre-planning your meals a bit and budgeting in some extra for eating out and such will eliminate a lot of the frustration. Oh, and I <3 FitDay.
posted by annathea at 12:54 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

To address both "what's wrong" and "helpful tips", have a look at Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. It's not a diet book per se but it has a lot of useful hints. It's also a very entertaining read, and an interesting peek into human nature.
posted by Quietgal at 12:55 PM on April 19, 2009

Instead of counting calories, I focused on increasing my fiber intake. Sometimes I 'cheat' and use supplements such as Kellogg's AllBran drink mix. They now have chocolate wafer cookies, too. I found that increasing my fiber helped me curb my hunger. I ended up not snacking (at all! Even though I had a boring desk job!) and wanting smaller portions for my meals.

Also, higher fiber 'normal' foods (not supplements) tend to be the things you're supposed to eat on a diet: veggies, fruits, whole grains and whole wheat bread/pastas.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 12:56 PM on April 19, 2009

Your fist is your friend. How big is a serving of steak? The size of your first. How big is a serving of vegetables? The size of your fist!
posted by furtive at 1:01 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am also bad at calorie counting. I found the No S Diet to be pretty helpful -- rather than concentrating on calories, it helped me concentrate on the things I was having problems with. The premise is, eat regular meals, but just don't have any snacks, sugar, or seconds except sometimes on days that start with S. That's all.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:02 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I found Weight Watchers to be an effective tool for me. It's sort of like counting calories, only they count "points" instead, which are derived from information you can find on the nutrition label of your foods, or you can calculate based on a database for foods you don't have labels for (like your home recipes). You get X points to eat each day, plus a balance of "weekly points" to use any time you want (and you can earn extra points by exercising).

Another trick to Weight Watchers is that you MUST journal all the food you eat (that's how you keep track of your points). I do NOT go to meetings or any of that stuff--I signed up for Weight Watchers online and used their online tools to manage my program. (Weight Watchers has been discussed on AskMeFi before.)

But there's nothing magical about Weight Watchers--it's just another portion control/energy balance scheme. It works by encouraging you to make healthier choices because when you choose less healthy foods, they cost you more points. It also encourages you to exercise more, since you can eat more. Finally it requires journaling--a necessary step if you are ever going to figure out how much food you are eating and what foods you are eating too much of. Most people who start food journaling are very surprised by how much they eat--and how many calories.

Before starting Weight Watchers, I tried another software journal that counted up calories and I discovered many days I ate nearly 4,000 calories--double the standard recommendation! It's really easy to do.

Here's a sample menu that gets close (no, I do NOT recommend eating all your meals at fast-food restaurants, I'm just using these because most of us can comprehend the sizes of portions of these things and realize how easy it is to eat this much without thinking about it):

Sausage Egg McMuffin: 450 calories
Hash browns: 150 calories
8 oz orange juice: 121 calories
Coffee w/cream and sugar: 120
Breakfast total: 841 calories

Chipotle Mexican Grill Burrito: 950 calories
Medium coke: 130 calories
Lunch total: 1080 caolories

Subway 6in meatball sub: 560 calories
Doritos snack pack: 140 calories
2 cans of Bud (blech): 290 calories
Dinner total: 990 calories

You're up to almost 3000 calories there. Toss in a salad with cheese and full-fat or sugary dressing, a candy bar or some cookies, or go with the footlong from Subway and you're approaching 4,000 calories. Bet many of us could eat this much and not even bat an eye.

This is why I say even if you do NOTHING ELSE, start journaling what you eat. Seeing it on paper can be all the help some people need to start making better choices.
posted by ViolaGrinder at 1:32 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I love the South Beach Diet, precisely because I'm not forced to count calories. Instead you learn to make heart-healthy choices. Of course they advocate portion control etc., but that's something that comes with time.

And also, take it easy on yourself. You're not a failure or "idiotic" for not having the hang of this. You'll get it.
posted by runningwithscissors at 1:34 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Calorie counting helped me lose 20 lbs. It not only helped me keep the math in check (less calories = more wieght lost), but writing everything down really kept me honest. Then winter came, I switched to hibernating mode (in which I do nothing except the bare minimum) and gained back about 10. I learned the following:

-Calorie counting is tedious, but it works.

-After a while of calorie counting, I got pretty good at gauging portions.

-I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted as long as I was mindful.

-I gained weight back because I ignored what I had learned.

I suggest sucking it up and doing a few weeks of calorie counting, and I agree with those above who suggested pre-planning meals. Pre-planning is good for the budget *and* the waistline. If you feel after a while that strict calorie counting is not for you, I'd urge you to think about what the experience taught you in terms of portions and which foods have better bang for the calorie-buck.

When you start to count calories, aim for a modest but steady rate of 1 lb a week, and keep the amount of calories calibrated to your current weight. I found that helped me not feel like I was starving from the get-go.

These are good things to learn especially when it comes to eating out, or eating at a friend's house. You can learn to scan a menu for things that are better for you. At a friend's house, you can eat what is offered but in more moderate quantities. I found that if my friends knew I was trying to eat more mindfully (Not that I was on a diet, or counting calories, but eating more carefully) they would not be offended or anything if I had a smaller portion of what they were serving. Because for me, having to flat-out turn down what is offered is a pain in the ass and makes me feel deprived, not to mention a bummer for the host.

And I have to say that now that I am not counting calories but trying to wing it based on my newfound knowledge, exercise is key. I managed to drop weight without it when I was counting, but now I have to work it in.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:41 PM on April 19, 2009

....and ViolaGrinder's port is pretty much why I recommended just trying the calorie counting thing for a little while. Part of it is logging what you eat, and I promise that the first few days will be a huge revelation. If you are truly averse to counting, then at least do some logging so that you can see where you are going wrong, specifically. I use The Daily Plate, but others have recommended FitDay which I think is the same concept. They are websites that help you log and have big databases full of nutritional info for thousands of foods. TDP, at least, is customizable in that you can add items if they are not in the database (FitDay might too, I just have never used it so can't say for sure).
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:47 PM on April 19, 2009

I can't stand calorie-counting (the meticulousness, worrying whenever I'm eating at a friend's house or having a business meeting at a restaurant),

Yeah, I been there, felt that. The problem is that you're avoiding doing what you need to and what works 'cause you hate this or your have a hang up about that. I say this with all kindness and understanding, but "Get over that" There are simply certain things you need to do to lose weight. Counting calories is one of them.

Like I said, I've been there, felt that. Counting calories works. It works so well that eventually it becomes a habit, you barely think about it. I can usually look at any menu, even fast food and put together a list, in menu in my head of what's healthy to eat that's good and will leave me satisfied. If friends or clients ask or wonder, I just say I'm watching my weight. If they don't like it, tough, not their body, they don't have to deal with it. If a client seems fretful about me "not enjoying myself" or "a real man has a hearty appetite, why aren't you eating more?!" the response is "Who do you give your money to for work, someone who splurges or someone who knows who to get the job done on a budget?"

Any tips to help make it easier?

Work on a single meal at a time, say breakfast. Figure out what you need to do for just that meal and then once you've got that down, do the same for lunch, snacks, then dinner.

Also, make a meal plan. Quit being garbage and pack the fridge/freezer with healthy stuff. I usually keep bags of edamame around, just cause I like and it's filling and healthy, so when the cravings hit, I can mindlessly reach for that and be ok. Putting Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice frozen meals in the freezer help for those "I'm so tired, I can barely think about what to eat" days.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:54 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

You don't have to be incredibly precise about calorie counting: as long as you've got a rough estimate you're fine. Just remember or keep a note of what you've eaten, then look it up when you get home. If it's more than you think, remember that food for next time.

It takes time to lose weight. If you find you've accidentally eaten 500 or 1000 calories more than you thought on one day, it's not worth worrying about it: it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Don't try to "make it up" by starving yourself the next day: just keep sticking to the plan.

But the thing about calorie counting is, the longer you do it the easier it gets, as you learn how much everything is. I find that with alternatives like eliminating kinds of food, the longer you do it the harder it gets as you start to crave what you're missing.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I recently started doing Weight Watchers on my own (I bought their At Home kit). It's a little tedious at times, but, even slipping up (which I've done a lot!), I've lost about 7 pounds.

I've also gone down a jean size!

There's nothing wrong with you, it's just a matter of re-programming yourself, which takes time. For example, this morning I woke up and had eaten a cinnamon roll my roommate made before I remembered that I just can't do that anymore.

When I first started, I got really upset with myself when I forgot or got frustrated or messed up, thinking that, if I was perfect, I would lose all the weight that I wanted to in 6 months. This is not possible or healthy!

So I've taken a bit of a lax approach - I'm thinking about my food more and trying to stay within my points limit. But if I go over a little here or there, I'm still losing weight and being healthier - just not as much as I could be.

Good luck! :)
posted by firei at 2:04 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read this study. This Harvard School of Public Health study found that dieters lose weight regardless of diet style (no carb vs all carb, &c) so long as they keep track of what they eat. I think a news article derived from this was posted to the blue a while back. So long story short: yes, until you start counting your calories you will find it exceedingly difficult to lose weight.
posted by The White Hat at 2:04 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

PS - I also meant to say that there is nothing that makes me want to stay on weight watchers (or any other program or calorie counting, etc) than being able to see a difference. Even with only 7 pounds, I can see and feel a change - and that's what I think about when I force myself to pull up my spreadsheet and enter my numbers.
posted by firei at 2:05 PM on April 19, 2009

I really like Weight Watchers because counting points is wayyy less tedious than counting calories. You get a daily allotment of points (based on your age, weight, etc) and also 30 "bonus" points that you can use at any time during the week. The bonus points are perfect for going out to dinner, etc.

WW teaches you how to really think about what you eat, and helps you determine how to make tradeoffs. You'll realize that for one slice of cake, you could eat a whole lot more food that is actually satisfying. Or you could find a smaller, lower-calorie sweet snack that will satisfy your craving. You learn how to be satisfied, not deprived.

The new "Momentum" program that WW has been advertising is the same old WW plan but with some new things that I really like. There is a focus on "filling foods" such as vegetables and lean protiens.

Oh, also, you can "earn" points by exercising.

You can do WW only online, but I recommend going to meetings too.
posted by radioamy at 2:06 PM on April 19, 2009

If you have a lot of weight to lose, an easy way to immediately clean up your diet is to use the rule of thirds. One-third of the plate is meat without a ton of sauces and stuff, two-thirds is vegetables, and then healthy fats are used as garnish and a cooking medium. No grains, no sugars--you don't need 'em anyway if you're eating all those vegetables.

However, there WILL be a point when that trick is going to stop working and you're going to actually have to start measuring what you eat. Again, it will depend on how overweight you are. If you only have 10-20 pounds to lose, that point is going to come sooner (as in probably now) rather than later. If you have 100+ pounds, you can probably go the first 40-50 by just cleaning up your diet as specified above and moving more.
posted by Anonymous at 2:08 PM on April 19, 2009

Counting calories (or rather, simply recording them, so you can see what you are eating) works best, but there's a lot you can do without doing that regarding type of foods you eat and when you eat.

I started the Zone, which works fantastically, but it's kind of tedious with all the calculating and measuring to do the full deal. A couple of the recommendations from the book, though, just by themselves, make a huge difference.

Eat breakfast, Lunch, snack, dinner, snack. Don't skip meals. Makes you less hungry and less likely to graze on junk.

A meal should be about a palm-sized portion of lean protein. With that, about twice that amount of veggies. For less ideal carbs (high GI), about the same size portion as the protein. Eyeballing is ok. It's difficult to eat enough veggies to get too many calories for the day, and the protein makes you not-hungry until the next meal.

Just those two things alone are working very well for several people I know, losing 1-2 lbs a week.

Other people I know are getting good results only following this rule: Eat meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, no sugar. No calorie counting involved, also makes choosing items off of restaurant menus easier than the protein/carb/fat blah blah...
posted by ctmf at 2:08 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I lost 30 pounds a couple of years ago without counting calories meticulously. I started reading food labels when I shopped and when I fixed something to eat to familiarize myself with the general calorie count of many foods in my diet. After several weeks, I was able to do some very quick mental math throughout the day to determine approximately how many calories I had consumed. Once you're familiar with how many calories many foods contain, you naturally start making better choices. For example, I'm a former Nutella fiend, but I realized I could skip Nutella (at 100 calories per tiny tablespoon!) and instead eat a piece of fresh bread slathered with cream cheese and sugarfree preserves. Then I discovered I could eat half a freakin' watermelon instead of the bread with cream cheese and feel super stuffed and satisfied.

Start by paying attention to the calorie count in the foods you eat to build an awareness of how nutritious or dangerous your favorite foods are, then take it from there.

P.S. You should make yourself used to not feeling full. At a certain point, you have to learn self control. There's obviously a difference between feeling satisfied and feeling stuffed. You could eat 10 servings of sugarfree Jello instead of 1 serving of regular Jello, but your stomach needs to get accustomed to not being filled to capacity all the time. I eventually learned that lesson because my affection for reaching a state of fullness was what made it difficult for me to make healthy decisions when I ate out. Sometimes, when I order something irresistible and calorie-rich, I know I won't be able stop myself from eating it all at once. If that's the case, I'll oversalt a portion of the food to make it unpalatable and save myself from myself. It's wasteful, yes, but I don't have a lot of self control and it's often the only thing that will keep me from eating until I explode.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:13 PM on April 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Diets don't work. All you can do is make the best choice 99 percent of the time and stop when you're satisfied. I know, easier said than done, but this is the truth. Also, I think most people have success with eating three reasonable meals and two healthy snacks a day. Get yourself on a good eating schedule and try not to overeat at meals, skip breakfast, or eat late at night. If you follow a good pattern and stop when you're satisfied your tummy will give you the signs that you are hungry. It's a great feeling to feel hunger upon awakening and at regular meal times. You're doing things right if you do. Eating at regular times prevents binge eating.

Avoid foods that are high in calories or just have a bite or two. If you've lived on planet Earth for any length of time you know what high-calorie foods to avoid, or limit, for weight loss. Make it simple and eat more lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and less of the other stuff.

Eat a low-calorie nutritious snack before you go to parties/restaurants so you're not ravenous. Keep an apple, banana, low-fat cheese, or high-fiber crackers, etc. at your desk so you can eat something nutritious before you head out to a business lunch. This way you won't be eating the bread basket or scarfing every last tortilla chip. And it will be easier to order something healthy.

It's okay to say no to a particular food. It won't be the last time you're offered something delicious. You can't eat the decadent stuff every time you go out. The way I look at things is this: "I've tasted just about every delicious food out there. I'm not going to die if I say no to the 7-layer cake because there will be many more opportunities in my life to have cake." Order the leanest sounding entree on the menu. Usually fish/seafood or grilled chicken breast is the way to go.

Also know that hunger is not an emergency. Your next meal is right around the corner. It's okay to wait it out. Nothing bad will happen.

Recording my intake on FitDay keeps me honest. It's not that I'm trying to be strict with my intake, but I always find I eat healthier and am more mindful when I record.

Imagine yourself in a particular scenario. Dream and plan the whole thing out before you leave. "I'm going to have two beers and two slices of pizza at Dave's tonight. When the birthday cake comes around I'm going to ask for a very small sliver." "I'm going to order the grilled chicken salad and iced tea." Imagine yourself ordering it. Imagine saying no to dessert. Imagine being in control.
posted by Fairchild at 2:16 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you tried a low carb diet? The only way I've ever been able to lose weight consistently and keep it off is via low carbing. I am currently 60 lbs lower than my highest weight and have been for around 3 years.

As with any diet, YMMV, but the reason low carb diets work for many people (myself included) is that they address the exact problem you're posting about. I've been on any number of calorie-restricted diets and experienced extreme hunger and irritability which led to binge eating and eventual weight GAIN. These little slips can feel like a failure of will, which makes you feel like the diet will never work, which makes you more likely to go off the diet.

On a low carb diet, most people can eat ad libidinum (i.e. whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as it's low carb) and lose weight. This is for two reasons. One, protein and fat make you more sated, so you feel full earlier than you would if you were eating an equivalent amount of carbs. Eight ounces of deli turkey breast has around 225 calories, about the same as 1 1/2 ounces of potato chips. I can barely eat that much turkey, but could eat the potato chips in around 30 seconds. The net result is that you end up eating less calories anyway. Secondly, many low carb dieters (myself included) report extremely reduced amounts of hunger. I can say from my own personal experience that while low carbing I was just not hungry, ever. No cravings, no pangs, nothing.

I'm not qualified to get into the scientific explanation, but the best and most thorough book on the topic is Gary Taubes' Good Calories Bad Calories. Taubes is a science reporter for the NY Times. This is his famous article from the Times Sunday Magazine several years ago which is the precursor/thesis statement to his book and definitely worth a read for anyone.

Many people are afraid of low carb diets and say they are unhealthy, etc. Based on my research and personal experiences, I think these fears are off-base. All of my blood work improved dramatically during and after going on this diet (the main benefit, of course, was a dramatic reduction in manboob size).

Also, please note I'm not claiming that low carb diets are some sort of panacea, just that they work for some people. There are a lot of downsides: they're more expensive, socially limiting ("Sorry guys, I can't eat pizza/bread/your birthday cake/drink beers on my diet"), and you simply cannot eat certain things, especially sweets. Can you go six months to a year without eating sandwiches? Fruity cereal? (These were the toughest for me).

The problem is not with you, it's with the whole idea of calorie counting. People tend to forget the psychological aspect of dieting and ascribe any failure of a diet to a failure of the will of the individual. The fact of the matter is, dieting in this manner simply doesn't work for the vast majority of people (pdf link found via Google and skimmed, but seems like a good article from UCLA) and often result in weight gain in the long term. Don't get down on yourself, try a low carb diet or one of the strategies above, and know that it takes fucking forever to lose weight. It took me at least a year (with several intervening years before I figured out what worked for me), and I still have 20 pounds to go. Good luck!
posted by hamsterdam at 2:21 PM on April 19, 2009 [7 favorites]

You have two problems here: one is the calorie counting, and two is getting used to the hunger.

Let me talk about two first. When you were a kid, did your tummy rumble before a meal? (mine did) Did you have to wait until your parents served it, or were you able to just help yourself? You want to be able to get back to the rumbling for a bit, so as you know that being a little hungry for a little while isn't actually as bad as you think it is. You can distract yourself with a hot drink for a bit. Do something else. In my experience, success in dieting comes after you accept that you will need to be hungry some of the time, and that it won't hurt (much). Give yourself a month on a limited diet, commit to it for just that long, whatever the diet is, and I bet you will find by the fourth week, your body is adjusting to the lower calorie intake much better than week 1.

Now, regarding counting calories. Make up some useful rules of thumb.
No chips (ie cooked in oil) until goal weight.
Not more than a cup of pasta at a meal.
No creamy sauces until goal weight - also means choosing the clear soup option.
Desserts should be fruit based (gelato for example) and rare.
If you have a partner or children who will put up with it, assuage your sweet tooth by taxing their treat (one bite instead of a whole icecream)
No alcohol - replace with mineral water and a twist of lemon
No sodas (I personally think even the diet sodas give you a taste for sweetness but personal choice)
Salad dressing on the side. If you must have some, dip your fork into it, and then spear your lettuce.
No butter on bread (so, no garlic bread, herb bread etc at restaurants).
Smallest serving size available - eg Subway, don't go for the footlong just cos it's there, take the 6 inch.

Eat as slowly as you can. Savour every mouthful. Eat mindfully.

If you think you're still hungry after your meal, wait 30 minutes (time it). Then have a piece of fruit.

You can make up more rules if you like, or you could count calories. Using something electronic (I use a spreadsheet, and it's clear to see my most common foods) makes it much easier and quicket.

In Australia there's government advertising encouraging people to eat 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables daily. If you get that much into you, you may find it difficult to eat other things that won't help in your weight loss.
posted by b33j at 2:22 PM on April 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I also wanted to mention, and it probably goes without saying, that a "normal" way of eating takes of practice. Years of practice. Don't beat yourself up if you overeat at a meal. Wait for the hunger again and practice eating just enough food your next meal to erase the hunger and feel satisfied, but not stuffed. Repeat a thousand times.
posted by Fairchild at 2:50 PM on April 19, 2009

b33j: "Eat as slowly as you can. Savour every mouthful. Eat mindfully.

If you think you're still hungry after your meal, wait 30 minutes (time it). Then have a piece of fruit.

This advice bears repeating. A lot of hunger/satiety is controlled by leptin, which binds to your hypothalamus after food intake, telling your body to stop being hungry. Leptin usually takes a good 20 minutes to get into your blood stream and on up to your brain, which is to say that you've most likely reached your "full" point about 20 minutes before your body says "enough." With that in mind, try not only eating slowly, but also engaging in activities like preparing a salad and eating it while you prepare your main course, or simply eating the veggies on your plate first.

There's a PI at my lab who works with this sort of thing and has been doing a number of studies on food, satiety, volume, and calorie density. She published her findings first back in 2002, and now has a diet book out based on those principles. I haven't read the book, but the study is certainly worth taking a look at.
posted by The White Hat at 3:01 PM on April 19, 2009

I lost a decent amount of weight without really counting calories. BUT, I did something that many people hate even more than counting calories: got on the scale every morning and wrote down what I saw. This way I could sort of make ballpark estimates on how I was eating, but the actual goal state -- getting my weight in line -- was what I really paid attention to. Once I got to my target weight I mostly just use it to stay there. Up a pound, do more exercise or reign it in more. Down a pound, be a little less hypervigilant about things.

I do have a general idea both how many calories things have but also what's likely to be good for me and what's likely to be bad for me. So I turned my diet into something that had a lot less "bad for me" stuff [desserts, juices, meals out] and more "good for me" stuff [veggies, fiber, water] and it mostly works.

You can also go another route which is to exercise like crazy. At some point you wind up eating just to sort of keep your body alive [the food ad fuel thing] and, at least for me, you wind up tailoring your eating with that in mind and it helps you eat better. When I was aggressively swimming, I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted and I keep that in mind as an option if I get fed up with eating carefully.
posted by jessamyn at 3:13 PM on April 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Counting calories isn't for everyone. It was tedious and ultimately unsustainable for me. Instead, read Eat to Live, follow the author's recommendations, and you may find the weight comes off. I've lost quite a bit of weight since I picked up that book in the fall (on the suggestion of another mefite). The book is labeled "revolutionary" by the publisher, but it's really just common sense. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, legumes, moderate amounts of whole grains, seeds and nuts, and limit your intake of animal products* to a smaller proportion of your caloric intake. Basically make every calorie count by consuming nutritionally packed foods and cutting out empty calories.

Not that I don't indulge still, but it helps to have a general eating plan that you stick to most of the time. This one may not be to your liking, but I thought I'd throw it out there since it has worked well for me.

*I know this eating plan sounds very restrictive to meat and dairy eaters, but for me I already had stopped eating most meat so it wasn't much of a leap
posted by JenMarie at 3:25 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'll second/third/fourth the suggestion of Weight Watchers. I've been doing it for about six months and lost two stone (nearly 30 pounds) - that's not the speediest weight loss ever, I know, but this is the first time I've ever managed to lose more than a pound or so, and I've never stuck to any diet for more than a few days. And I know lots of people it's working for. One of my friends at WW, actually, joined specifically to prove that it was just impossible for her to lose weight - she thought 'failing' WW would get her family off her back. She's now lost 50 pounds.

The combination of having strict limits, and being accountable to someone else (in fact, a whole group of people) seems to work really well for lots of us. And dealing with small numbers (a sandwich is, say, 4 points, an apple is 0.5, and so on) can be easier than trying to add up random unwieldy numbers like 180 and 544 and 850 calories.

Anyway, moving on, since I'm starting to sound like a WW advert!

I completely understand where you're coming from. Sticking to a limit and constantly having to count is hard. It's boring and repetitive and difficult to eat out or at a friend's place. But when you're actually losing weight then it does suddenly seem worth it.

One more thing - the way I look at it, most of the time counting the calories and sticking to your allowance is definitely a bit of a pain in the arse, but it's doable. And then sometimes, you're utterly desperate for some crisps, you'd kill for a bit of that easter egg you can see out of the corner of your eye, or you can't stop thinking about a snack. It's miserable, and you want to blow your daily limit and scoff yourself. But you just have to remember that weight loss is hard, and this is one of the times it's going to be hard and you just have to suck it up and deal. Nowadays I just have to think to myself "this is one of those times" - literally, just that - and that goes a long way to reining myself in. If you can build up a pattern of not giving in, it becomes slightly easier every time.
posted by badmoonrising at 3:27 PM on April 19, 2009

Oh, also, I 2nd what Jessamyn says about weighing yourself daily. It really does help, even if it isn't really about reaching some sort of ideal number.
posted by JenMarie at 3:27 PM on April 19, 2009

Calorie counting didn't work for me to lose weight. For me, simply not eating certain groups of food did the trick and it was a lot easier. I simply identified the worst offenders and eliminated them. No soda, no candy, no chips, no sugary breakfast cereal, etc.

I lost 15 lbs. My father is doing the same diet and so far has lost 30 lbs (he has more to lose than I did).

I now do a modified version of the paleo diet (lean meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, a little chocolate and other cheating things now and then...but no dairy or gluten) now that I have nothing to lose and actually I've started going to the dark side and counting calories because with the paleo diet I worry about not getting enough calories. I'm simply just not very hungry and I don't eat a lot of things that used to be the bulk of my calories like butter or reeses cups. The bulk of my diet is greens and they don't have much in the way of calories.

And raw unseasoned nuts simply just aren't addictive. I'm satiated after very few. I'm very very rarely hungry these days and I can actually fast for a very long time without feeling any effects. A note is that I eat pretty low in fiber since it irritates my stomach, so you don't necessarily need it to feel full.

That said, my diet may not be for you and was adopted not just because of excess weight, but also because of other health problems. It's a life where I can't just grab a sandwich or a cookie.
posted by melissam at 3:31 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

The only way I ever consciously lost weight involved weighing myself (but not every day -- that made me too crazy, I did it once a week), counting calories, exercising and eating right -- along the lines of volumetrics (which is what The White Hat is talking about).

I also read and did some of the stuff in The Beck Diet Solution which helped me even if I found some of the tone annoying.

But old habits die hard and I've slipped and am finding it hard to gear up to do all of that again. Like others have said -- I guess it's just a question of sucking it up and doing it and keeping at it -- and never stopping. Beck covers some of that in her book. I guess it's time to re-read.

Good Luck
posted by nnk at 3:38 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

and I used Fitday. Fitday is great -- and I agree (Martha Beck again) that you have to pre-plan what you eat. It's not so bad -- it takes a lot of the stress out of it, knowing pretty much what it is you can eat during the day -- it makes other food less tempting.
posted by nnk at 3:40 PM on April 19, 2009

Calorie counting sucks. Try eating better calories, and see whether you don't lose some weight. I mean really good, healthy calories. First start by getting rid of any processed or packaged foods. Limit the white bread and pasta. Fill your cupboards and fridge with stuff from farmer's markets, or as fresh as you can get. Prepare meals that are centered on vegetables and whole grains (Mark Bittman, Deborah Madison, Madhur Jaffrey are all great on this front). learn to love tea; there are about a million kinds, and a giant mug of tea is a satisfying as a mid-afternoon treat. I like Scottish breakfast with steamed milk.

Snack on almonds (not too many) and whip up a huge salad whenever you're hungry.

Cut out sweets, except for a bit of candy or chocolate after dinner.

Finally, do something that makes you break a sweat, at least 30 minutes three times a week.

I've learned, knowing my personality, that I just am NOT good at cutting things out. Once I decided to add things--exclusively healthy food, very little white flour, very little sugar, and exercise-- I felt like I suddenly had some control.

Good luck!
posted by cymru_j at 4:00 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding cymru_J

It's a good idea to pay attention to the density of calories. Processed food is one of the most calorically dense food around and not quite as filling because most of the water have been squeezed out (not to mention it's packed with sugar and god knows what else).

Also anything "bready" tend to be very calorically dense, pasta, bread, rolls, fried foods, etc... Avoid those.

So the less processed, the better....

Good primer on this would be the okinawa diet:

Yes, it's one of those fad diet programs, but it does have some good recipes with low calorie density foods.

In short, indulge in more wholesome food, lean meat, vegetables and fruits (NOT FRUIT JUICES!!)... Nuts are good, but very calorically dense and I personally don't find them very filling. Also another thing that helps is eat less and more often, smaller portions several meals/snacks throughout the day so that you won't get so hungry and overeat.

Also just drink water or tea with little or no sugar... That would cut out tons of calories if you're accustomed to sodas and juices.

Lastly, but not the least, be active! Work out! Both cardio and weights, the more muscle you have the more calories you burn. BUT of course this depends on your condition and I would recommend you to consult a professional.

Ultimately it boils down to how many calories you burn vs how many you take in. Modifying your diet, rather than trying to obsess over calories will make this a lot easier (in my personal experience).
posted by pakoothefakoo at 4:24 PM on April 19, 2009

Two more things:

Eat slowly and stop eating when you feel 2/3 full, because it takes your body some time to register the food you just swallowed. This will help with overeating.

Sometimes we feel hungry when we're really thirsty. So if you feel hungry after recently eating a meal, have a glass of water... If you're still hungry, then a snack.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 4:32 PM on April 19, 2009

I'm like you. If I have to count calories every second of every day, it drives me insane. I minimized the amount of calorie-counting I have to do every day by doing it up front. When I looked at my eating habits, I realized that I eat pretty much the same 15 meals over and over. So I calculated the calories for these and made a meal plan. Sure, I improvise from time to time, but most of the time I can plan ahead. The key for me is to lock down most of my meals, but also leave myself some flexibility so I don't go crazy. Here's what I do:

- I eat the exact same breakfast 6 days a week. I use the same bowl and the same scoop every time, which helps me to keep the portion size right.
- I eat the exact same lunch 6 days a week.
- I have my preferred snacks on hand (pears, squares of dark chocolate), and I've figured out how many of these I can eat per day.
- I rotate dinners between 5 or 6 different meals that I like. I've pretty much figured out the portion size and calorie count in advance, so I can pick whichever of these meals I feel like eating.
- Friday night and all day Sunday, I eat whatever I damn well please.

The key point is: these are meals that I really like. They're basically what I've always eaten, but with adjusted portions. They're tasty, and that's why I stick to them most of the time. I've figured it out so that I'm eating a 300cal breakfast, a 400cal lunch, a 100cal snack, and a 600cal dinner. But I don't have to think about the calories anymore. You can make this a game: how do I fit my favorite meal into 600cal? You don't have to recalculate those calories all the time -- once you've figured out the what that 600cal meal looks like, you can just put it in whatever dinner slot you like.
posted by ourobouros at 5:30 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that calorie counting and worrying about food is awful and stresses you out more than necessary. In fact, quantifying obsessively makes me NOT want to work out, which is why the Wii Fit was a terrible purchase for me. And I love food and don't want to feel guilty about eating it, but don't want to not eat it. Here's what I do, maybe some of this will help.

1. Weigh myself only in the morning when weight is typically lowest, naked, and tops once a week. Manic weighing shows just how much your body goes up and down daily and is depressing.

2. Half of my meal is always some sort of plant, except for breakfast, because your body will burn up breakfast so there is fruit, but also plenty of protein or whole grains to get my metabolism going.

3. Snacks include fruit or trail mix. Different types of nuts have different benefits (almonds, cashews and sunflower seeds help prevent hair from graying) so I buy in bulk and make my own with dried fruit. Super easy and then you pick the benefits.

4. Sugar is your enemy. Especially refined sugar, and Lo-Fat= lots of sugar. Currently, I am not eating any sugar, but normally I just keep it to a minimum and apply the "will only eat what I make" and ALWAYS cut the sugar in half in every recipe. As Americans we over-sweeten everything. Half the sugar is still very sweet, and I typically use fruit or spelt flour to make it healthier.

5. Lots of water.

6. Exercise 3 hours 30 min a week (30 min a day doesn't always work, so I add it up)

7. Guilt is your enemy. I kept a journal for the first month of EVERYTHING I ate (no calories) and so I knew exactly what I'd eaten. First off, it kept me on track because I was so stoked of eating well, but also, if there was a thing that was not on the "good" list and I ate it, whatever. I'm good most of the time, so I'm not worried about a piece of pie here or some pizza there. This also applies to eating out with friends. If they make something that is definitely not healthy, whatever. I eat a normal portion, then make sure the next day to eat well. Balance is your friend.

8. If you cook, ingredients make all the difference. In Defense of Food by Michale Pollan is a good book to get a grasp of where you will get the most satisfaction - and research shows it only takes about 2 weeks to change eating habits. So if you set yourself a goal of a month to go on the stereotypical "whole grain, lots of veggies/fruits, fish and lean meat diet" plus cut out sugar, you'll be surprised how quickly that becomes the norm.

9. Hunger is an issue for me sometimes, which is why healthy snacks and water help. Sometimes, when I ate what I know is a good portion and I'm still hungry I snag a small piece of cheese or fruit and wait it out. Usually in a bit I feel better. If you're used to eating too much, your body will want those calories at first, but if you're eating good, nutrient rich food (like bulgur instead of rice) you'll get full faster and your body will adjust. Because the hypothalmus regulates thirst, hunger, sleep and sex if you replace food for one of those, often it will get rid of the craving or delay it. Or maybe you really were just dehydrated.

I know this is a lot of info, but I understand not wanting to count. The other thing to remember is that sometimes, weight loss is inhibited by problems in the body - thyroid issues, poly-cystic ovaries (I don't know if you're male or female, but obviously ovaries don't matter for dudes, and if you are a dude, this should be much easier, because once you exercise, testosterone is like magic fat burning bullet. Also, sugar is your enemy, again) Perhaps a doctor work up might help locate if there is an internal issue that will drive you insane.
posted by anniek at 5:56 PM on April 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't put it off just because you dread the horror of counting calories. Counting calories is powerful because it gives you the most control, but if you aren't going to do it because you hate it, there are other ways to cut calories that don't require counting them. The easiest is to subtract calories from your current diet, i.e. start changing to healthier eating habits - everything pakoothefakoo said, plus more sleep and more water.

The hardest part of losing weight is the psychology. The biology is relatively straightforward, but you're looking at changing a lifetime's worth of habits, and probably losing your favourite comfort tool, none of which is easy. So you have to find what works for you. Personally, I am currently not counting calories, but I do spend 5 minutes every evening writing down what I ate that day, and what I plan to eat the next day. I've developed a general framework for my meals and snacks should be to keep my calorie intake low, and so far it's working - the scale is going down. But if it stops, I'll have to have a closer look at the calories in what I'm eating and work out why I no longer have a calorie deficit.
posted by kjs4 at 6:26 PM on April 19, 2009

Another vote here for not counting calories, but cutting out the stuff that does the most damage & changing habits (over time) to eat more of the good stuff.

Others have already explained this at length, so I'll only add one tip: it may help to have something that you can use as a "calorie benchmark".

I eat those little tins of oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines & herrings) on toast very regularly for breakfast or lunch, so that's mine. I know that one of those is typically ~400kj, so when reading nutrition info on the packaging at the supermarket, it's easy to evaluate: "hey, this sports drink is like four tins of salmon, only without the nutrients! fuck that for a joke!" & the lesson tends to stick.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:41 PM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hate calorie-counting too! Don't do it if it annoys you; it becomes difficult to sustain - and anyway it's harder to eat healthily when you feel negative about it.

I hope this doesn't sound too obvious, but I recommend just educating yourself on the nutritional value of foods by reading labels and familiarising yourself with calorie/carb-counts. Soon you will be able to tell how calorific a food is just by knowing what it is, even if you don't know the exact calorie count. I don't think numbers are really important.

Try cutting out certain foods entirely, like sugar or white bread (just an example) - that simplifies matters a lot.

Drink tons of water!

Good luck!
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:12 AM on April 20, 2009

To address both "what's wrong" and "helpful tips", have a look at Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. It's not a diet book per se but it has a lot of useful hints. It's also a very entertaining read, and an interesting peek into human nature.

I was coming in here to recommend this very book!
posted by leahwrenn at 4:21 AM on April 20, 2009

To address both "what's wrong" and "helpful tips", have a look at Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. It's not a diet book per se but it has a lot of useful hints. It's also a very entertaining read, and an interesting peek into human nature.

I was coming in here to recommend this very book!

Me TOO! So, yeah, go read the book already.
posted by whatzit at 6:19 AM on April 20, 2009

One suggestion that I've found handy sometimes: try to go to sleep feeling peckish. Not starving, just feeling a little bit like you want a snack. If you are anything like me, you can go to sleep in a slightly hungry state. Wake up ready for a delicious and healthy breakfast (prepared the night before?).

In order to get that peckish feeling, you can go easy at your evening meal, avoid snacks entirely afer a certain time of day, or do some vigorous exercise. It's up to you, and what works on a particular day.

The slight hunger is a physical signal that you try and replicate each day, without calorie counting. Okay, so there's a bit of hungry-time, but it's slight and you sleep right through most of it. It acts as a check - did I manage a small calorie deficit today?
posted by Tapioca at 7:04 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Take a look at the Shangri-la Diet.

I tried it for a time and found that it worked largely as he claims. I found my desire to snack in the evenings was largely eliminated and I ate less at meals.
posted by chazlarson at 9:33 AM on April 20, 2009

Counting calories is a great way to learn about how calorie-, protein-, fat-, and carb-rich certain foods are. For instance a whole mound of spinach has a the same calories as a half cup of rice. Understanding what is really in food helps me make better decisions consistently.

To see how many calories are in foods, check out this site: What Does 200 Calories Look Like?

For me, I lost weight the most when I was tracking calories because it made me considerably more aware of my diet.

Good luck.
posted by madh at 9:50 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Lose It! for iPhone/iPod touch, if you have one, or FitDay/The Daily Plate/Sparkpeople (all web-based) if you don't.

Simple truth: you can't manage what you don't track. This applies to more than just weight-loss, but it applies especially well to weight loss. But, that doesn't mean it has to be incredibly tedious, because any good calorie-tracking application will have a few essential convenience features that take the pain out of it:

1) A database of foods, with all the calorie counts worked out for you.
2) A way to combine multiple foods into recipes or meals.
3) A way to reuse your favorite meals.

This is great, because most people, if you bother to record what you're eating, don't eat a wide variety of foods, except on special occasions. So, while the time to count up what went into your ham sandwich or whatever takes some time on the front end, it takes no time at all the next time you eat it. And, on those occasions when you do eat out and don't really know all the ingredients that went into your meal, you ballpark it. Eventually, you get really good at estimating what is in your food, because you can see the results on the scale.
posted by wheat at 10:44 AM on April 20, 2009

FWIW, I signed up with FitDay, The Daily Plate, and SparkPeople to compare them, and here are my findings.

SparkPeople I gave up on really quick -- the UI is just waaayyy too busy and confusing.

I really liked the simplicity of the FitDay layout, but it was too much work to enter my foods. Plus I couldn't easily see both my food and exercise on one page.

So after two days, The Daily Plate is the hands-down winner for me. The database is huge, and has had everything (literally, including brand name and flavor of everything) that I have eaten so far. It's very easy to enter stuff (just search, click I ate this, today), you can get more specific and say what time you ate something, it's easy to modify portion size, and you can see exactly where you stand, calorie-wise, for the day. It tells you "You may eat about x additional calories today." Right at the top of the screen. All the information I want is on one page.

So easy. I hated counting calories, too, but this looks like it might actually take all the pain out of it.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:25 PM on April 21, 2009

Oh, and another thing: it has already been educational. I had NO IDEA my morning coffee had 4 oz. of half and half (160 calories, 12 grams of fat, OMG!) in it. I would always just pour a bit in my (admittedly large) mug, but when I had to actually enter an amount, that made me break out the measuring cup. Total eye-opener.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:50 PM on April 21, 2009

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