I have a completely useless skill. I can look at most food and I can tell you how many calories it has within about 100 calories. This is a completely useless skill to me now because I have stopped counting calories. They just don’t matter to me as much as the nutrients and the actual ingredients do. And my body has never felt better.
I’m sure we’ve all been there. Download MyFitnessPal religiously input all foods we eat to track our caloric input. Use the calorie counter on the treadmill or step machine or a Fitbit to make sure we expend more than we put in. You have probably also made it a habit to check how many calories something is before even deciding to eat it. Or just mentally making a note to work out harder later because you really wanted that 350 calorie slice of birthday cake at work.
Since high school, when I was one of the chubby kids, I started to hone my calorie counting skills. This was before smart phones (I know, what was life like without smart phones?). So I had to learn by reading the nutritional labels of everything. I made it a habit to do some form of mental or physical calorie counting before eating or exercising so I could keep track.
And then in the last year of high school when I discovered Slimfast (anyone else take this?). The meal replacement that was meant to help keep you full, but reduce the number of calories consumed. I would drink it and yet, within an hour I was still hungry. I told myself I kept feeling hungry because my stomach was still trying to shrink down and get used to less food. Just ignore the hunger.
It did work for a bit (ah…the metabolism of a 20-year old!). By university I was working out like crazy, being borderline obsessive about calories-in v. calories-out. The ‘experts’ told me that for my petite 5ft 0″ body I should weigh between 95 to 125 lbs to be a ‘healthy weight’. I was about 140lbs. This became my obsession: must be under 120 lbs.
By the time I went to law school, I had it down. I was at my thinnest ever. 128lbs. Still not within the ‘healthy range’, but I kept trying. I worked out at least 4-5 days a week doing high intensity stuff like bootcamps, step classes, and power yoga. Eating about 1200 calories a day. My daily meals included the usual suspects for most students: Ramen or Mac n’Cheese for lunch, cereal and milk for dinner. Vegetables? – Fries count as veggies right?
Then I entered the real world. Got married, started working. You know, the whole adulting thing.
Working as a law student and then a young lawyer I could no longer find the time to workout 4-5 days a week anymore. So I cut it back to about 2 times a week of intense workouts. There were also lots of invites to eat out with co-workers or clients. And when you have a buffet of free food a few times a week, who counts calories? So I would go through cycles of severely restricting calories so I could indulge at other times. Invited to a wedding tonight? Not going to eat anything all day so I can eat all the butter chicken and naan!
Then I turned 30. It felt like a switch was turned off in my body. It literally felt like my metabolism went ‘Nope!’. And the weight just started to creep up again. I told myself if I could find workouts to burn more calories, I could counter the input with the output. So I started kickboxing – burn 600 calories a class? yes please! More HIIT workouts – burns calories even after your workout is over? yes please!. More weight lifting – muscle burns more calories than fat, yes please!
Still nothing. The weight did not budge.
So I gave up. It is just a fact of life. You grown older, you get fatter. Isn’t that how it is supposed to be? So I gave up. I stopped killing myself in my workouts. And I just started eating more and more of my ‘treat’ foods and not worrying about the consequences. ‘Cause if you can’t beat them, might as well enjoy them!
Then on a whim J and I did a Whole30.
Mostly I did it because I wanted to support him in figuring out his food intolerance issues. I knew I would likely lose some weight since it was a very different way of eating than our usual bread, rice and pasta based meals. But I did not think it could be a sustainable lifestyle for me. How can I live without bread, rice and pasta?! Isn’t that the base for every meal? I thought I would hate it.
During our Whole30, however, I started to really think about what was in the food we were eating. I was amazed how many foods actually contain sugar. All those ‘low fat’ foods I was consuming all contained some form of sugar as an additive. Even savoury things that I did not think would have sugar like mayonnaise, almost every store bought salad dressing, flavoured potato chips, even a simple soup broth has sugar in it. Why?!
I stopped reading the calories on the label and started reading ingredients of everything I bought. The total calories didn’t matter anymore, the source of the calorie and the quality of the food we ate did. So I stopped counting the calories. And started counting the ingredients.
I started teaching myself more about nutrition, listening to podcasts (I love Genius Life), reading books (Genius Food is an eye opener!), following nutritionists on instagram (I love Claire Segal from @petiteprofessional and Lindsay Pleskot from @lindsaypleskot).
It seems so basic now, but I learnt that a carb calorie v. a fat calorie speak very different languages in our bodies. A carb calorie tells your body winter is coming, start stocking up. So our bodies start storing fat. A fat calorie means there is an abundance of food – burn the fat. (Listen to the Genius Life podcast Episode 35: “How Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar Can harm your brain” if you want to learn more about how carbs affect our bodies).
And yes both J and I lost weight. I lost 5 lbs in one month. J lost 15 lbs (!). And we did not once count calories or change anything else in our daily routines!
After we were completed our Whole30 we slowly started to reintroduce certain foods back into our diet to see how they made us feel. We discovered that lentils and dairy gave us both digestive issues and made us feel all bloaty and gross. Ugh. I had no idea! I was so sad. Dairy was my life! Aside from feeling so much more energetic and lighter – not just in weight but mentally too – after a month of eating Whole30, we both realized that we had been addicted to sugar.
He knew he was, and still craves a sweet hit every night – he has a huge sweet tooth. But I always thought I was not a sugar addict. I mean I always prefer savory to sweet. I’d rather a croissant or bagel over doughnut or cookie any day.
But even those croissants or breakfast sandwiches I was having every morning were nutrient poor foods that were actually just turning into sugar in my body. That honey, instead of processed sugar in my tea, was still sugar in my body. That bowl of brown rice instead of white I had with dinner is still basically sugar. And the problem with these nutrient poor choices are that after your body is done digesting, you just crave more of the same, just like a drug.
After our Whole30 we both decided to keep going down a more paleo-ish diet route. Drastically reduced our dairy consumption. Started eating the full fat versions of all the foods. This was a scary change at first. I mean wasn’t butter, ghee, coconut oil all so bad for you? (spoiler alert: it is not – so long as your body has no issues with processing it). Where was all this fat going to go?!
I discovered that making sure my breakfast was full of fat and protein meant I was no longer hungry all morning. My morning cereal or oatmeal and banana followed by mid morning breakfast sandwich or croissant and tea, has turned into one or two eggs with avocado toast and a bulletproof coffee (coffee with coconut oil, ghee and collagen protein powder). Now I regularly find myself going from 8 am straight to 1 pm without even realizing that lunchtime has come and gone. No dips in energy no hangry feelings. Crazy right?
Also the more protein, fat, and vegetables I put on my plate, the less I was actually eating at the end of the day. So I was eating less, and since veggies are very low in calories, my calorie intake really didn’t increase that much, if at all. (Probably one of the key reasons eating whole foods and low carb can really help weight loss).
I’m also more motivated to workout now. But I still only workout about 2-3 times a week doing things I enjoy. Some days it is a HIIT workout or weight training, sometimes its a yoga or barre class. And sometimes I just get a quick walk in at lunchtime. Just whatever feels good for me at that time is what I do. As long as I am moving. Yet I am starting to feel more toned and everything has just tightened up because I no longer have that carb bloat. My body is starting to use the fat for energy, not the carbs.
My weight is not down to the lightest I’ve ever been, probably closer to 135lbs (I really don’t check all that often anymore). Which is still over what is considered ‘healthy’ for my height. But I am definitely the most toned and fittest I have ever been. And I am much happier for it.
My hair is shinier, my skin clearer. And I don’t get as sick as often (this is huge for me – I used to get sick several times a year, and need antibiotics at least 2-3 times a year – now I find I may get sick maybe once or twice a year at most, and I can fight off most infections without the antibiotics!). All because I am now paying attention to what I eat, not how much I eat.
There are so many other benefits to eating a whole food low carb diet: reduced inflammation, better digestion, more energy, improved metabolism, improved skin, hair, nails, better memory even! I’ll try to share more of what I am learning as I go. But all of that to say, there really is something to eating more whole foods that don’t come packaged in a box with ‘nutritional information’ stuck on the back.
So now instead of looking at a nutritional label for the calories I look at the sugar content and ingredients list. Or better yet, buy those things that don’t have a label – like fresh fruits and veggies. Because what matters is the nutrients not the calories. I wish this is something I had known back in high school and university. I wish this was something children are taught in school or by their parents. Especially young girls.
It took time for me to change. I went from filling my plate with carbs first as my base to veggies and proteins first. I try to aim for two thirds veggies, one third protein and fat. The carb is like a garnish on my plate now, if I eat it at all.
It is still a work in progress for both J and I. It is hard to do this when we eat out. Especially when we go to Indian or Pakistani restaurants (which my family loves to do) or to eat at some of our friends and families homes, where fresh veggies and salads are a scarcity and every meal must contain some form of rice or bread (naan or roti). And I love me a big ‘ole bowl of rice let me tell you! Mom’s biryani will always have a special place in my heart!
So I have developed strategies to avoid overloading on the foods that don’t serve me well. Rather than starve myself before heading out to eat, I will either eat at home before going out, or bring something with me to share with others so there is one healthy option on the table. But other times, I will just enjoy what is in front of me. Because sometimes food is not about what you are eating, but who you are eating with and I don’t like to stress about it.
At the end of the day, if I really want that pizza or cookie, I will still have it. But honestly, when I’m eating enough protein and fat in each meal, that craving is so rare. Now I make any form of wheat or sugar a ‘treat’ food. And ‘treat’ does not mean I get some everyday. Rather it is a once every few weeks occurrence. And honestly, I don’t crave them that often anymore, because I am no longer addicted to them.
I keep myself full of whole foods that keep me fuller longer. I try to create recipes that make me want to eat more of the veggies, protein and fat, and less of the carbs. Which I share with you all here and on my Instagram stories. Like my paleo cauliflower rice biryani or shami kebabs.
I am constantly trying to learn more about how different foods affects our bodies and experimenting on myself to see how it makes me feel. Now when I look at food I can tell you if it has whole food ingredients, or if it has anything that is ‘processed’ or artificial. How many calories it contains is the least of my worries.
Sorry Myfitness pal, we had a good run. But I have stopped counting calories and I feel much better for it!
Feeling what I am throwing down? Check out my tips for cutting sugar here.