In praise of calorie counting

The second half of last year was not kind to my waistline. Between getting married and leaving the UK there were many causes for dinners and drinks out, which always seem to be less healthy than those at home. So when I got settled in the US, I was very disappointed to see I was about 20lbs (1.5 stones, or 9kg)  overweight.

However, unlike many problems in life, that problem is simple, very solvable and controllable. If you want to lose weight, you must expend more calories than you consume. In many ways, it is like a financial budget – if you want to save (lose weight), you must spend (eat) less than you earn (expend). This is not to say it is always easy, but is is straightforward and doable.

However, how do we track how many calories we consume, and how many we expend? This has historically been the biggest problem with calorie counting diets – they tended to be very imprecise in both foods, and exercise. Many diet programs were based on eating specific foods so that you knew exactly how many calories you consumed. But now, we have a wide variety of applications which can help us to keep track of our calories, both consumed and expended. As an android phone user, I use MyFitnessPal to keep track of calories. I’ve rarely not been able to find the food I was looking for in it.

And these programs lead us to understand exactly the trade-offs we need to make. To lose 1.5 lbs/week, I need to consume, net of exercise, 1520 calories. This doesn’t mean I only eat 1520 calories though – it means I can earn more by exercising. It makes explicit the fact that if I want to drink another beer I need to run for at least 10 minutes. So a night out on the town will cost me about an hour of exercise, which seems like a good deal in both ways. The fact that the approach of equating food to exercise has beneficial effects therefore doesn’t surprise me.

In this way, calorie counting is actually quite useful and allows me to know precisely how much I can eat, or how much I need to exercise at the end of the day. The fact that these trade-offs are made explicit what makes it difficult for us. I have to decide between both drinking a beer and doing 10 min. more exercise, or not doing either.

Because trade-offs are uncomfortable, people seek to trick themselves into this behavior without explicitly counting calories.  They use diets such as only eating meat, eating only during certain hours or the day, or only eat certain foods so that they can achieve exactly the same thing. Almost all forms of diets seek to restrict caloric consumption. Some of them do seek to change your metabolism as well, however at the end of the day if you are losing weight you are doing it by expending more calories than you consume.

This is a clear case the difficulty lying not in knowing what to do, but simply doing it.

However, contrast those budget trade-offs with alcohol consumption. I have no way to earn more alcohol units. I cannot exercise or do any other virtuous behavior the results in being able to drink more and maintain my health. Simply put there is a natural limit which I have no ability to increase. Now being able to make those calorie trade-offs seems great. I have the ability to earn more.

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