Monday, May 28, 2012

Why I Still Count Calories

During the first six months of shifting to a paleo/low carb lifestyle, I didn't bother much with counting calories. The natural spontaneous calorie reduction that tends to accompany low carb was enough for me to shed 10 lbs. in 3-4 months. Granted, that's not an impressive weight loss rate, but during this same time frame I started working graveyard shifts and took up a more sedentary job role. Both of those tend to lead to significant weight gain and I was pleased to manage any kind of loss, especially considering that I had been gaining 1-2 lbs per month during the preceding year.

Once I plateaued, at about 206 which has always been a tough point for me to break through, I was curious what my calorie intake was like so I started tracking my food. Based on that, I created a slight caloric deficit to maintain a weight loss rate of 2 lbs. per month until I reached 190 lbs. At that point, I adjusted calories to hold my weight constant. At no point during the weight loss phase was I chronically hungry. In fact, there have been more times that I felt I was eating more than my hunger dictated than when I have felt genuinely hungry.

Even so, the calorie counting practice bothered me a little. Isn't the whole point of paleo and low carb to restore natural appetite regulation? It seemed a bit at odds until one afternoon, I woke up and stumbled into the kitchen. Next to the sink I saw my wife had left a plate with a single bite of hamburger left over.

To give a little background, my wife is one of those people who has always been relatively lean. At her heaviest, she was just barely in the overweight range on the BMI charts and as long as she isn't eating garbage food, she's usually in middle of the normal range.

When my wife came home that evening, I asked her about it:

"I noticed you left a single bite of burger on your plate."
"I was full."
"But it was just one bite. Didn't you like it?"
"It was delicious and I really liked it."
"But you left a single bite."
"I wasn't hungry anymore."
"I don't understand. It was just one bite."

Never in my life would it have dawned on me to leave just one bite of something I liked uneaten. I mean, it's just one bite and it tastes good. Why on earth wouldn't I want to enjoy that one last bite?

That's when it struck me. The satiety mechanisms my wife has is actually working properly. For whatever reason, mine is broken. My best guess is that some of it has to do with the rate at which I eat. We'll sit down for dinner together and I'll wolf down my plate of food in about 5 minutes flat. 30 minutes later, she'll still be chewing away, savoring every bite. This isn't an exaggeration, either. She's one of the slowest eaters I've ever met and I'm one of the fastest that I know.

During the 5 minutes that follow my sprint to finish my plate, I'm usually left hankering for some more. I could easily chow down another serving or move on to dessert. But I don't. I measure out my portion before I sit down to eat and when the plate is clean, that's it for that meal. After about 5 minutes, I feel perfectly satisfied and I can cruise through until my next meal. Other than those few minutes after wolfing down the food, I never feel inappropriately hungry.

For some, the practice of counting calories and weighing and measuring portions is uncomfortable, neurotic and intrusive. I can understand that. My wife tries it on occasion and hates it. For me, it's kind of the opposite. I don't have to worry about overeating when I already know how much I'm going to eat. I don't have to try and monitor my satiety and wonder if I'm second guessing myself over getting too much or too little food. Having the right amount of food planned out for the day before I even step into the kitchen sets me free to enjoy an appropriate portion without worrying about it.

This is why I no longer beat myself up about counting calories. It's my substitute for a broken or subverted satiety mechanism. I'm sure I could work on slowing down when I eat but I enjoy eating fast. To me, most food has about a 3 minute window when it's at the perfect temperature and I like to eat it before it gets cold. So, instead of adjusting my eating style, I use the scale in the kitchen to serve myself an appropriate portion and I use the scale in the bathroom to determine how big that portion should be. Right or wrong, it works for me and could be useful for some, especially if they are hitting a plateau. I know many in the paleo community shun the practice but I think that in certain situations, it can be a useful tool that shouldn't be ignored just because our ancestors didn't weigh and measure their food.

While paleo may go a long way to restoring proper satiety signals, we still live in an environment where food is ridiculously easy to obtain and overeat and I don't see anything wrong with using some modern tools to make sure our portion sizes are sensible.


  1. one of my observations son and my wife eat all kinds of foods,including junk.they are both lean and have great blood work.they eat super slow.every lean person i,ve ever witnessed has eaten very slowley.just as you say,i gobble my food.i think you hit it,when you eat too fast you by-pass tha satiety signal.i notice if i eat a small meal quickly i,m still hungry unless i wait about 20 minutes,then i seam to be quite satisfied.
    i,m trying to eat slower to see if it helps reduce calories spontaneously.

  2. It would be interesting to see how that works for you. Would it reduce the amount you eat in a sitting? Would it change how long you stay full?

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