Counting Calories

I always knew it would come to this.

When I started triathlons, I knew next to nothing about health, nutrition, physical fitness, or basic human biology. I didn’t know the differences between carbs and protein, what you should eat when, or much of anything else related to food and exercise. I was next to completely ignorant. Not only was I ignorant, but I didn’t really want to learn. I was already overwhelmed trying to figure out all the names for the different parts of my new bike.

Over time, what was once overwhelming became manageable, and then became common sense to me. In other words, triathlon became fairly easy from the knowledge/vocabulary/conceptual point of view. But knowing something and applying that knowledge are two different things, and I always avoided getting scientific about my weight. I knew I was eating mostly good things, but quantity was not something I focused on. I figured I couldn’t help but lose weight. I mean, I’m training for an Ironman, how could I not lose weight?

I have, in fact, lost weight from my peak at 236 lbs. I now weigh 208 lbs. But what’s depressing is that two months ago I weighed 198 lbs. What happened during the past two months? First, I hurt my back and took some time off. Then I had a 10-day trip to DC during which I didn’t work out, and then I came home and got sick. I used to work out more in a week than I’ve worked out in the past two months. But did I change my eating habits? Not much. And I packed on 10 lbs in short order, after promising myself I would never go over 200 lbs again–ever.

Now, I know that health and weight are not one and the same thing. But at 208 lbs and 6 feet I’m easily 20-30 lbs overweight. Not only would losing weight help me achieve my dream career of being a male model, but it would reduce wear and tear on my joints and produce some other health benefits. And of course I’d be a much faster triathlete. My target weight is 170 lbs.

So healthful weight loss is important to me for various reasons. But I’ve consistently ignore the intake side of the equation, opting to lose weight by expending calories through exercise. That works ok while I’m training for an Ironman, but it doesn’t work so well if I take a break or cut back on the workouts, as proved by the past two months.

So here I am, finally up against the wall, but this time, rather than working out more, or trying to train my body to burn fat instead of carbs, I’m doings things the hard way–I’m going to eat less, and eat better. I’m going to track what I eat, and count calories. I have never done this before, and to be honest, I’m enthused.

What I’m doing is fairly simple. I created a spreadsheet with the meals, snacks, etc. that I generally eat, and I’ve listed how many calories are in each thing (not adjusting for fiber content or any of that which affects the “net” calories–I’m just keeping it simple). The plan is to target 2,500 calories per day for the next month, and see what happens. I don’t know what my intake has been, but as near as I can guess I think it has been between 3,500-4,500 calories per day. Based on my workout schedule, height, weight, etc., 2,500 seems to be a good amount, and if it’s really 1,000-1,500 calories less than what I’ve been eating I think I should see some pounds coming off.

I do not plan on being very hungry. Part of what I’m doing is just cutting out things that don’t matter much. For example, I like butter in my cream of wheat, but a tablespoon of butter or margerine is 100 calories. I don’t like butter that much. A tablespoon of brown sugar is 50 calories, and I usually put in two. But I can probably do fine with one, and maybe I’ll adjust to none. I’m going to keep the raisins in, because I’m a big believer in raisins and the 125 calories is worth it to me. But by cutting out brown sugar and butter, which provide little if any health benefits, I can cut 200 calories out of my breakfast without cutting down much on the pure mass of what I’m taking in.

Much of my plan hinges on self-education. That is, just getting a good idea of how many calories are in certain things. I think once I know, I’ll eat differently. For example, Costco has these great raw tortillas that I like to eat (after cooking them). But I had no idea they had 140 calories apiece. They’re not that big. I can easily make five little burritos with them and eat them all for dinner and not feel stuffed. But that’s 700 calories just in tortillas. Add in some meat and beans and cheese and I’ve got a 1,500+ calorie meal! I don’t need that many calories for dinner, and I especially don’t need them from refined white flour, cheese, and greasy red meat.

Nuts were also a big surprise. I knew nuts had lots of calories, but I didn’t realize a mere 1/4 cup of walnuts was 200 calories. There are times when I would eat what probably was a full cup of nuts, plus some raisins as a snack. That may have easily been a 1,000 calorie snack! Of course nuts and raisins are good for you, but if you’re having cream of wheat with butter and sugar for breakfast, five little burritos for dinner, and a cup of nuts for a snack, right there you’re up to around 3,500 calories, and I didn’t even count my lunch, which was probably 1,000 calories. Is it any wonder I gained 10 lbs in the past two months?

Having moved from ignorance to knowledge, and now to the application of that knowledge, I hope to see great results. If it works, I may have to publish a new diet book. I’m not sure how well it will sell though, since it will only contain two words–“eat less”.

  • http://squishrunner.blogspot.com/ squishrunner

    I like your blog. I am impressed by how focused and determined you are. Setting yourself a goal like Ironman to shed some pounds is great. I can only imagine how tough it would be in the beginning. Don’t let stuff get in your way. There is always a way…

  • http://www.crazytigerrabbitman.blogspot.com Terry

    It never ceases to amaze the similarities between us. We’re the same age, height and weight and have the same ideal goals. I just can’t go with you on the whole calorie thing though…yet. Instead, I’m switching primarily to a vegetarian diet, more because I like the challenge it creates int he kitchen and I like that. Mostly, I avoid counting calories because the more I read about how to count calories, the more confused I get; it’s like trying to figure out some secret alchemist formula. Good luck to you, though. See you at 170lbs come springtime.

  • http://TheSecretVegan Victoria S.

    Aloha and many thanks for your inspiring blog. Many start a blog that is really good (like yours) and don’t keep it going. Thanks for keeping it going. And please…keep it going!

    Let’s train!

  • http://www.triathlontraining.us/dvd/ TriGuy

    I hope your triathlon training is going well. Keep up the good work and down too many calories! 😀

  • mark gordon

    So how did it go? Will you follow up your article with an overview of how counting calories worked for you? I am starting to do the same thing right now. I have an idea of how I want to approach my new counting experience; getting a reliable caloric weight list, log book, targets, etc.

    Cheers, Mark

  • Joshua

    Well, I haven’t stuck to actually doing the counting, although I think the exercise of listing out everything I generally east along with the calories for each has made me more conscious of what I eat generally and how much.

    But I have lost 22 lbs since Christmas. But that was sure to becoming a quasi vegetarian after reading the book Original Fast Foods.

  • Brian Whitworth

    Really nice blog, I did the Chicago marathon last year but have now turned my sights on an Ironman, So, thank you for the tips. I do have a different opinion on food intake. When I was training for the Marathon, my goal was to finish the marathon and lose my gut, I started out eating very little and still training 4 days a week, I wasn’t getting anywhere. So, I talked to a nutritionist and she said That I needed to quadruple my intake but eat well, so, I started to eat small meals every two hours and not eat past 7pm. The result was I lost 20 lbs, from 200lbs to 180.. And the gut is mostly gone, I am so happy.. Good luck in your quest..