If healthy eating, healthy moving, and a healthy sense of self-worth are the ultimate goals — and we have tried to make that case in every one of our posts — then why bother with the scale and with the calorie counting? Here’s why: because even if good physical and psychological health are paramount, the truth is that most of you who read this blog (and both of us who write this blog) do care about weight loss. Yes, we know that we’ve said that weight loss will be the result of healthy eating, but there’s a good chance that you also want to see the tangible evidence of your efforts. Actually, that’s not a bad thing: experts in behavioral therapy have shown that a key element in successful weight loss includes self-monitoring — such as keeping a record of food intake, number of calories, and minutes of physical activity (1,2,3). For most people, these are helpful tools for planning ahead and for staying accountable.
On the other hand, for some people, counting calories feels overly stressful and frustrating. For example, if you have a prior history of an eating disorder, especially one with a restrictive component, calorie counting may be triggering for you and may even contribute to a relapse. Even if that’s not the case, you may find that counting calories feels too controlling and leads to your wanting to rebel and just head over to the nearest Cheesecake Factory.
Jay — I agree that calorie counting really depends on the person. It worked for me because I had no concept of food composition or portion size. Before I started trying to lose weight, all I knew was that I ate what I wanted when I wanted, and I was gaining 20 pounds a year on average. A result of this was that I conditioned myself to ignore the hunger and fullness signals that my body gave me. Once I started to try to eat in a healthy way, though, calorie counting helped me understand exactly why that weight gain was happening. Also, calorie counting taught gave me a clear and concrete way to conceptualize how much I needed to eat each day.
I remember the first time I logged my calories for breakfast during the spring semester of my Freshman year at college, before I had started to try to lose weight. I ate two bagels slathered in cream cheese, some scrambled eggs, and sausage. I calculated the total number of calories, and it was over a thousand. That was just one meal! Considering that my daily caloric need at that time was around 2,000 calories, over half of what I should eat in a day had just been consumed in that one breakfast. This was such a wake-up call to be aware of the food that I was putting in my body. Calorie counting helped me learn to read the nutrition labels on food, and also to understand portion sizes. I came to realize that a “serving size” of peanut butter was not however much it took until I was sick of it (unfortunately, a pathetically small tablespoon of peanut butter has nearly a hundred calories, which breaks my heart because I love it so much)! Finally, calorie counting gave me structure and a discrete goal to work toward. This really helped set me up for success in the long term.
Janice — I’m in the counting group, too. It helps me stay honest. However, even though I do count calories, I do not count the calories in non-starchy vegetables and fruits. The reason for this is that I don’t want to place any limitations on healthy foods that aren’t significantly calorie-dense. I’m confident that I’ll never gain significant weight by replacing other foods with produce. I didn't become overweight because of blueberries.
Jay — Being aware of calories also helps me with meal planning because it allows me to be flexible with my relationship to food. If I decide that I want a piece of chocolate, then that’s fine. I log it in my calorie counting app (more on that in a future post on using technology as a tool), where it then remains as that non-emotionally-charged number in my log — not as a 'bad food.' In this way, I am not “failing.” Instead, I made rational and predetermined choice, and I’m not disappointed in myself.
Once I started paying attention to calorie count, meal planning preparation was especially helpful for me. Especially when I started, I used a food scale in order to calculate exactly how much of each food was going into each portion. It helped me avoid over- or underestimating how many calories I was actually consuming.
Janice — I don’t weigh food. If I thought that I had to use a food scale, I might shoot myself. It’s just too much for me. But while I’m not obsessive about portion size, I have familiarized myself with volumes and weights and such — otherwise, I know that I’d be just kidding myself when I eat a “serving” of pasta or ice cream or whatever. Having said that, I do agree that it was a great idea for Jay when she started, and it might be great for you as well in order to help you develop a sense of just how many calories there are in whatever you consider a “portion” to be. Just don’t make it into a time-consuming science project.
So by now, you’ve figured out that we both calorie count, but to different degrees. Jay is more regimented than Janice, and that’s what works for her. It’s up to you to find your style; it may work best to start out in a more structured, disciplined way and then ease back as you feel more successful and confident. If you’re looking for a place to start, Jay recommends the app “MyFitnessPal.” When you sign up, they will help you determine a daily caloric goal that fits your height, weight, activity level, and your goals.
Should you weigh yourself regularly?
And if you do want to weigh yourself regularly, should it be once a week? Every day? There are different ways to approach weighing yourself. We’ll tell you what works for each of us, and you can decide for yourself what system sounds right for you.
Jay — before we jump in, I want to say something about weighing yourself. First, you are not a number. A number does not determine your worth or your strength or your beauty. Second, if you have a “history” with the scale, or find yourself becoming obsessive, then put the scale away. Don’t allow yourself to go down that slippery, dark slope.
You may want to weigh yourself only once a week or so. This relatively relaxed approach to weight enables you to see a general trend just to make sure you're heading in the right direction and don’t need to make any substantive changes in how you're eating. This approach may particularly appeal to you if you get discouraged by the minimal day-to-day changes or if you have a prior history of an eating disorders or obsessive behavior.
Alternatively, you may prefer weighing yourself every day if you're data-driven or if you'll have a greater sense of accountability by seeing a number every day. Knowing that you're going to weigh yourself tomorrow may help you make better food choices today. Also, weighing yourself only once a week can be deceiving. If, for example, you’ve eaten a salty meal the previous night (or if you just take a huge breath or something before you weigh yourself), the scale might register a higher weight than is really accurate; and that's both discouraging and misleading.
Jay — I started out with weekly weights, and it’s what I do now. However, while I was still losing weight and getting closer to my goal weight, I saw that my progress was slowing down, and I wanted to monitor myself more closely. That’s when I started weighing myself every day to get an idea of how my weight was trending. Eventually, though, I found myself feeling obsessive about my weight and my body. I recognized that this was a really unhealthy mindset for me, and so I went back to weighing myself weekly. Just because this happened to me, it doesn’t mean that it will happen to you, of course. It’s definitely possible to weigh yourself every day and not have it be a compulsion. You just have to find what works for you!
Janice — I started with daily weights (the first thing every morning, which is what works best for most people) because I liked starting the day with a conversation with myself. If I lost weight, I’d congratulate myself. If I didn’t lose weight, or for some reason even gained weight, I’d congratulate myself anyway — for staying with my healthy plan and for not giving up. In other words, every morning started positively. If I hadn’t done it that way, I probably would have eventually given up and walked into the kitchen and made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast.
Please, though, keep in mind that weight loss is not linear and does not always immediately reflect healthy changes. Finally, we both strongly recommend that you weigh yourself no more than once a day. Checking your weigh more often that that is misleading and will serve only to make you obsessed and crazy. And if weighing yourself does little more than provoke anxiety, then maybe weighing yourself isn’t for you at all. Your scale should be a reality-testing ally, not an instrument of shame.
Although these are two of the strategies that we have used successfully for ourselves, there are many additional ways to track progress that we will address in future posts (such as fitness goals, food logs, and tech tools, and progress pictures*). How do you measure your progress? We’d love to hear your ideas.
*Truthfully, only one of us would even dream of using progress pictures. Take a wild guess who that might be.
(1) Butryn ML et al. Psychiatr Clin N Am 2011
(2) Peterson ND et al. Dietary self-monitoring and long-term success with weight management. Obesity 2014; 22(9):1962-7.
(3) Wadden TA et al 2005. Behavioral treatment of obesity. Psychiatr Clin North Am 2005; 28(1):151-70.