Calories: How to Care without Counting

For better or for worse, your weight depends on the number of calories you eat and the number of calories you burn. That’s it. The math is surprisingly simple and surprisingly constant, regardless of your genes. (It is, however, largely a reflection of your habits which is why being overweight appears to run in families.)

Considering the vast majority of Americans weigh too much, they are left with three choices if they’d like to regain their health:

1) Eat fewer calories.

2) Exercise more.

3) Eat fewer calories and exercise more.

The same options apply if you love your weight and would like to stay there. You have to make sure your calories consumed always hover around or below the number of calories you burn.

Exercise is gold. I wrote a post called Nine Reasons to Exercise that I refer back to periodically when my motivation runs dry or I get out of the habit. I also love this persuasive video. There’s just no getting around the fact that exercise improves and lengthens your life.

Thanksgiving 2013. We deliberately make exercise a part of our family culture.

That being said, one pound of fat represents 3500 calories and running three miles burns just ~300-350 calories. Although there are many side benefits to getting out there and working out, if you use this approach without changing your diet, progress will be slow. You may actually find your appetite increasing (and your tendency to justify extra eating increasing) with the extra exercise, so the scale might not change much at all. Obviously, this can be frustrating. If you experience this and if exercise isn’t truly a habit for you, your new exercise routine will likely fall by the wayside. But, if you couple exercise with diet change, you’ll see results quickly.

In fact, the single most effective change you can make to lose weight and keep it off is to change your diet. Eating a diet based on whole plant foods will have you filling up on far more fiber and a wider variety of nutrients accompanied by far fewer calories.

Eat what?

I’ve written quite a bit about why we eat the way we do, but as a quick recap: We try to fill 90% of our diet with healthy food: vegetables, whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds, and beans. It turns out there is a tremendous variety of delicious food that falls under this umbrella. We eat far better now than we did before we made the change 7 years ago.

It’s a diet that prevents heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and reduces the risk for many kinds of cancer. It’s backed by the best scientific research available. Eating like this has simplified our grocery shopping (and could easily lower the bill if we didn’t splurge on berries all the time πŸ˜‰ !), changed our palates, and given our kids the best start we can towards a healthy relationship with healthy foods.

A baked sweet potato is a truly happy wintertime meal for a toddler.

Calorie counting and pitfalls

With a healthy diet, calorie counting becomes unnecessary. So many healthy foods are high in fiber and water and low in calories that you can generally eat as much as you like at each meal and still achieve a healthy weight. No tiny portions. No growling stomach. Just big plates (or bowls) of yum.

Weight Watchers has it right when it comes to vegetables: They are zero points. The more you eat of them, the better off you’ll be. I’ve eaten like this through three pregnancies (with brief breaks for saltines and strange cravings) and nursing three babies. My husband lost over a hundred pounds and eats this way to maintain a healthy weight.

However, there are still several pitfalls to be aware of. If you have changed your diet and are still not losing the weight you want, or you see your weight creeping up again, or you simply want to get the biggest nutritional bang you can for your calories, read on:


Oil is not a health food. It is an incredibly concentrated source of calories with very little redeeming value. We use it, but only when it matters. Consider the following example:

My friend who was trying to improve her family’s diet mentioned she has a GREAT healthy whole grain pancake recipe, and mentioned that it does have some oil in it. When I asked her how much, she said “1/4 cup per batch, but we usually double it” (for her family of two toddlers and her husband). This friend had been trying to make changes in her diet to achieve weight loss.

Switching from white flour pancakes to whole wheat pancakes is definitely a positive change. But 1/2 cup of oil adds 960 calories to that recipe. And yet, the pancakes aren’t any more bulky or filling than they would be without that oil. Adding 1/2 cup of oil to that batter is adding 1.7 king sized Snickers bars worth of calories to the family meal. But, because the pancakes are whole grain, they still “feel” healthy so everyone stacks plenty on their plates and feels virtuous enough afterwards that they splurge on dessert that night. See the trap?

Ideas for reducing oil, and its worthless calories:
– Pretty much every new recipe we try at our house, we cut the oil in half right off the bat, and we often eliminate it entirely.
– I often saute vegetables in a regular pan, with no oil. Onions “sweat” and make it unnecessary, and I just toss in a little vegetable broth or water if something happens to stick.
– I often just greatly reduce the amount of oil I use in baked goods or I substitute in applesauce. (This works for things like muffins and pancakes. I don’t recommend it for desserts. You will have to experiment to see what works for you.)
– Think twice before using oil in a recipe: Will I taste this and appreciate it? A little olive oil drizzled on bruschetta is a YES for us. Many other things are a no.

Nuts and seeds

I love nuts and seeds. I grind up flax to dump sprinkle on our oatmeal and muesli, and I use it as an egg substitute when I bake. I use nuts to make Chia Pudding and Pop ‘Ems, along with creamy sauces for my lasagne and kale.

But nuts are calorically dense and throwing back handfuls of them (or frequently making creamy sauces with them) is not a good idea unless you’re burning the calories to justify those habits.

I keep it simple and stick to a handful or so of nuts a day. If I’m trying to dial down my weight, nuts and seeds are the first things I’ll watch.

These pop ’ems are yummy and packed with calories. They’re perfect for a snack to take while hiking. They are terrible for a snack to eat mindlessly while watching t.v.

Processed whole grains

The second thing I might dial back is processed whole grains. This includes breads and pasta. Things like steel cut oats or cooked brown rice are fairly bulky and high in moisture content so they will appropriately make you feel full. But I can put down a lot of bread without quenching my appetite. So again, if I’m working out a lot (or nursing a hungry baby!) I will happily eat more nuts and processed grains. But if I’d like to reduce calories in my diet, rather than count anything, I just keep a lid on my consumption of these foods.

My muffins are healthier… but they’re still muffins. πŸ™‚

My kids and I can polish off a whole loaf of my cinnamon raisin whole wheat bread slathered with homemade apple butter for lunch. But, if I want to pay attention to calories, I’ll divvy up a bell pepper or two for us before slicing up the bread.


At our house, we shoot for about 90% whole plant foods. We periodically make decadent desserts, go out to eat, eat fancy cheese on crackers, etc. This is not a daily or usually even a weekly occurrence though. Generally we just enjoy eating a variety of healthy food and we choose to indulge in fruit, dark chocolate, creamy nut sauces, etc. (can you tell I love my cashew kale recipe right now? πŸ˜‰ ).

However, we live in a culture in which it is totally normal to bring boxes of donuts to a doctor’s office to share (my husband’s kryptonite) and where every get-together includes food. There are a solid 2 1/2 months of the year of seemingly non-stop indulging on candy, pies, fudge, and cookies at every event. I’m usually the odd duck out, because I’ll often decline unhealthy food unless it’s extra delicious. (No store bought cookies for me because they’re just not worth it!) It’s telling that it’s nearly impossible to find a restaurant with truly healthy options.

I have written about how palates can change to love healthy food. Well, they can also change right back again with too much backsliding. Periodically, we find that we need to do a “course correction” and get back on track with how we’re eating. We have to make sure our habits are actually in line with our goals.

Backsliding is common with diet change because you have a lifetime of habits to break and a world around you that thinks you’re crazy. Simply get back on track as soon as you notice a trend you’re not happy with.

Failure to consider the source of the calories

I don’t mean to harp on waffles, but I just got a vegetarian recipe suggestion in my inbox for these Cinnamon Whole Wheat Waffles and they illustrate this point very well. The description says that this recipe uses oil instead of butter, for a lower fat breakfast dish. WRONG! Oil and butter have the exact same number of calories per tablespoon. And in this particular recipe, you are looking at 640 calories from oil for one small batch of waffles.

“But they are whole wheat!” you might say. Well, for that same batch, you’re getting 683 calories from whole wheat flour. It’s practically a tie. These are neither lower fat than they would be if you were to use butter, nor will they do your waistline any favors.

Before you eat big portions of something because “it’s healthy!” it’s good to understand where your calories are actually coming from.

To achieve or maintain an appropriate weight, you only have so many calories to work with. Make sure they fill you up and fuel you well!


About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
This entry was posted in Healthy Eating, Healthy Kids, Why we do it. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Calories: How to Care without Counting

  1. Toni (Mom) says:

    Great post Annie! Good motivation for the new year and your reasoning is logical and useful.
    Wish the world would read it.


  2. Katrina says:

    Thanks for the healthy reminder. I also struggle with how much junk food is thrust on my children at every social engagement, even an innocent trip to the park can lead to sweet processed treats being offered.


  3. noelle says:

    in your “eat what?” section you have a picture of a shallow pan with cherry toms, corn, red onions, etc. any chance you would have the recipe for that. looks good and i’m the kind of person who would ask this type of question just because i’m not great in the kitchen. enjoyed the post!


  4. Pingback: My Daughter’s Feathered Friend… The Furnace Man | Adventures in Beanland

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